As his personal exhibition, ‘Tears that taste of the sea’ opens at the October Gallery in London, Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi tells Almaas Yahye and Julie Henri about his project in Zarsis, Tunisia, a memorial garden commemorating the lives of people who drowned trying to cross the sea to Europe and how his work reflects the struggle against injustice.
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Can you tell us more about your project Le Jardin d’Afrique (The Garden of Africa) in Tunisia?
I was absolutely appalled when I saw a landfill in Zarsis for the first time. It was literally made of a pile of rubbish from the town, littered with bits of legs, knees, feet and heads sticking out of the ground as if hounds had been digging them out at night time.
When I asked about it, I was told that the town was too poor to afford burying those people. When they have at least 10 five-star hotels. Tell me how those people who earn millions do not provide you with a truck, ambulances, or anything to bury those people.
There’s plenty of land! There is a whole desert! You don’t need to give them tombs that I made for my memorial, but at least build a dedicated area, even if it is a communal grave. Just give them the minimal dignity they deserve and bury them properly underground. But why throw all those bodies in a dump? This is the worst of the worst.
And so, my response to this was if you don’t want those bodies in your graveyards (Black, Christian, Buddhist, etc), I will bury them in my Muslim memorial, as those Muslims would have been very happy to welcome those people in their resting place, blessing them and praying for them.
And this is how I created my place – which I would not call a “graveyard” but “Garden of Africa”. The vast majority of people there are from Sub-Saharan Africa. And it is true that North Africa turns its back on Sub-Saharan Africa. People in North Africa look north towards Europe, but never behind, when behind them lies humanity’s history.
When I first started creating the Garden of Africa, I had no specific strategy – I was fully driven by emotion. I decided to bury every person in the absolute respect of their religions. Typically, Muslim cemeteries would have very few plants – only mud or sand.
But I wanted to create a heavenly garden. Out of respect to Christians buried in the garden, I bought 12 vine trees that represent the 12 apostles. I also planted five olive trees that represent the 5 pillars of Islam.
I am also setting up a small association. The president of the Red Crescent really helped me with this project. And I would like to hand over the keys of the Garden of Africa to him to look after it. The reason why I also created a DNA centre is because I don’t only want this place to be a place where we bury people. I want this place to bring the living together with their loved ones.
Why was it important to you to create this memorial?
The question at the heart of this project is why are we in this dramatic situation? My father was a resistance fighter during the Algerian war of independence. But when resistance ended with the ceasefire agreement in March 1961, he left the mountains where he spent some time in prison and got tortured; he came back home to look after our family.
He did not seek to get any benefit from supporting the resistance. However, many people in our country managed to capitalise on the resistance movement, and unfortunately many politicians who were at the Moroccan and Tunisian borders, but not in the mountains in the middle of the country, got into power, or rather took power and turned it into their capital and their business.
Which is why this wonderful country, rich in resources such as gas, oil, gold, uranium, copper, zinc, iron, sulphate, etc – which has a 1,400km-long coast, plains, mountains, a magnificent desert – is in a catastrophic economic situation. It is all because of the mafia, dealers, thieves and corruption in the system.
That’s why we should stop saying that Africa is poor and its people live in misery – Africa is not poor. Africa is being looted by the same people who colonised it in collaboration with the people leading those African countries.
While they leave their people to starve, they get richer. People would rather die at sea – or even in the desert – instead of living in a rotten system where they have no future.
I am an artist, why have I turned into a grave digger?
Today there is no recognition of what European leaders have done. A few weeks ago, a boat with 130 refugees went round all the European maritime ports – Italy, Spain, France, Malta, etc – for three whole days and all 130 people died.
For me, all humans are my brothers in humanity. I myself lost my brother when I was young – in college. My brother was a year and a half older than me – and he died in the Mediterranean Sea right after Algeria gained its independence. We never found his body. And in a way, for me, I am also creating a large tomb for my brother who disappeared in the same sea. Making this memorial was important to me.
Tell us about the vision for the exhibition in London.
My title, ‘Tears that taste of the sea’ refers to the sea in which people drowned. I produced those large jars with their four handles – for which I got my inspiration from lachrymatories. Typically, lachrymatories are small jars made of glass (smaller than your little finger) that women would put by the corner of their eyes to collect the tears from the loss of a child, husband, father, mother, as well as to collect tears of joy.
And when they died, they would be buried with their lachrymatories. But as there are so many people who died at sea, that’s why I produced large blue lachrymatories , whose colour symbolises the sea. Blue is also the colour of impossible – the sea is not really blue, it’s the sky that gives it this blue-ish colour. If you were to take some water in your hands, it would not be blue. Similarly, if you were to reach your hand for the sky, you would not get a blue bit of it.
And now why four handles? That’s in reference to African women with their boubous and their hands on their hips whilst walking – almost dancing like queens on the streets. And the other two handles are for their husband’s hands forming a couple that represents humanity.
Take the metal sculptures – the most important part of those sculptures is their shadows. Why? Because my family comes from the Arabian desert, and after moving around, today my family has now settled down in the Sahara in the Algerian desert. The desert can reach up to 75 degrees in the shade; people live underground. As such, shade is crucial in the desert to protect life. For example, the palm tree protects fruit trees below it with its shadow.
Without shade, we couldn’t live – we’d die. And finally, the most powerful symbol of shade is faithfulness. A baby after it starts crawling already has its shadow – it’s its very own, like a fingerprint. Throughout our whole life, our shadow escorts us right until the very day we die, when our shadow comes into our coffin with us – that is the most absolute sign of faithfulness.
Can art itself be a form of resistance to oppression?
There will be three exhibitions in London: one at the October Gallery – which is my personal exhibition – one at the British Museum and one at the V&A.
For the British Museum exhibition I donated a large number of artworks that I produced with my friend and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. And at the time, we were also producing those works in the middle of wars in the 1980s. Today we are still in the same situation.
If you take the Poem of Beirut, for which I developed a book, I would talk to Mahmoud over the phone while he was in a prison in Beirut. He would be telling me about how he was going through this, how he felt, talking about his emotions. And so I worked on emotions that sparked the creation of the Poem of Beirut. What I was interested in was not so much the poem in itself but what sparked its creation – emotions.
My work always emerges from questions – why are the same people always forgotten? Why are the haves and the have nots always the same people? And this is still true today if you take the Covid-19 vaccine – why is it the same people who do not have access to it? Especially when the continent has such a great youth population and so many resources.
All these injustices drive my reflections.
Images courtesy of Rachid Koraïchi and October Gallery. ‘Tears that taste of the sea’ is at the October Gallery until 12 June. Thanks to Shelagh Smith for additional help with translating and editing.