In a testament to the thriving pop art scene in the Maghreb, 15 artists from the region’s five Arab countries showcased their talent in “Pop Art from North Africa” exhibition at London’s P21 Gallery.
The exhibition is the brainchild of curators Najlaa el-Ageli, a Libyan architect, and Algerian Toufik Douib, who met during London’s Nour Festival in 2015, where they both curated projects.
“It was then that we discussed collaboration to showcase an unseen perspective of the North African cultural scene. The project Pop Art ‘popped up’ about a year-and-a-half ago, initially grouping one artist per country (five in total), to gradually evolve and become 15,” Douib said.
“For most of the selected artists, this is their first exhibition in the UK. Bringing young creative talents from the North African landscape to a London audience while encouraging these artists to further collaborations and initiatives beyond their home countries were at stake during our curatorial journey,” Douib added.
Exhibiting artists included Mouad Aboulhana (Morocco), Alla Abudabbus (Libya), Rasha Amin (Egypt), Dhafer Ben Khalifa (Tunisia), Amel Benaoudia (Algeria), Walid Bouchouchi (Algeria), El3ou (Algeria), Malak Elghuel (Libya), Sarah Basma Harnafi (Morocco), Sarroura Libre (Tunisia), Meryem Meg (Algeria-Bulgaria), Ilyes Messaoudi (Tunisia), El-Moustache (Algeria), Qarm Qart (Italy-Egypt) and Sofiane Si Merabet (Algeria).
Douib noted that in the West “pop art, which has become a culture phenomenon, started from a simple logic of reappropriation and reinvention to soon grow into an industry for dreams and evasion, speaking to the mass, while engaging with minorities of all kinds.”
“Similarly, pop in North Africa addresses what the people want and what the springs are but it also reflects on existential and social issues, often with the aim to deliver, through hints of nostalgia and subtle provocation, a politically charged message,” Douib said.
“In fact, beyond their colourful symbols and codes soaked in derision and sarcasm, the pop artists that are today active in the region, from Egypt to Morocco, tackle themes inspired by history, traditions and, above all, the challenges of their everyday life,” he added.
When selecting the works the curators’ wanted to showcase eclectic and fresh views through paintings, digital, installation, video and sound. “Also, and unlike Western pop, which was dominated by male artists, we wanted to show how the movement in North Africa is represented by a quite strong female presence (five selected artists),” Douib said.
The curators faced challenges in getting the art works in time. The onsite wall mural (17 x 5 metres) was completed by Meg in five days and the bag installation “Trabendo” (2.8 x 1.6 metres) by Bouchouchi was delivered within time constraints.
“Overall it was crucial for the exhibition to have a consistent scenography that draws a thread to all the artworks, in showing the similarities and distinctions of identities, stories and issues existing within the five countries,” Douib said.
The art works of varying sizes are colourful with a hint of exuberance, evident from the use of embroidery and glittering beads and ornaments. The issues they address are serious. Harnafi has combined scenes from the natural beauty of Morocco with dream-like images symbolic of a fantastical voyage to a world her subjects will probably never see: A world of love, optimism and freedom.
Describing her depiction of figures around a bowl of harira, traditional Moroccan soup, Harnafi said: “The people are poor. They only have one bowl of soup but they share what they have with love.” For the artist, her work is a perpetual journey for a better world in which love is the operative word.
A small room in the gallery is set aside for “The Confused Arab,” an installation depicting “Salon Tomorrow” by Si Merabet. The beauty salon is a central place in Arab cities and this installation combines nostalgic scenes from history with the artist’s vision of a salon of the future, forcing the visitor to reflect on questions of identity and the role of the past in influencing the future.
The exhibition brings “forth to its audience the pure and authentic North African consciousness through the pop art form,” Ageli said in a release.
“By its nature, direct and accessible, the group exhibition reveals the innate sense of humour that is blended with a subtle touch of cynicism and delivered with light-hearted connotations. It offers a complex, intelligent and meaningful picture of themes that are dear to the North African people and what occupies their minds and awareness.”
“Pop Art from North Africa,” on exhibit through November 4, is presented in partnership with P21 Gallery and the Arab British Centre and supported by AMAL: A Said Foundation Project and Darf Publishers.
Karen Dabrowska is an Arab Weekly contributor in London.