Inspired by the garden of a patient at Fanon’s psychiatric hospital, Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa transformed a disused kindergarten with the local community in Kalba, UAE. Will Furtado writes about the multilayered commission for the Sharjah Biennial 14 that makes links between two distinct geographies via architecture and its psychology, and between flora and colonialism.
Frantz Fanon has been an influence in many people’s lives for his ideas on liberation. Before he became known as the hero of the Third World and anti-colonial movement, however, he was a doctor in a psychiatric hospital in Blida, Algeria. Working there between 1953 and 1957, he devised several practices that proved life-changing for local patients.
Fanon was shocked with the way indigenous Algerian patients were treated under the French who thought locals were not able to conceptualize their world and therefore could not be treated. When they did receive treatment it was based on the experiences of Europeans, which then failed to work. One of Fanon’s first steps was to end the segregation between settlers and indigenous Algerians, followed by developing programs according to ethnopsychiatry, the study of mental illness from a cross-cultural perspective. Measures included setting up a coffee place instead of a bar, which local patients had not adopted.
Another method used by Fanon included gardening, a legacy that lived on beyond his tenure. In 1969, a decade after Fanon’s departure, Bourlem Mohamed built his own garden at the hospital. He is the only surviving former patient of the hospital which is now defunct. Bourlem Mohamed is the subject and catalyst for artist Mohamed Bourouissa’s site-specific work Blida-Joinville at the Sharjah Biennial 14 (SB14) in Kalba, a town on the Indian Ocean coast of the Sharjah emirate.
Titled Leaving the Echo Chamber, the 14th edition of the Sharjah Biennial attempts to expand the different “chambers” we can operate in. Split across different locations in Sharjah emirate, the biennial’s curators created three distinct exhibitions that pay special attention to the globalizing “South”. Zoe Butt’s platform Journey Beyond the Arrow explores south-south interconnections including Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn’s video work The Specter of Ancestors Becoming (2019) about the Senegalese–Vietnamese community. Omar Kholeif’s platform features artists that uncover histories that have been concealed, such as Shezad Dawood, whose work Encroachments (2019) looks at power dynamics between USA and Pakistan through a VR experience. And Claire Tancons’ platform connects different geographies to histories from the Caribbean with artists such as Carlos Martiel, whose performances explore 19th and early 20th-century slave trade and related industries that link East Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East.
Also taking part in Tancons’ exhibition is Mohamed Bourouissa, a multidisciplinary Algerian-born, Paris-based artist, who explores power relations and societal tensions by working collaboratively with the community. For instance, in 2014 he traveled to the US to work with a community in North Philadelphia on staging a horse riding event as part of the neighborhood’s revitalization program.
Consisting of an installation made of wooden structures, drawings, sculptures, plants, and video, Bourouissa’s collaborative work at SB14 takes the architecture of the hospital in Blida as one of the main links. To bring the psychiatric institution in direct dialogue with another local institution, Bourouissa built a structure based on the hospital’s plan view and installed it in a disused kindergarten in Kalba built in the 1970s by modernist architects Georges Rais and Jaafar Tukan.
However, this is actually a long-term project. “It started three years ago when I did a residency in Blida, where I was born,” the artist says. “And in 2018, when the Liverpool Biennial invited me, I decided to return to Algeria. There I met Bourlem Mohamed, whom I didn’t have the chance to meet the first time. He was 83 years old then and he still very alert. He’s the most important person in this project. He taught me how to build the structure; it’s his knowledge, I was his apprentice.” The garden this former patient built in Blida served as the inspiration for Resilience Garden, Bourouissa’s contribution for the 2018 Liverpool Biennial – Beautiful world, where are you? Mohamed and Bourouissa’s collaboration features in the film shown in one of the concealed rooms in the Kalba kindergarten. Its narrative is non-linear as it deals with madness. It features Mohamed, who was a freedom fighter, retelling stories about the struggles under the French, and the garden he started, interpolated with technical explanations and episodes of the garden’s first iteration in Liverpool.
Situated in Granby, a deprived working class Liverpudlian neighborhood, the community garden featured Algerian flora among other healing plants and was devised as a site for healing and growth. For Bourouissa this was also a form of creolization as per Glissant’s concept of cultural hybridity, which the artist likens to how in immigrant neighbourhoods in France people create hybrid customs of dress and speak, for instance when non-Muslims use expressions such as insha’Allah.
However, the garden in Liverpool wasn’t initially well received by everyone. One of the scenes in the film shows a local telling Bourouissa they don’t need artists and he should go back to his country. “There I was with the best intentions,” jokes the artist. “Towards the end he came to me and thanked me. It reminded me that we have to remain self-critical”. It was also in Liverpool that the artist met one of his contributors for the installation in Kalba. Geri Augusto is a Professor of International and Public Affairs and Africana Studies who was taking part in the Liverpool Biennial and asked if she could sow seeds of plants related to slavery such as hibiscus and okra.
For Kalba Augusto organized workshops with Bourouissa, a local drawing teacher, and school kids. “For me it was important to have this link between colonialism and slavery, and have different levels of thought,” the artist says about the work in Kalba, which is a coastal area with mangroves, a site of escape in the Caribbean imaginary. Together the workshop facilitators and participants graffitied the interior of the kindergarten with a multitude of large-scale leaves, plants, and trees. Using Montessori education, a hands-on collaborative method, they also made sculptures with different objects found in the school.
By joining the architectural with the psychological, Blida-Joinville occupies and activates memories and places. It brings different spaces and histories together, emphasizing the connections between seemingly disparate geographies. The work also points to Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, which is used to describe places that are “other” while tied to notions of utopia and dystopia. Bourouissa’s intervention addresses the idea of the psychiatric hospital and school as spaces that despite being devised for “normalization” and “homogenization” have the potential for freedom, not least creative.
The future of this site is still uncertain. The hope is that it will be transformed into a space that can be regularly used by the community in Kalba – a destiny similar to that of the Resilience Garden. “The garden in Granby is still there,” says Bourouissa. “That was one of my biggest wishes.”
Mohamed Bourouissa, Blida-Joinville, is on view at Sharjah Biennial 14 (on the Kalba site), Sharjah, UAE until 10 June 2019.
By Will Furtado.