Arts and Entertainment | Art

An urgent, emergent identity: Bruno Boudjelal’s Photography at the Barnard International Artist Series

Bruno Boudjelal is an unassuming figure. Slim and soft-spoken, he has the assured mannerisms of someone who prefers to contemplate the things he has seen rather than talk about them. Boudjelal doesn’t need to say much, however, to relay the wisdom he has gained from his experiences: His photographs, a selection of which he presented on Thursday, Oct. 27th in Barnard Hall, speak for him.

Boudjelal’s presentation was part of the International Artist Series, founded and organized by Barnard professor and acclaimed novelist Hisham Matar. Matar conceived his idea for the series in 2012 as a means of filling a gap in the breadth of symposium-style events offered at Barnard and Columbia.  

Matar was, in some respects, inspired by the annual World Leaders Forum, one of the most influential gatherings of political figures on campus. “The World Leaders Forum rests on the assumption that the best way we can learn about the world is through its statesmen,” he explains. “I proposed that another equally reasonable assumption is that maybe the best way we can learn about the world is through its artists.”

From the internationally-acclaimed writer Zadie Smith to the former curator of Deutsche Bank, Alistair Hicks, Matar has certainly lined up some impressive guest artists. He’s proud of the cross-genre nature of the series and the unique backgrounds of the invitees, who have ranged from Indian video artists to Florentine chamber musicians. The diverse artists that Matar chooses to host on campus are linked, in the end, by one thing: “They’re just very good,” he says with a laugh.  

Rather than having artists “represent” the cultures from which they come, the idea of the series is to focus on the individual artists themselves. The audience, Matar hopes, can glean something meaningful about the reality from which the artists’ work stems. He couldn’t have picked a better speaker to embody the concept behind the series than Boudjelal, who insists that his work isn’t political—it’s personal.

Boudjelal first set out to Algeria at the beginning of a “dark decade” in the country’s history: The Algerian Civil War that lasted from 1991 to 2002. Born in France to an Algerian father and a French mother, Boudjelal struggled in childhood with what he felt was his ambiguous identity—an identity already difficult to bear in France, where people have only recently begun to come to terms with the horrors of the country’s 19th- and 20th-century occupation of Algeria. His father had not returned to his birthplace since immigrating to France and maintained little contact with his family there.  

Boudjelal set out to Algeria in 1993, despite the violent state of affairs during the Civil War, to reconnect with his family and, in a way, with himself.  Growing up “mixed,” Boudjelal says, was more a source of confusion than cultural richness for him. “People will say, ‘You’re so lucky, you have double culture,’” he recounts, “but it’s not so easy as that.” Documenting his journey, he felt, could allow him to resolve this confusion and make sense of his “double” identity.

Upon his arrival in Algeria, Boudjelal realized the gravity of the task before him, finding that literal roadblocks to taking pictures were everywhere. “I could not center [the camera], or even put it at a certain height. It was always too dangerous, too complicated, always moving,” he explains, recalling the constant presence of military troops and police—always suspicious of civilians with cameras—in public places.

The physical stress of Boudjelal’s situation on this first trip to Algeria informed the nature and aesthetic of his work. Being forced to shoot on the move, from behind car windows or with his camera hidden beneath his shirtsleeve, gave an air of urgency to his photos of silhouettes and city streets. They came out blurry, confusing, chaotic with colors—not unlike the state of Algeria itself at the time—because their photographer had to shoot while on the run.

This sense of urgency seems to drive Boudjelal, who admits that he didn’t plan on continuing work in Algeria after his second photo book was released several years ago. “I thought that was the end,” he says. He has decided to go back, though, to continue his personal projects and also turn his lens to a more political subject: Algerian migrants with their sights set on Europe. Boudjelal maintains that his perspective is still personal rather than political: “I think that all artists are just talking about their own experiences,” he says, “Not more, not less.”

Something has undoubtedly clicked for him since his decision to re-establish a connection with his North African roots. Matar has also picked up on this change. He recounts having asked Boudjelal about how his relationship—to France, to Algeria, and to identity—changed after making the first photography trip. Turning to Boudjelal, he recalls, “You said that then, after Algeria, it was possible for you to have children.”

Boudjelal nods in response. “Before, it was not possible,” he agrees. Something about having a more concrete understanding of himself, his heritage, and his identity gave Boudjelal the confidence to move on—and to pass this identity on to his children: “Now I know where I am, and who I am.”

A selection of Bruno Boudjelal’s photographs and video montages will be on display in the Diana Center until the end of the semester.


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