Exploring the Poetics of Human Form: An Interview with Zoulikha Bouabdellah

Step into the world of Zoulikha Bouabdellah, where creativity knows no bounds and cultural barriers are mere stepping stones. Born in Moscow, raised in the vibrant streets of Algiers, and now splitting her time between Paris and Casablanca, Bouabdellah is a true global citizen whose art reflects the rich tapestry of her multicultural experiences.

But Bouabdellah is not merely a creator; she’s a visionary, a storyteller, and a provocateur.  Her work delves deep into the complexities of identity, shining a spotlight on themes of gender, sexuality, and power dynamics. Through her evocative compositions, she challenges societal norms and invites viewers to question their perceptions of cultural representation.

And this is exactly what she is doing with her latest exhibition, Let’s Dance! from February 1st to March 23rd, 2024, at the prestigious Lilia Ben Salah Gallery in Paris. This exhibition isn’t just about hanging art on walls; it’s an immersive experience, an opportunity to dive headfirst into Bouabdellah’s captivating world and explore art from a fresh perspective.

So, get ready to step outside your comfort zone!

Ms. Bouabdellah, your art can be described as a poetic exploration of the human body. What initially drew you to explore the body as a central theme in your work?

I lived in the National Museum of Fine Arts of Algiers until the age of 17 because my mother was the curator, and as such, she had an apartment above the building. I, thus, grew up amidst a collection of European artworks consisting of paintings and sculptures of men and women, often depicted as nude. The exposed bodies in this environment contrasted with how the body is addressed in Algerian culture, where prudishness is sacred to the extent of condemning all forms of nudity, even in the realm of creativity.

Later, when I began studying art in France, the question of the body imposed itself on me due to my Algerian background. Suddenly, my body became one that carried, albeit unwittingly, the weight of colonial history between my home country and my adopted one. Throughout my experiences, I couldn’t ignore the importance of the body, not just as an object but as a subject.

As an artist with a rich cultural background, how do you see your identity reflected in your artwork, particularly in the context of "Let's Dance”?

 Before delving into the concept of identity, it’s crucial to note that I perceive my work not as a statement of identity but rather as an expression of my singularity. I prefer to use the term “identities” in the plural form because I am influenced by various cultures.

Let’s Dance presents a collection of compositions that poetically explore the body in response to the societal norms imposed by commercial cinema, marketing, etc. If there’s one place where the body can truly find freedom, it’s in art, and as artists, we possess the power to restore its dignity. When visiting museums in Italy or Greece, you encounter visitors from all corners of the globe; an Arab may admire European art just as a European may appreciate Islamic art. It’s a matter of open-mindedness that every individual is capable of because, fundamentally, what do we share if not our bodies? Every human understands the sensations of heat or cold, pain or pleasure. The body is universal, and that’s the message I aim to convey.

Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Let's Dance!, 2024, installation view, ©Romain Darnaud, courtesy Lilia Ben Salah Gallery

"Le Bain de Téthys" explores unconventional perspectives on the human form. The interplay between fragmentation and symmetry is captivating. What drives your interest in challenging traditional representations of the body?

For me, the role of the artist involves challenging traditional representations. It’s no secret that artists must create formal possibilities; this is where their work lies. I aimed to liberate the body from its initial inconsistency when it comes to representation. It is dynamic, yet representation inevitably freezes it in a moment or emotion. This impossibility of accurately depicting the body in a static image frees it from its symmetrical confines. To me, it becomes a sort of spatial metonymy—it is no longer a part of a whole but encompasses everything at once.

The use of colour in your work is striking and evocative. How do you select colours and visual elements to convey complex emotions and cultural nuances?

Influenced by American pop culture, I have always been attracted to vibrant colours, which I consistently integrate into my work. In this particular series, vibrant colours allowed me to create tension within the fragmented composition. Suddenly, the lightness of these innocent hues clashes with the disorder of a world attempting to organise itself and establish balance. They serve as a lure!

Given your extensive experience with various mediums, including installation, video, and drawing, how do you strategically select and employ each medium to convey complex socio-political themes, such as conflicts, sexuality, and the role of women, in your artwork?

I consider myself a conceptual artist. What matters is the idea itself. As I mentioned in my previous response, mediums serve as tools for expressing the ideas that inspire and guide me into the realm of artistic creation. If the idea is best conveyed through drawing, painting, collage, sculpture, photography, or video, I select the medium and materials that best fit my concept. In Le Bain de Téthys I aimed to delve into the history of painting. Thus, I could only undertake this exploration through the medium of painting, which I’m interrogating. Using photography or video would have created a distancing effect I wanted to avoid in this project.

Could you walk us through your creative process when conceptualising and creating pieces like "Diane"?

 I’m delighted to share my encounter with “Diane”. It was primarily Ovid’s narrative in Metamorphoses, specifically The Story of Diana and Actaeon, that caught my attention, along with its portrayal in Giuseppe Cesari’s Diane et Actéon (1568-1640). The narrative revolves around the pivotal moment when Diana transforms Actaeon into a deer due to his unwelcome gaze.

The transformation prompts an inquiry into the objectification and representation of another’s body. The tale highlights the significance of this theme and its relevance to contemporary discussions on consent. In my reinterpretation, I replicated the number of figures in the original painting and added a topography made of smooth black material to enhance the reflection effect. This addition disrupts the bathwater’s tranquillity, reflecting the disturbance experienced by the depicted ladies during that intimate moment. Through this artistic intervention, I aim to underscore the political significance of the female body, likening it to a figure on the battlefield embroiled in the struggles for autonomy and representation. It prompts me to consider whether this narrative should have been positioned as the primary allegory of representation, challenging traditional narratives such as the conventional tale of Adam and Eve. The question remains open for exploration and critical inquiry.

Zoulikha Bouadbellah, Diane, 2023, ph. credit Romain Darnaud, courtesy Lilia Ben Salah Gallery

“Let’s Dance" appears to be a deliberate subversion of traditional gender roles and historical art narratives. How do you perceive the role of women in reshaping artistic representations? Could you delve deeper into the underlying message you aim to convey through these artworks?

 I do not conceal my feminist convictions, a stance I have held since the beginning of my journey with the video Dansons in 2003. However, I do not consider my work a slogan. Through Let’s Dance, I invite a non-linear interpretation of art history while questioning two different conceptions of image-making. This artistic medium is also a tool with which I guide the viewer to no longer make man the sole model of subjectivity. In the realm of art history, a liberated body moves, unlike the motionless and passive odalisque. In the act of creation, one must duplicate oneself to bring forth what already exists. In summary, I believe that the status of women is both a material and a means to “bring oneself forth,” similar to a lever that enables the conversion of the intangible into the tangible. It is the act of making one’s presence known, or, as Louise Bourgeois herself stated, the act of existing.

Arab women artists are increasingly gaining recognition in the global art scene. As an artist whose work navigates the intersection of culture, gender, and identity, how do you see the representation of Arab women in the art world evolving, and what impact do you hope your contributions will have on reshaping these narratives?

Before I began showcasing my work in 2002, while still an art student, the only Arab artist I had as a reference in contemporary art was Mona Hatoum, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to acknowledge this here. Over twenty years later, more female artists from the region are emerging onto the global stage, and I find great joy in this development. Now, it falls upon the academic world and curators to ensure that female artists, regardless of their origins, are recognised for their uniqueness as contributors to the universal narrative of art rather than being solely defined by their gender. However, this necessary universal recognition mustn’t lead to uniformity in art. Each artist’s distinctness is shaped by their specific experiences in a particular country or context. Expressing one’s cultural identity should not confine anyone to a predetermined mould. Striking a balance between diversity and unity remains a challenging task for many, but it’s a journey worth undertaking. While the road to achieving this equilibrium may be long, it is certainly within reach.

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Emna Lakhoua
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