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Issue 221

Lydia Ourahmane Invites Us into Her Apartment

For her solo exhibition at Triangle – Astérides, Marseille, the Algerian artist has given gallery-goers full access to approximately 5000 of her personal possessions drawing stark contrasts between the movement of goods and people

BY Oriane Durand in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 30 JUN 21

Throughout her practice, Lydia Ourahmane has co-opted administrative apparatus to question the legitimacy of borders and their outsized influence on colonial subjects. For her degree show at Goldsmiths University of London, for instance, the Saïda-born, London-raised artist succeeded in legally exporting the first work of art from Algeria since the country declared independence in 1962 (Third Choir, 2014). Earlier this year, Ourahmane had the entire contents of her flat in Algiers, which she had occupied since 2018, transported to Europe for ‘Barzakh’, a collaborative exhibition project by Triangle – Astérides and Kunsthalle Basel. The artist’s possessions, totalling around 5,000 objects, even included the double entrance door, 21 Boulevard Moustapha Benboulaid (entrance) (1901–2021), which, with its nine locks added during the 1990’s ‘black decade’, stands as an unequivocal testament to the Algerian Civil War (1991–2002).

Lydia Ourahmane, 21 Boulevard Moustapha Benboulaid (entrance) (1901–2021), installation view, Triangle - Astrides, Marseille. Courtesy: the artist and Triangle - Astrides, Marseille; photograph: Aurlien Mole

‘Barzakh’, which means ‘barrier’ or ‘separation’ in Arabic, is a direct response to COVID-19 travel restrictions. When Ourahmane was approached about the show, in Autumn 2020, she was on residence at Triangle – Astérides having been trapped in Europe due to the closure of Algeria’s borders. This prompted the artist to bring ‘home’ to her, in an installation that reproduces the exact size and room layout of her 100m2 apartment. As with the artist’s previous works, the project was a collaborative effort, with Ourahmane asking friends from the local artistic community to take care of listing, packing and exporting each item. Dating from the postwar period, the European-style furniture bears witness to its late former owner, whose heirs let the apartment to Ourahmane but refused to remove their aunt’s belongings. On tables and shelves, the artist’s books, vinyl records, cosmetics and notebooks mingle with family photos, vases and other trinkets belonging to the missing inhabitant, intensifying the uncomfortable feeling of snooping through someone else’s possessions.

The artist allows gallery-goers to access everything – you can open cupboards, leaf through books, sit on the sofa, even take a nap on the bed – but there’s a catch. Dotted throughout the space are five, custom-made glass bells that conceal active, 24-hour bugging devices. Linked to a phone number written on the floorplan, each device can be called at any time by anyone who wants to listen in to what is happening in the exhibition space (e.g., +33 7 51 06 95 97). This continuous state of surveillance – which echoes both the reality Algerian citizens were plunged into during the civil war and Ourahmane’s experience of living amongst a deceased woman’s personal effects – adds a tension and a fragility to this intimate space.

Lydia Ourahmane, 'Barzakh', 2021, exhibition view, Triangle - Astrides, Marseille. Courtesy: the artist and Triangle - Astrides, Marseille; photograph: Aurlien Mole

There’s something more than a little disturbing about the voyeuristic temptation offered by this wall-less apartment, which raises questions not only about the limits of intimacy but also about detachment and, especially, death. For Ourahmane, who grew up between two countries, reflecting on the concept of origin seems to be a quest that is both spiritual (where do I belong and what I believe in?) and political (how do states influence our beliefs and define the limits of our freedoms?). By circumventing the cessation of free movement during the pandemic, Ourahmane perfectly exhibits the absurdity of laws and regulations which often result in goods having greater rights than people, rendering ‘Barzakh’ a form of resistance, and even empowerment: if you can’t go home, make home come to you. After all, as the title of the nightlight placed in one corner of the exhibition suggests: Home Is Where You Are (2021).

Lydia Ourahmane's 'Barzakh' is on view at Triangle - Astérides, Marseille, France, until 24 October 2021.

Main image and thumbnail: Lydia Ourahmane, 'Barzakh', 2021, exhibition view, Triangle - Astrides, Marseille. Courtesy: the artist and Triangle - Astrides, Marseille; photograph: Aurlien Mole

Oriane Durand is curator and writer based in Paris, France.