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Sahara Desert: the land of dreams for young artists

By Nicolas Michel
Posted on Thursday, 1 July 2021 17:14

Hotel Sahara © Ismail Zaidy

Arriving from the margins of the desert, from Mali to Egypt, young artists question a territory that is the source of many clichés but also full of such absence. A new exhibition brings together their work at the Magasins généraux - a cultural centre - in the Paris suburbs, until 2 October.

Many people have expressed their views on the Sahara. Few are intimately acquainted with the reality of its topography and its geography.

“How can we consider this forgotten territory or this territory of oblivion?” pondered philosopher Maïa Hawad. Together with the artistic curators of the Magasins généraux (in Pantin, a Parisian suburb), Anna Labouze and Keimis Henni, Hawad conceived the resulting exhibition ‘Hotel Sahara’, which is open until 2 October as part of the Africa 2020 cultural season.

“Studied mainly from either its margins or at a distance from Europe, the history of the Sahara has long been peripheral to the history of the continent,” writes Hawad. “Most of the research about this territory is done in exogeny; so from the exterior.”

How can we talk about the Sahara when we remain confined to its edge? When most of its territories are officially off-limits to travellers, which means their movements are determined by default…

This realisation explains Hawad’s idea for this original creative project. Ten young artists, from seven countries partly crossed by the Sahara, took part in a week-long residency at the gateway to the desert, in the region of M’Hamid El Ghizlane, in south-eastern Morocco.

It was there that they began to design the exhibition, in a tourist location on the outskirts of this vast area that stretches 5,000 km from east to west and represents almost 30% of the continent’s surface.

Desert Rose, 2020. Photo taken during residency at “Hotel Sahara”. © Ismail Zaidy & Hanin Tarek

“How can we talk about the Sahara when we remain confined to its edge? When most of its territories are officially off-limits to travellers, which means their movements are determined by default? This obscured and partial access was at the heart of our reflections during the residency,” explain the curators.

Oases and nomadic views

The result? A curious exhibition that explores the fantasies that the Sahara nourishes more than the Sahara itself. “What is examined here is a relationship in absence and all that this invokes, between remoteness, erasure and exoticism.”

The invited artists – Alex Ayed, Tewa Barnosa, Salim Bayri, Tayeb Bayri, Hiba Elgizouli, Famakan Magassa, Sara Sadik, Ahmed Serour, Hanin Tarek, Ismail Zaidy – all have diverse, plural creative practices. ‘Hôtel Sahara’ involves videos, paintings, sound installations, photographs and sculptures.

Presented in the same space at the Magasins généraux, the creations intertwine, collide, and resonate in a chaos that reflects the diverse perceptions that we can have of the desert. It is as if we are in a hotel, with its travellers passing through, its doors that open, its stories of transience… Some images open onto iconic sandy landscapes, others allow music to filter through, others are obscured by light veils.

It takes a little time to feel at ease in the unfamiliar world the artists have created. But it hardly takes any time to realise that the Sahara is in danger of slipping away, even for those who usually frequent its margins.

So each person, will pick up a few grains of golden sand, sit under a shadow in an oasis, experience nomadic glimpses. Through this, they will escape the age-old clichés about life in the Sahara.

Distorted echoes

Malian Famakan Magassa has dared to create gigantic paintings – one thinks of a baroque version of Matisse’s ‘La Danse’ – and his work is referencing the Takamba, a musical genre and dance practised by both the Songhai and the Tuareg, beyond the borders decided by colonisation.

French artist Sara Sadik has opted for a video installation (‘La puissance’) based on Snapchat films of two young French people of Moroccan origin who have returned home. She explores their pride in their identity… but also reveals the gap that separates them from their country of origin, and even more from the Sahara.

More conceptual, the Egyptian designer and couturier Ahmed Serour has created a series of fake fossils of everyday objects – bottle openers, plastic bottles – to form the installation ‘Eroded Traces’, which questions the reality of the stories around the Egyptian oasis of Siwa.

The stories of homosexual practices between seasonal agricultural workers on the outskirts of this oasis have indeed fuelled a whole imagination and given rise to many fantasies for international tourists in search of a gay orientalist paradise.

“In his work, Ahmed Serour creates traces that do not exist, going in search of erased memories, of pre-colonial histories that remain unreachable when the gateway to them remains that of exotic fantasy,” write the curators.

This is perhaps the ultimate paradox of this exhibition entitled ‘Hôtel Sahara’: you will not find the desert, you will only hear  the distorted echoes of all the stories it produces.

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