Lydia Ourahmane Journeys Into a Contested Corner of the Sahara

The Algerian-born artist considers the geopolitical demons and prehistoric paintings of the Tassili n’Ajjer in her first exhibition in the country of her birth

BY Natasha Marie Llorens in Profiles | 04 APR 23

Tassili (2022) is Lydia’s Ourahmane’s mesmerizing high-definition filmic portrait of Tassili n’Ajjer, a landscape of towering sandstone columns and arches wrought by erosion in the southeastern corner of the Algerian Sahara. The UNESCO site, which covers an area roughly the size of Ireland, is home to more than 15,000 prehistoric cave paintings and engravings. Tassili follows these agile silhouettes of human forms as they dart across the rock face in pursuit of large game. So elegant and enigmatic were these paintings that upon ‘discovering’ the site in 1956, French ethnologist Henri Lhote claimed that they were evidence of alien contact.

Lydia Ourahmane, 'Tassili', 2023
Lydia Ourahmane, ‘Tassili’, 2023, exhibition view, Les Ateliers Sauvage, Algiers. Courtesy: the artist and rhizome, Algiers

Ourahmane was born in Saïda, Algeria in 1992 and emigrated to London with her family at the age of 9. After graduating with a BA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths, University of London, she moved back to Algeria in 2018, settling in Algiers and establishing herself in its burgeoning art scene. Making connections has been fundamental to Ourahmane’s work for the last five years, particularly those established with the circle around rhizome, the most internationally active contemporary art space in Algiers. The co-founder of rhizome, Khaled Bouzidi, coordinated the 16-person production team that traveled into the Sahara for Tassili. After showing the work at the Sculpture Center in New York in 2022, and in Paris and Toronto, rhizome presented Tassili in Algiers at Les Ateliers Sauvage in March, the first exhibition of Ourahmane’s work in the country of her birth. Tasilli is now on view in Tunis at B7L9 Art Station.

Lydia Ourahmane during install of the exhibition Barzakh, Kunsthalle Basel, 2021.
Lydia Ourahmane during the install of 'Barzakh,' Kunsthalle Basel, 2021. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Basel; photo: Dominik Asche

As Ourahmane explained to me in the days before the opening, the process of making Tassili relied on a man named Ahmed Hamid. Hamid, who is Tuareg – one of the many non-Arab ethnic groups that make up Algerian society – was the film party’s lead guide through the desert in February 2022. Born on the Tassili n’Ajjer plateau, Hamid lived in the region until the 1980s, when the Algerian government began a campaign among the nomadic people of the Sahara, pressuring them to adopt sedentarism – the practice of living in a permanent settlement.


The movement of people is a major point of contention in Algeria and has been the conceptual focus for several of Ourahmane’s projects. For her graduation show, The Third Choir (2014), she had Algerian law amended through a laborious bureaucratic process to permit the export of 20 empty oil barrels: having been designated as an artwork, they fell under export restrictions established in 1962. Part of a sound installation using Samsung phones, the barrels are a symbolic representation of the nation’s largest unofficial export, the thousands of young Algerians who risk their lives at sea to make undocumented crossings to Europe. Projects such as this and 'Barzakh' (2021), where the artist had the contents of her apartment in Algiers shipped and displayed at Kunsthalle Basel, then to Marseille and Ghent, displace objects imbued with dense, symbolic value in a way that both magnifies and questions that value. In Tassili, she displaces a highly charged geological site onto the screen, a move that grants (visual) access to its contested space.

Lydia Ourahmane, 'Barzakh', 2021
Installation view, Lydia Ourahmane, 'Barzakh', Kunsthalle Basel, 2021. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthalle Basel; photo: Philipp Hänger

The installation also raises questions about Ourahmane’s position on the margins of the Algerian artistic diaspora and what it means to constantly rearticulate one’s sense of belonging in a place one has been forced to leave. Despite her relative privilege as a member of the diaspora, Ourahmane knows this feeling. Her family was active in Algeria’s marginalized Christian community and left for the UK, under duress, in the 1990s. In Algeria, religions other than Islam are discouraged by the government, and proselytizing is illegal. Hamid too has been displaced. Returning as a tour guide to what was once Tuareg territory, his route charts the film’s spatial choreography, making Tassili a visual rearticulation of his home. ‘The guides directed this film,’ Ourahmane told me. This impression is underscored by her decision to withhold narration. Instead, the images are accompanied by a four-part musical score composed by Nicolás Jaar, felicita, Yawning Portal and Sega Bodega.

Lydia Ourahmane, 'Tassili', 2023
Lydia Ourahmane, ‘Tassili’, 2023, exhibition view, Les Ateliers Sauvage, Algiers. Courtesy: the artist and rhizome, Algiers

I asked Ourahmane to speak about the impact she anticipates from showing Tassili in Algiers: ‘I’m really glad that Ahmed could come see it,’ she replied. ‘His is the only opinion that really matters to me, frankly.’  She told me that Hamid had asked, ‘why didn’t you use our music?’ To which she replied that she didn’t want to engage in ethnography, or approach the site using anthropological language. ‘I wanted to see how music could rearticulate a topic in a language outside of the image’s terms.’ For Ourahmane, Hamid’s question reflects the popular belief that sound belongs to the body from which it emanates, which in turn reflects a territorial concept of belonging. ‘With electronic music,’ she explained, ‘you understand that these sounds were not generated through lived experience.’ The music comes from beyond the physical realm. Hamid, thoughtful, responded: ‘Yes, the images are released from themselves, the site; they could be anywhere. The music liberates the images.’

Lydia Ourahmane, 'Tassili', 2023
Lydia Ourahmane, ‘Tassili’, 2023, exhibition view, Les Ateliers Sauvage, Algiers. Courtesy: the artist and rhizome, Algiers

But what happens to 6,000-year-old cave paintings when they are loosened from overlapping narratives? UNESCO values Tassili n’Ajjer for its geological interest and as a site of prehistoric art; in Tuareg mythology the caves harbour demons; while for the Algerian government, the whole plateau is part of an established smuggling route. Who are these images for if they are untethered from site-specificity and from ideologically motivated reproduction? For Ourahmane, the answers lie in an idea that animates all of her work: her practice makes space for belief, asking viewers to suspend their preconceptions – built on received narratives – in order to experience something that defies rational explanation.

‘Tassili’ is currently on view at B7L9 Art Station,Tunis, until 23 May 2023

Main image: Lydia Ourahmane, Tassili, 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist and rhizome, Algiers

Natasha Marie Llorens is an independent curator and writer based in Stockholm, Sweden, where she is professor of art and theory at the Royal Institute of Art.