Diary notes for Oussama Tabti | Text by Jeroen Laureyns
I don’t know if every encounter with a great work of art comes with a shock comparable with being struck by a lightening, but that is exactly what happened to me when I first saw Tête d’Arabe by Oussama Tabti in his studio in Ghent. I met the artist for the first time during his stay at this post-graduate program in Belgium in September 2019, in a period in my life when I was facing the paralysing effect the abuse of power had on me, and the fact that freedom of speech isn’t guaranteed in the country I live in, but instead must bend to the most timeless, universal, and primary kind of intimidation that we all intuitively know, but hope not to face.
I don’t know if this state of mind played an important role in my aesthetic judgement of Tête d’Arabe, but it was not difficult to see the role that Oussama Tabti had chosen as an artist: the well-known political conceptual identity, with its ethical mission to reveal plain and painful truths, following the liberty path of modern art that started when democratic states were founded and artists like Daumier used their new-born autonomy to embody the fundamental democratic right to freedom of speech and to use their art to criticize men in power.
But before I get deeper into the meaning of Tête d’Arabe, I must mention another remarkable event that happened during the first week I spent as a guest lecturer, when I was visiting seven to eight studios a day and talking for an hour with young and promising artists from all over the world. It’s an event that led me to confront the difficult, and unanswered, moral questions that continue to occupy my thoughts, including during the writing of this text.
One evening during that intense week as a visiting lecturer, and without even thinking, I said to Oussama Tabti, who was looking for a chair while attending a lecture: “If I were sculptor looking for a model to make a new Hercules, I would ask you.” I was amazed to notice his tall stature for the first time; I had already talked to him some days earlier, but we were seated at a table. I don’t know if he really understood what I had said: he just laughed and sat down. However, I immediately regretted it my words, fearing that they would elicit an angry reaction, or prompt the revelation of an inconvenient truth about the colonial gaze.
The reason I spontaneously made the association between his tall stature and the Hercules Farnese statue is obvious: both belong to the world of art, the Hercules Farnese being a standard marble statue in Western art history, where the body of this tall, muscled, and naked man is made even more impressive by the height of that Roman statue and by the resting pose of the lion he has just skinned. Still, it was probably the curly beard and hair, which Hercules and Oussama share, that led me to connect them. (Just have a look at the beautiful black-and-white portrait picture of the artist on his website and compare it with the Hercules Farnese and you will understand what I mean.)
I could start elaborating on how I associate the country that Tabti comes from, Algeria, with Western Roman history, as it is situated in the mental map that I inherited from my classical Latin and Greek education. But that could lead me even deeper into the cultural identity swamp debate has come to dominate the times we live in. The most important thing is that my remark started to trouble me in such a way that I started to regard it as a necessary effect of the kind of work that he makes.
I profoundly dislike the outworn phrase that art has to raise questions. Still, I realized that the importance of Oussama Tabti’s work lies in its capacity to hit the heart of a collective bad consciousness when I first saw his Tête d’Arabe.
Oussama Tabti was born in Algiers in 1988. In 2010, he said goodbye to his Algerian training as a graphic designer and turned to the arts in France with the work Deuxième Partie, which is composed of three old fashioned television screens where only the middle one shows us moving black-and-white images with sounds, while the remaining two screens show the old fashioned test screen and noise. This televised critique summarizes the reductive official historical vision of the past that, by leaving out the pre- and post-colonial eras, threatens to become a collective kind of victimhood, which is just as much a dead-end street as its Western counterpart, which denies, minimalizes or otherwise finds ways to wash the blood off of their colonial hands.
It’s this moral quality of self-critique that charmed me when Tabti showed me this work, and it made me think of Hans Haacke’s infamous 1970s photographic triptych about the complicity of between the electronics company Philips and the apartheid regime in South Africa. Liberty is one of the foundational values of a constitutional democracy, and so too is equality, another value that Tabti was aiming at when he created his Amsterdam Treaty installation in 2013, where the stars of the EU flag are protected by anti-pigeon spikes.
The artistic variation on flags in general, and the European flag in particular are countless: there is Christophe Terlinden’s 1999 reimagining of the stars on the EU flag as a yellow circle that subsumed the twelve stars; there is Banksy, whose mural in Dover, where one of the stars on the flag was cut out following the Brexit vote. Tabti’s EU pigeon flag fits right into that artistic lineage by bluntly showing the double standard and new global apartheid regime that governs travelling and working. We in the West take it for granted that we can go on holidays wherever we want and can work anywhere in the world; non-Westerners, however, don’t have the same kind of rights and are being kept out of the European Union by a brutal anti-refugee and anti-migration policy, as if they were vermin threatening our well-maintained and amply supplied house.
The moral strength of these works is the fact that this confrontation in the mirror isn’t directed only at the West, but also at his Algerian background: Tabti uses the old pedagogical methods of repetition and punishment to show the blind spots both in the collective consciousness of Europeans and Algerians alike. The way that Tabti punishes himself by writing down a famous sentence from a poem by Abdelhamin Ibn Badis—the sentence reads: “The Algerian people are Muslim and belong to Arab world”—is related to the method of writing a sentence as punishment method that John Baldessari used in I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art and Louise Bourgeois used in Je t’aime, Je t’aime, Je t’aime…
Repetition is the key to memorization and conditioning, and that is what Tabti does when he writes down the words “Listen and Repeat” on an old-fashioned green chalkboard. Nowadays, however, it looks like the mainstream and social media have taken over that particular way of indoctrination, either by narrowing down the vocabulary when addressing difficult political subjects (in the case of the mainstream media), or by technologically amplifying the disinhibition outbursts that rule this new and regressive public sphere. The chalkboard and punishment become, almost melancholically, archaeological artefacts of a past era, much like the collection of typical fabrics in the installation Shapes, which gathers the fabrics worn by the first-generation migrants, who came to work in the West after Algeria’s independence.
Like so many other artists, Oussama Tabti is continuing the conceptual, post-painterly tradition of the “artist as anthropologist,” as Joseph Kosuth defined his way of working. But he adds a highly personal and emotional touch to that tradition, much in the way that Tabti’s contemporary, the Lebanese artist Charbel-joseph H. Boutros, was doing just across the street from the HISK in Ghent. Indeed, for his show at the S.M.A.K. in Ghent, Boutros had three different kinds of male shirts hanging, one behind each other; the work, entitled Three Abstractions on Three Histories, subtly reveals the small generational differences in much the same emotional-historical vein as Tabti does in his Shapes.
But the work that really blew my mind was Tête d’Arabe.
In the version that Oussama Tabti showed me, Tête d’Arabe is a work that unites the covers of six Western magazines featuring Arab leaders, which he presents in old-fashioned painting frames. Seeing that work with the title Tête d’Arabe caused a short-circuiting that led me to write in a short report on the studio visit: if, twenty years hence, I have to explain to my grandchildren how history took place in the first decades of the twentieth century, I would show them this work.
There is no need to explain to the well-educated contemporary reader that a history of the 21th century should start with Al-Qaeda’s spectacular terroristic attacks on the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11, and with the War on Terror led by George Bush, whose government started an illegal war that resulted in the destruction of Iraq and whose repercussions can be felt still in the spiral of violence with neo-colonial wars and weapon trade by the West, and in the rise of Islamic terrorism in the East, from the Islamic State to Al Shaabab.
It would lead us to far to get into historical detail of this terrible history, but what is important to understand is how the old racist antagonism between a so-called Enlightened Western civilisation and a barbaric Islamic East became common-sense in Western public opinion, forming a straight line from Pope Urban II, whose propaganda speech against the Muslims, delivered in Carcassonne at the start of the 11th century launched the first crusade, to the terrorists of the Islamic State, who have used the cruel history of the crusades in their bloody propaganda, with videotaped decapitations of Western hostages posted online, and their violent attacks on innocent civilians, both in the West and in the East.
All of this led to a culture of fear that formed the fertile ground both for the rise of extreme right parties and Islamic terrorism. I do not think that I exaggerate when I write that, in 2020, a large majority of the population in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium is deeply convinced that no-one with Muslim roots can ever be as Enlightened as we are in the West. This knee-jerk prejudice has deep historical roots, and it has undergone a terrible revival in the last decades due political history sketched briefly above. But it must be said here racist ideas are still alive in the arts as well.
In recent years, several writers have published important books that call to task the deeply-entrenched ideas about the cultural superiority of the white West. In my personal library, Rachida Aziz’s Nobody Is Going to Sleep Here Tonight, Fikry El Azzouzi Malcolm X, and Rachida Lamrabet Shut Up You Immigrant are milestones in an emancipatory debate on the blind spots in Western consciousness. And, much like the well-known Critique of Black Reason, they give historical examples of how the double-standard of the West is deeply rooted even in the writing and thoughts of the demigods of Enlightenment thinking. To name just one: Alexis de Tocqueville isn’t just the political philosopher who defended democracy and social justice, he is also the thinker who defended the idea of a double standard of citizenship for the French colony of Algeria which effectively turned the non-French inhabitants of the country into children of a lesser God.
How deep this conviction still is, even in the art world, was proven when I visited the Delacroix exhibition in the Louvre in 2018. Three paintings stood out as evidence of this double standard: Delacroix glorified French and the Greek revolutionaries in images that are still famous today, and which continue to function as symbols of freedom in the collective memory. And yet, once Delacroix went to Alger, his solidarity with revolutionaries fighting for freedom and democracy disappeared into the most exotifying orientalist views imaginable. Liberté guidant le People for the French, La Grèce sur les ruines for the Greeks, and Femmes d’Alger for the Algerians. Indeed, instead of point out that Delacroix went to Alger at the start of France’s brutal and bloody colonization of that place, the museum text chose instead to inform visitors that he had joined a French diplomatic mission and discovered a new Rome in Alger …
Delacroix was infatuated by oriental women, had no sympathy with Algerian freedom fighters, and dreamt that he was living in a new Rome … So maybe now you understand why I cursed myself for seeing Oussama Tabti as a new Hercules …
What I am trying to say is that West still sees the Arabic world through the binaries of superiority and inferiority, civilized and barbaric. By using the images of Arab leaders on the covers of Western magazines and calling them Tête d’Arabe, Tabti reminds us that those old prejudices are still alive. It goes without saying that Assad, Khadaffi and Morsi cannot be regarded as democratic leaders. But that is not the point. It’s the fact that we can’t imagine that democracy and emancipation can really succeed in the Middle East. Anyone from the East will, sooner or later, be regarded as a Tête d’Arabe, much in the way that, to this day, a painting by the Belgian avantgarde painter Henri Evenepoel at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels is still called L’annonce de la fête nègre à Blida…
We are in desperate need of a Herculean turn in how we imagine one another, a turn that would allow us to overcome the prejudices of the past, and I am convinced that Oussama Tabti’s Tête d’Arabe can contribute to that historical, emancipatory turn.
Jeroen Laureyns | The Agency of Mental Guest Labor | The Belgian Section