The exhibition Dryto be discovered at the Center de la photographie Genève (CPG), opens with a small black and white reproduction of the bewitching allegorical painting Isle of the Deadby the Basel painter Arnold Böcklin. In the wake of the eponymous symphonic poem by Sergei Rakhmaninov depicting the approach of the mortuary boat in the lapping, the photographer Abdo Shanan retains here a fantastic exile suspended between worlds.
“I started this project in 2017 with a reflection on the geophysical and social nature of an island. It is imbued with a mineral and dry atmosphere like the entry into a new metaphorical space. In Algeria, I feel like an island in the middle of a society, in particular in opposition or compromise with it”, explains the man of images. If painting inspired him in the visual and plastic aesthetics of his series Dryits atmosphere derives from the labyrinthine chromatic music of Rakhmaninoff.
The initial purpose of the exhibition? Trying to understand what the assignment or not of a nationality means and covers by going back to the fundamentals of a common humanity. In the spirit of Abdo Shanan, it is thus a matter of investigating through a contemporary poetic tale what national identity means. It is these “social constructions” that are called into question here. Like that of the Cameroonian Josiane, who remained in Algeria for eight years, who is the poster of Dry, the color portraits work on the cast shadow of the subjects joining a quest for absence and trace. In a subtle weaving made of echoes and patterns, they are accompanied by handwritten testimonies of the subjects portrayed, inscribed on the walls of the exhibition as if in a diary. “I have never had the privilege of being at home anywhere. I therefore strive to feel at home in this state of non-belonging.
Human and poetic experience of exile, Dry is an impressionist research around identity and its loss, a way of expressing lack. While wondering about what remains. The series invites us to abandon the ideas of citizenship and the nation-state, as its storytelling is of “collective nature”. The people interviewed by the artist are chibanis or North African workers who immigrated to France between 1950 and 1970, students from sub-Saharan Africa. And more broadly members of the Algerian diaspora, like M’mmar, who will only return to Algerian soil to die there.
Ghostly black and white
We discover portraits of relatives of a youth regularly in turmoil or simple neighbors seized in a sometimes uncertain reality, as evidenced by this bearded figure with closed eyes dangling between sleep, unconscious and mortuary. Past and present under tension in these neoclassical monuments and sculptures dating back to the French colonial era. Or a fresco representing the Emir Abd el-Kader, spiritual and military leader who fought the French armies from 1832 to 1847 before laying the foundations of an Algerian state. “We live in a society traumatized by this colonization. A statue with a broken hand can then be the allegory of a sore country”, underlines the artist.
The whole is occasionally bathed in a ghostly whiteness. Abdo Shanan approaches black and white film often using flash, strong contrasts and harsh light. This in order to translate this uncomfortable feeling of exile felt in Algeria, thus deepening its dramatization.
Identities and experiences
After an internship in the archives department of the Parisian agency Magnum, he notably imagined floating snapshots in close-ups reflecting the very soul of the Algerian popular protests of the Hirak (“movement”), severely repressed by the regime. We then measure how quickly he feels cramped under the iconic constraints of the emblematic image dear to photojournalism. Eager not to let himself be embattled by a reality formatted by certain media, he pursues a desired sensory work, while sometimes practicing a form of “self-censorship” in the face of a tense and uncertain social climate.
In Dry, the self is combined with the multiple, identity branches out in resonance with other lives dictated by exile and migration. This networking saw Abdo Shanan co-found Collective 220 in 2015, a collective bringing together photographers linked to Algeria to promote the 8th art, which lacks support and recognition in the country.
Abdo Shanan – Dry, Geneva Photography Center, until August 21.