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Artist Affif Cherfaoui stays true to his vision of Algeria
Algerian artist Affif Cherfaoui attended the opening of his retrospective at the Musée National Zabana in Oran on Oct. 31.
Artist Affif Cherfaoui stays true to his vision of Algeria
Cherfaoui in his studio in La Meilleraye-de-Bretagne, France
The following day, Nov. 1, is a national holiday in Algeria, marking the 1954 declaration of armed resistance against the French colonial government and the beginning of the Algerian war. The timing was accidental but not unimportant - Cherfaoui's art and the violent history of his country have been brushing up against each other for almost 50 years.

Cherfaoui, 59, started classes at the École des Beaux Arts in Oran in October 1962, just four months after Algeria declared its independence from France. "The art school didn't have a good reputation," said the artist. "It was seen as a place of debauchery - they drink wine, they draw nude women."

At the time of independence, Oran was the most Europeanized city in Algeria; within the next year more than a million people fled the country, including most of the art school faculty. In 1966, a professor who had gone back to France arranged visas for his three most promising students. They included Cherfaoui. The artist settled in Nantes, where he met his French wife, Annick. They married in 1969.

It was in Nantes that Cherfaoui developed his signature technique, a layering of Eastern and Western artistic traditions. The current exhibition is dominated by landscapes painted in watercolor, then covered with painstaking geometric patterns reminiscent of African textiles and Arabic calligraphy.

But the couple always talked about going back to Algeria. The new government of the National Liberation Front was calling on educated professionals to do their part to rebuild the country. They returned in 1975 with their two daughters; Cherfaoui accepted a position as a professor at his old art school.

The country he returned to was optimistic but almost bankrupt by the oil crises of 1971 and 1973. Nude models, as well as a healthy supply of paper, had disappeared from the École des Beaux Arts. "It was a question of social mores, but also of budget. We didn't have the money to pay professional models, so students posed fully dressed," he said. Although the National Liberation Front was socialist, it instituted Islam as the state religion.

Students at the art school became more conservative. "They handicapped my teaching," Cherfaoui said. "A rejection of drawing, of portraiture; it was flowers, flowers and more flowers. Some even wanted to put head scarves on the plaster busts." This restraint has carried over into the current exhibition. Although Cherfaoui chose to exhibit several portraits, there are no nudes. "Maybe in a few years," he said. "I am still capable of provocation."

In December 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front, an Islamist political party, swept the parliamentary elections. This was followed by a military coup, purges of journalists, artists and intellectuals, and 10 years of civil war. Cherfaoui's darkest paintings date from this period - blue/black skies and tortured trees. "It was a problem of roots," he said. "We were trying to decide whether to go back to France." He and his wife sent their daughters there first and then followed themselves in 1992.

Cherfaoui ventured back to Oran in February 1994 for an exhibition that was jointly sponsored by the National Museum and the French Cultural Center. The combination was seen as a provocation: "I stayed only six days after the opening. My father called me, he had heard rumors. I found out later that my name was on a list posted at the mosque," he said. On March 5 of the same year, the director of the École de Beaux Arts in Algiers was assassinated.

Back in France, Cherfaoui continued to paint Algeria, working largely from photographs. "To work on Algeria after I left was a form of therapy. It was always in my mind," he said.

The works executed over the next 15 years of forced exile are a combination of willfully idealized views of both North Africa and France. "I sublimate the countryside I see," said the artist. "These places exist, but not as I show them." His reconstructed views remove cars, concrete skyscrappers, and more often than not, people. "I cheat," he said. "It's the principal of creation." It is a world swept clean of modernity, of violence and of human degradation.

During this period, Algeria began to invade his paintings of the French countryside; his depictions of the Loire Valley or the port of Saint-Malo share the same color and luminosity as his paintings of the Oran hills. "I always put the light of Algeria in the darkest and most sinister places in France," he said. Instead of an "imaginary East" - the fantasy harems of Ingres or Delacroix, Cherfaoui has created an "imaginary West" of cotton-candy skies and pale water.

Oran today bears little resemblance to the city depicted in Cherafoui's paintings. What was once a miniature Paris-by-the-sea is now a mixture of crumbling colonial facades and modern urban sprawl. Magnificent beaches and forests are littered with debris. The only truly recognizable elements are the geometric rise of the buildings, the glowing sunlight and the deep blue of the Mediterranean.

Cherfaoui continues to take pictures, carefully framing the shots to hide the half-finished apartment blocks and the omnipresent piles of garbage. "For me, first is color, first is beauty," said the artist. "There is too much ugliness. Even trauma, we can represent with beauty."

His idealized portrait of his native city is equal parts nostalgia for the past and hope for the future. Algeria is a young country - at the end of the civil war in 2002, a little more than 50 percent of the population was under the age of 20.

During the exhibition, which runs until Nov. 22, Cherfaoui will be hosting workshops for students. "I want to show them what Algeria could be." he said, opening his arms as if he were already talking to a group. "It's for you to do."
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Article Details
13 November 2007
Reported by
Elizabeth Bard
International Herald Tribune
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