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Can Artistic Practices Negotiate the Demands of Cultural Institutions, Public Space, and Civil Society?

Alice Planel
2 May 2012

How artistic practices define and negotiate public space is to me the most significant issue in the question posed, which I will begin to discuss in the context of Algiers.


The site specific practice of Amina Menia testifies to both the richness of meaning and difficulties of execution endemic to art in public space in Algiers. Extra Muros – realised in its first section only at the Bastion 23 due to rolling administrative set-backs – orchestrates the redefinition of inner or outer structures of specific buildings that hold cultural and mnemonic importance. The Bastion 23, now a travesty of a cultural centre, was once part of the Kasbah, which is protected by UNESCO despite the fact that in the absence of repair, the disaggregation of this historic quarter effected by colonial town planning continues. Menia's intervention was misunderstood by various public bodies unfamiliar with, and suspicious of, contemporary art practices and the recent civil war plays no small part in this.


Menia's ironic work on orientalising Algerian women, to be found painted on ceramic tiles and dotting the city, leads us to the history of art in public spaces in Algiers. In 1962, the newly independent Algerian government commissioned a plethora of murals and sculptures; objects of public art that are burdensome and politically over-determined for a new generation of artists and thinkers. However, differing slightly, in the 1980s, Denis Martinez, together with a group of students, painted several vibrant ephemeral murals in Blida and in the desert. This testifies to a less consensual public art, and by extrapolation, definition of public space.


Today, whilst the MAMA is a welcome sign of official support for contemporary art, discourse is turned within. The artists residency A.R.I.A, run by artist Zineb Sedira, with its insistence on community and public environments, could well generate a platform for diverse public practices.

Alice Planel

grew up in the south of France and moved to Berlin after graduating with a first in Art History, before returning to London three years later to study an MA in cultural memory at the School of Advanced Studies. Her thesis on Zoulikha Bouabdellah was published in the artist’s monograph Soft Transgressions (2009). Alice teaches History of Art, runs a food activist network the dinner exchange, and is studying for a PhD on contemporary art from the Algerian diaspora funded by the AHRC at Kingston University. She has conducted research in the Middle East and has contributed to conferences on the subject in Paris, Algiers and London. Two essays on contemporary practices in the Maghreb and Palestine are to be published in 2012 by Sternberg Press and L'Harmattan respectively.

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