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In Conversation: Amina Zoubir

"We need to remember powerful female figures whose presence have counted in our collective history, in order to transmit their memory to new generations. The power of the myth and the image of women are essential for the education of girls' and boys' perception of the female body", says the Algerian-born artist Amina Zoubir who has been working from Stockholm in the past months by way of a residency at iaspis and also has brought forth a poignant solo exhibiton at Södertälje Konsthall which just recently ended its run.

View of Amina Zoubir taking a stance on berber queens: history and mythology at Södertälje Konsthall, 2020

C-P: You recently presented a very interesting solo exhibition at Södertälje Konsthall; titled Amina Zoubir taking a stance on berber queens: history and mythology. There are quite few things that struck a chord with me visiting the exhibition with you earlier in spring. On an apparent note the exhibition was presented “inside” the Ernest Mancoba exhibition (outside, or next to, perhaps more fitting, one could say) which gave you the impression of the museum having accommodated for your exhibition amid an already scheduled program which I think is commendable of the museum, and in a way is a great call. From another point of view the exhibition given its thematic and conceptual grandeur, I also felt was congested in space and would ideally have been afforded more space, but that’s scheduling realities, right there. Lovely that the exhibition nevertheless could take place coinciding with a long-terms stay of yours in Stockholm. Tell me more about the background into presenting the exhibition at Södertälje Konsthall and your collaboration with Joanna Sandell.

A.Z: The exhibition took place after several meetings and conversations through virtual studio visits at iaspis, via Zoom-connection with Joanna Sandell, the director of Södertälje Konsthall and Sara Rossling, the writer of the text introducing the concepts of the exhibition. We had already met before I started my residency at iaspis. The exhibition Amina Zoubir taking a stance on berber queens: history and mythology, within the more extensive Ernest Mancoba exhibition, at Södertälje konsthall is my first solo exhibition in Sweden with support of iaspis which I would like to thank for the commitment to encourage my project to take shape nearby Stockholm. My exhibition shows a selection of sculptures, collages, drawings and wallpaper together with a research-based installation compiled during the last three years. The presented artworks introduce the first chapter in my ongoing exploration of female representation and women’s history in North Africa through colonial imagery and images of the Berber queens. Despite the pandemic, I am glad that the exhibition was settled amid an already scheduled program, which I agreed to as well, as it is commendable of the museum to encourage a dialogue between different narratives of North and South Africa.

View of Amina Zoubir taking a stance on berber queens: history and mythology at Södertälje Konsthall, 2020

C-P: What was most ingenious to me about the exhibition is how it cleverly uses a window which I knew absolutely nothing about before visiting; the historical mythology around the three Berber warrior-queens in the room; Tin Hinan, Kahina Dihya and Lalla Fatma N’Soumer, to shine light on universal matters such as patriarchal and historical imposition on the image and role of women in contemporary society. I think this always makes for a sound approach, to use a smaller window close to the artist herself to catalyze larger issues onto mind for the viewer. What can be said about the Berber queens and their significance in regard to your recent exhibition?

A.Z: We need to remember powerful female figures whose presence have counted in our collective history, in order to transmit their memory to new generations. The power of the myth and the image of women are essential for the education of girls' and boys' perception of the female body. In this case through colonial imagery and images of the Berber queens Tin Hinan (4th century), Kahina Dihya (7th century) and Lalla Fatma N'Soumer (1830-1863); queens who once ruled the matriarchal societies of the Maghreb, but whose history has been neglected in school education in Algeria.

Lalla Fatma N'Soumer, for example, was an essential figure in the resistance movement against the French colonial invasion. Tin Hinan crossed the Sahara Desert on foot to escape Roman oppression. Kahina Dihya was beheaded because of her influential position while leading the troops against the Arab Conquest. So what role can colonial postcards and the imagery of Berber queens play today, and how did these images fit into the perception of women's bodies? How can they influence the emancipation of contemporary Algerian women or women around the world? Social issues and gender studies related to male-female relationships in contemporary Algerian society are undeniably linked to postcolonial studies that we must take into account.

Amina Zoubir, My body is not for sale, 2020. Collages on paper, 24 x 30 cm

C-P: You were telling me how the work originally began by your reacting to how parts of a permanent collection of objects and artifacts you had been accustomed to already as a child, were removed at the reopening of a museum in Algeria (after renovation), and how that made you think about how history can easily be wronged.

A.Z: I started my research following the disappearance of the skeleton of Tin Hinan after the renovation of the Bardo Museum in Algiers in 2013. I continue to explore the representation of the female body through history and the history of art, specifically in North Africa, highlighting today a fundamental need to create reliable images of strong women in a country mined by an unjust “family code” created in 1983 in Algeria, the abolition of which several Algerian women demanded during the Hirak demonstrations last year.

However, I believe that African artists must identify what they must transmit to their society and to the following generations. I consider art as an extension of humanity. We must be aware of the need to create a distant view of established images in order to open up to new concepts that stimulate critical thinking in society through art. From that process of conceptual thinking I started to create artworks as sculptures and collages from colonial period postcards which I have stated a position as a North African artist to destroy in order to rebuild another esthetics of eroticism made by a African women artist, me; and not made by a European male photographer. To quote Sara Rossling text about my process of creation; “As a counteract, she gives body to the oral stories about the Berber queens by sculpting Tin Hinan’s feet and Kahina Dihya’s confident face — embodying their strength and materializing a presence. Simultaneously she deconstructs a collection of original colonial postcards by cutting them into small pieces to assemble them into new forms — revealing a fragility of its earlier eroticised concept.”

Amina Zoubir, Forgotten figure # Lalla N'soumer. Installation of wallpaper

C-P: That this is a long-term research-based project you could tell on an apparent level visiting the exhibition. What can said about the “form” of the exhibition and the various artworks it informed. I enjoyed that there is such formal breadth, from the research-based moodboards to collage works, sculpture and even transformative wallpaper.

A.Z: The scenography was done according to different sections of the theme developed within my exhibition, between the berber queens section, the collages of colonial postcards section and the research-based moodboards. I would like to make several iterations of the project since working on this first chapter of the exhibition at Södertälje Konsthall through my collaboration with Joanna Sandell. It would be great to receive proposal from art centres from Oslo in Norway or even to organize the exhibition in France with the ongoing artworks and drawings made at iapis now that the exhibition is finished at Södertälje konsthall. We will see further in the next months whether the Corona-pandemic will make the project continue in other locations or not, but hopefully it will be possible to share this collective history with another audience.

Amina Zoubir,Forgotten figure # Kahena, 2014. White plaster sculpture, 22 x 14 x 10 cm

C-P: What are your thoughts on the current state of contemporary art back home in Algeria?

A.Z: I started exhibiting in Algeria before traveling the African and European continent; I must admit that there are few professional places dedicated to contemporary art in Algeria. You can not ask an artist to continuously and graciously exhibit their artworks without professionally enhancing it with a gallery, or granting them a decent fee for living and pursuing their career. The obstacles are considerable in terms of the visibility and mobility of Algerian artists, this situation requires the painful choice of distance, exile and persevering work to get out of this imposed blockade. Despite the adversities, I experienced the success of some exhibitions in my career thanks to my hard work as an artist. Art is a sport of combat and endurance; I practice it every day.

C-P: You were one of the artists participating in the Algerian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale which came with some major tribulations altogether; of which you’ve also previously spoken. Looking back more than a year later, what are some of the things that come to mind following additional reflection and time passed?

A.Z: The project of the Algerian pavilion was considered for long and built over several years. I have done a performance in 2013 where a photography shows me handelling a sign on which it's written; "Searching for the Algerian PavilionAs a dream coming true, the Algerian Pavilion was officially registered by the Algerian Ministry of Culture at the Venice Biennale in february 2019, but then faced the situation of the Hirak (meaning "movement of citizens for political change"). It was officially cancelled two days after the president's resignation. We decided to continue nevertheless because we were artists committed to honoring our country Algeria and since our project was meant to be completed for the duration of the 58th Venice Biennale. Our consecration was affirmed by the recognition and support of the Venetian public, as well as cultural and international actors from the world of contemporary art, present in Venice during the professional opening and closing days of the biennial. The relays were operated by international media: E-Flux, Happening, Blouinart, Artnews, Contemporary &, Art Africa Magazine, Artnet news, True Africa, Canevas Magazine. I mention those who have given us interviews in magazines published and put online.

It was with the support of the participating artists; Rachida Azdaou, Hamza Bounoua, Oussama Tabti and Mourad Krinah that Algeria could position at the Venice Biennale. The exhibition of the Algerian pavilion titled Time to Shine Bright ended on November 24th 2019, located three minutes from the Giardini of the Venice Bienniale. In Venice everything was still in place despite the circumstances of floods and aqua alta. For my own part, from there I continued my artistic journey by then exhibiting at the Cairo Biennial (Egypt, in June-August 2019), The BISO Biennale of Sculpture at Ouagadougou (in Burkina Faso, October- November 2019) and the Lahore Biennial (Pakistan, in January-February, 2020), curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi at the beginning of the year before the Corona-pandemic.

Amina Zoubir,Forgotten figure # Tin Hinan (detail), 2020. White plaster and paper, variable dimensions.

C-P: You’ve been a resident of the IASPIS program in Stockholm this spring, which also coincided with the outburst of the ongoing global pandemic. We’ve spoken about this previously in a panel conversation at iaspis diaries with C-Print last May, but what are your epiphanies following the pandemic in your position as an artist with aspirations of continuously making art?

A.Z: The artist position is as weak and fragile as strong and relevent in any society. Emerging artists are going to suffer from the Corona-pandemic, when it comes to building a network since biennials and art fairs are important spaces to meet cultural actors for artistic research and practice, and to develop connections and find opportunities to be part of exhibitions challenging positions in art history. For me, it's essential to understand the context you are coming from, to imagine where you want to go and to give yourself affirmation of your existence. My project is not a materialist work, my project supports critical thought pertaining to what we are in the world and how we as African artists will come to exist in the field of contemporary art.

The exhibition here, again was made possible with the support of Joanna Sandell and iapsis, following the artist residency in Stockholm at the beginning of 2020. The Swedish Arts Grants Committee largely supported this exhibition project and I thank them very much for their commitment to supporting artists.

We inaugurated the exhibition from a distance, without audience and without an opening ceremony to avoid the spread of the Corona-virus. There is however a link on the Internet to visit the exhibition virtually. It is crucial during these difficult times of pandemic, where we have to stay at home to continue working and creating works as artist, that institutions support artistic projects and exhibitions to allow us all to survive through art that awakens our body and mind.

C-P: Getting back to IASPIS; how has this residency been for you?

A.Z: I am glad to have had the honor to work at iaspis, since the residency brings me the necessary distance to question and develop my research about the representation of women in history and in art history. I met relevant artists whose company I've had the privilege to enjoy and spend time around while having discussions about our artistic practices, lives, intentions and aspirations. Iaspis holds an interesting program called iapsis dialogues through which I had an intense conversation about my research and its results and projections, arguing with Karen Milbourne, senior curator of the Smithsonian African Art Museum at Washington D.C. in the US. The conversation was done between Stockholm and Washington via Zoom which has been an excellent tool to meet requirements of distance and allowing one to keep working, as the Corona-pandemic makes it all more difficult.

C-P: Lastly, what’s next in store for you this year?

A.Z: I sincerely do not know what is going to come next since all events like biennials, exhibitions and seminars are cancelled or postponed to 2021. I remain confident about the future, and such I should continue to think and work to produce artworks. I believe still that the best is yet to come!

The exhibition 'Amina Zoubir taking a stance on berber queens: history and mythology' was on view at Södertälje Konsthall April 27-June 27 2020

Images © Amina Zoubir, ADAGP Paris.


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