Amina Menia, Stepping Into The Breach, The Polemics of Place
Originally published on Another Africa
Art has the potential to fill gaps and cover ellipses; it might even be a response to a social or political urgency. According to Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl , ‘Historically, the documentary is a form that emerges in a state of crisis’ and ‘art compensates for the blind spots of journalism […] During certain historical periods, the arts channel information and experiences, which have no other place in the public debate’. In this context, does place define practice? How important is it to reclaim physical spaces in order to fathom their legacy in everyday political and social life? And, where does art fit into this picture?
A city’s construction and development are marked by layers of History. Even today, from urban maps to beautification works, nothing is left to chance. Retracing the historical chronology of the urban enables us to understand a space, to see who its architects are, their power, and the context for its creation or alteration. Invariably, this retracing can also bring to light those who have been side-lined, nay, completely excluded, from such processes. Cities bear the visible scars of power relations, whose victims often comprise all or a particular section of its citizenry. Depending on the country, its history, and its current situation, the degree to which a public space requires negotiation and reappropriation varies. The ownership of place lies at the intersection of distance and desire, for it is one of many barometers of the health of a civil society.
A fascination and preoccupation with her native city of Algiers has forged Amina Menia’s artistic practice. She delves into the most emblematic areas of the Algerian capital to unearth unwelcome histories about her country’s past, interrogating public space and her compatriots’ relations to it. Over the years, she has become an expert at stepping into the breach so as to physically touch the spaces confiscated from locals.
The urban, but also peri-urban, landscape in Algeria is marked by French colonisation, the war of liberation, and the following years of turmoil. After decades of mistrust, how can citizens peacefully interact with these spaces again? How can they apprehend the history their city conveys, and what can they learn from it? Menia dissects the built environment to question the invisible architecture that structures Algeria; she tickles the complex systems and mechanisms organizing her community to reinvent a collective memory. Her ephemeral and minimal actions highlight the precariousness of public space.
Clelia Coussonnet | Nowadays, who is aware of their city’s history? Passers-by stroll through anonymous buildings, streets, and walls they often know little about. When and how did you start investigating urban spaces?
Amina Menia | After a few years of practice, I realised the backwardness of my environment and of the Algerian art scene, which was quite conventional. Society had the art that corresponded to it. I felt the shift was deepening as, within a year, my practice was launched internationally, where my work was valued. I was experiencing a ‘double life’: while based in Algeria, my practice was being recognised elsewhere, and I did not want to live in ‘artistic exile’.
I decided to put down roots in my city, and to invest in a pedagogical phase. I understood it was up to me to take the steps to meet the public and generate the conditions for the reception of my work. I designed Extra Muros. I wanted to be outside, to create a temporary event that would be confrontational. It would expose my conditions and my obligation to set up ephemeral and removable pieces.
CC | By intervening in public space in this manner, are you trying to generate social interaction or overcome institutional and political spheres?
AM | The public domain has a strong political dimension. Delving into this field evokes the desire to win back spaces, to reclaim places both physical and full of meaning and history. My idea was to attract everyone and touch them through spaces that are physically prohibited to us.
CC | This is what you have sought to bring to places such as the Bastion 23, the Jardin d’Essais, the building La Parisienne or Algiers’ underground subway….
AM | I divided Extra Muros into chapters. The first event  went very well and was unexpectedly successful—beyond what I had dreamt. I chose the Bastion 23  in the lower Casbah. The Casbah was largely destroyed by the spectacular construction and public works of the French to install a new ‘image’ in Algiers. This small niche still standing today is a very special archetypal neighbourhood. After its restoration, this little gem was reduced to a crossing point and prevented from resuming its neighbourhood life.
AM | Settling in the Bastion meant confronting this outside/inside dialectic. My intention was to regain some collective confidence by reclaiming the history and geography of Algiers. Sharing a city is having common childhood memories with your contemporaries. Yet, our capital was never a city for all. The traumatic events we experienced weakened our city life. We still have to recapture the everyday in Algiers. I wanted to pay tribute to the city through the chapters of Extra Muros.
CC | Could you elaborate on what ‘outside/inside’ means for you? And if your work Mauresque addresses this as well?
AM | Being outside means being off the beaten path, away from dedicated spaces, and outside the art form that is practiced here. In Mauresque, I placed a wire mesh—normally used on home exteriors to protect windows—in an art space. In the first presentation of Chrysanthemums, I played with the trompe l’oeil; using human-scale steles.
Even within the Bastion, I planted my work outside, in a part that was not designed for visitors. It was symbolic, a way to move the cursor. The managerial staff was very surprised when I installed my work—unsightly scaffolding that did not meet their expectation of a so-called ‘artwork’.
CC | Why scaffolding? It appears in your installations Africaines and Iconoclastes.
AM | It is a kind of alphabet for me, I have written a lot with it. The scaffolding is a bit ironic. The Casbah, like many parts of Algiers, is constantly under renovation. The scaffolds sometimes end up ruined or badly rusted because of the marine air. They portray the passage of time … embody the eternal renovation and unfinished projects….
With interlocking metaphors, I explore architecture and elements being built, becoming, and under construction. My scaffolds are always pristine. They are not there to be looked at, but to enable us to see something.
CC | How do local audiences, Algerians, react to your site-specific installations?
AM | In the specific case of the Bastion, the first audience was the site’s staff. They may not have liked it at first, but then they realised it was a sculpture, and that it was not functional. They even started doing tours, appropriating ‘their exhibition’ [laughs]. Something had happened. It comforts me in the sense that it is necessary to revisit our spaces differently, and that it helps people return to their personal memories.
CC | You endured bureaucracy and encountered many difficulties when trying to fully realise the project Extra Muros. Ultimately, only the first part was completed in 2005.
AM | I did not realise how political it would get…. When I imagined and deeply desired this project, it marked a return to our collective childhood, to Proust’s madeleine. I was thinking about places that move us. Everyone enjoyed playing in the Jardin d’Essais. It was closed for renovations, initially for two years. That became five, then became indefinite.
Algiers’ subway was a running joke for its residents. We waited 30 years for this project. There were barricades and construction signs, but the underground was an urban chimera. It belonged to us without belonging to us. As the completion neared, simultaneously, it became increasingly controversial as denunciation articles were published. I was told, ‘You think you are not doing it on purpose, yet you are stirring up the hornet’s nest’. I was tossed about from one office to the next. Nobody wanted to stick their neck out. On 1 November 2011, the subway was inaugurated. It drowned out my project, since the intention was to involve people in a process.
CC | Given the reluctance, how much leeway was there?
AM | My proposals were always open and flexible because of site constraints. Over time, the project became an archive of dead letters and documentation—the logic of the project—and this is how I foster it. Extra Muros made me: it was like a baptism in my practice. I took something very strong from it, and, since then, Algiers has never ceased to be in my projects.
CC | With your works, do you create a new form of public archive that might address the obvious lack of information available to citizens?
AM | Yes, it is a small stone in the grande maison Algérie [Algeria, the grand house]. These archival artworks can be reconsidered in light of the history of the city. They contribute to reflections on what is done in Algiers’ public space. When I conceived Extra Muros, the landscape was much more closed. If we take these parameters into account, yes, Extra Muros gains historical value.
CC | Given these changes, is public space less frightening and no longer perceived as a place of repression? Have the inhabitants finally reclaimed their city?
AM | Not so much…. Let’s say it is less tense and fearful. However, the boundary is clearly visible: You cannot touch politics. In my view, we have not finished working on the ‘inhabitants of Algiers who need to reclaim their city’. It is daunting, there is still a lot to do.
CC | You seem to be searching for a ‘real’ Algiers, one that is buried under exotic colonial tropes, under the logic of memory, nostalgia, and unfulfilled promises. Works like Sketches of Algiers or Golden Age echo this quest.
AM | I do not want to be thought of as a backward-looking person, or someone looking for something non-existent. This mythologised and nostalgic Algiers is yearned for as such by my fellow citizens. I think it never existed. It is a nostalgia of resistance.
Extra Muros forced me to work in a convoluted way. If I could not be in the street, I had to bring what I found outside inside the museum. Realising Enclosed, I understood that I would always be at this kind of imposed distance. I would be reproducing—for lack of interrogating the city by touching it. This process is like a Pandora’s box that prompts me to look into Algiers’ history. Today, if we want to examine the present, we must delve into the recent past. Being face-to-face with my city, I knew that engulfing myself in the colonial and postcolonial would be a compulsory step. A large part of my work is devoted to this binary and vertical history: Algeria/France, war/independence. The impossibility of accessing information—freely and without authorisation—forces me to rummage through books and history. I do not revisit a mythical or glorified Algiers. I reflect what is going on there.
CC | Enclosed deals with a World War I memorial originally conceived by Paul Landowski , then later reworked and shrouded with a concrete block by artist M’hamed Issiakhem . You neither side with the monument’s architect nor the artist. Does the word ‘dialogue’ resonate in this context?
AM | For me, this monument is an impossible and silent dialogue between two artists. Issiakhem did not really intervene as if he were holding a dialogue with this work…. He did not interrogate it. Nevertheless, I find this artistic gesture moving and extraordinary..
This monument covering a second monument brings to light the stacking of memories. It seems to me that it might be the absolute metaphor of the relationship between Algeria and France. In this silent dialogue, we face avoidance, diversion, the unsaid and unfinished. By extension, this overlay represents the two nations, the two histories that intersect without caressing, that collide without touching.
CC | To undo ‘urban legends’, you displace symbols and play on places of power, history, and memory. Considering the bid to commemorate, the asymmetry of historical narratives, and the ambiguity of a dual heritage leads to the question of who decides what for whom in terms of preservation or destruction of urban heritage sites.
AM | The question is mostly, how is it decided? The city’s beautification plans are large-scale, but never conducted transparently via an open call. Elsewhere, commissions and juries vote on urban projects. Young artists are never invited to participate. The war of liberation is the relentless pretext. The irony is that, in villages, these new projects stylise and cover ancient monuments of the First and Second World Wars.
In Chrysanthemums, the viewer can see Arabic plates replacing the French ones. The monuments are partly changed by a kind of makeover: names are Algerianised, religious insignias, like crosses, removed, and some elements replaced. As in Enclosed, there is an overlap of memories.
CC | In this context, what defines heritage?
AM | We were not authorised to renew our heritage, or to inject new ideas into these approaches. This commemoration is perverse. This memory is so heavy, it is hard to refresh.
Have we inherited the French tradition of erecting monuments? Or are we replacing the remaining void with a second commemoration?
© Clelia Coussonnet
 Maria Lind, and Hito Steyerl, eds. “Introduction: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art #1”, The Greenroom. N.p.: Sternberg, 2008. 21. Print. Co-published with Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College.
 The Bastion 23 (Qsar er-Rayasa) is a historic monument in Algiers and is one of the only remnants of the Casbah’s expansion towards the sea (16th–19th centuries). From 1840, the palace was isolated from the rest of the Casbah after the urban construction works imposed by the French colonial administration. In 1962, Algerian families came to live in the Bastion 23, and, in 1980, the Ministry of Culture decided to preserve the area. It was rehabilitated between 1987 and 1993, before officially opening in 1994 and being registered as a national heritage site. Its surface is about 3,500 m² and now hosts an art centre.