Brokk’art: Dreams and Dreamscapes in Algiers

At Brokk’art, an ecosystem of young Algerian artists explore their past, present and future.
Brokk’art Dreams and Dreamscapes in Algiers

In the heart of Algiers, there is an old apartment with armchairs adorned with women with fish covering their eyes and pink rabbits in military uniforms. Its walls change like the seasons, colored by a shifting array of art: a cartoon mouse, hazy paintings of women draped in carpets, or photographs of Algiers.

Hania Zazoua, an ebullient Algerian artist and entrepreneur, cultivates this space with care. She describes it as a “research laboratory” or “nursery” for the artistic minds of contemporary Algeria.

“There are Algerian artists, but there is not Algerian art,” Zazoua told Inside Arabia. “It is in the process of being deconstructed and constructed from what has been imposed on it. It is rebuilding itself, along with an Algeria that is itself being rebuilt. We’re not there yet.”

This space is a construction site and Zazoua is its architect. The apartment is home to Brokk’art, a collaborative “ecosystem” and “incubator” that exists at the juncture of art and design, and serves as a platform for young Algerian artists.

Algeria’s new generation of contemporary artists receives little of the government’s arts support. While big money flows through the art world, “it’s not the artists who are getting it,” Algerian photographer Zineb Sedira told Public Radio International (PRI). Across the globe, big name artists’ work moves between the hands of the ultra-rich, along with most of the profits. In Algeria, the government promotes well-known artists, whose more classical aesthetics appeal to big spenders and high fliers. Young artists are generally left out to dry.

A crucial first step in building a functioning economy for contemporary artists is having the space to actually show their art. The Ministry of Culture runs almost all of Algeria’s gallery spaces, which, as Zazoua described them, are “very conventional” and “not so loved by artists.”

By owning the spaces for art to exist, the Ministry is “essentially deciding what is and is not art,” wrote PRI reporter Assia Boundaoui. Art that critiques the government or expresses social discontent is ignored. Artists whose work does not fit into dated, European-leaning artistic standards may rarely have the chance to exhibit at all in Algeria, even while they show in galleries in London or Paris.

Brokk’art, along with several other independent galleries in Algiers, helps fill the void. Zazoua says that these alternative spaces are cropping up slowly but surely, and in unconventional places like building courtyards or Brokk’art’s second-floor apartment. She calls them “ateliers sauvages” — untamed workshops in French.

Issue 98

From the start, Zazoua has defined Brokk’art as “nomadic,” even able to exist “without a physical space.” The project has moved several times since its inception, eventually settling in its current home, an ample, 2,000 square foot, “grandma” apartment in the heart of Algiers at 98 Rue Didouche.

For Zazoua, Brokk’art’s nomadism has built its character rather than worn down its spirit. After a former landlady read Brokk’art’s good reviews and then doubled the rent of its garage home in its “super chic” neighborhood in Algiers, Zazoua migrated to a tiny, 200-square-foot room. Rather than the small size being a limitation, however, it became “something magical.” This version of Brokk’art only took appointments, which winnowed its visitors down only to those who “really wanted to come . . . ; consequently, we had some extraordinary encounters.”

Named Issue 98, Brokk’art’s present home on Rue Didouche is an artful, white-walled “Haussmann apartment,” in the vein of late 1800s Paris. The antique backdrop makes Brokk’art’s vibrant, contemporary works pop, particularly the furniture upholstered with Zazoua’s ornate dreamscapes.

Providing the space for art to exist is vital, but it falls flat if it fails also to offer financial opportunity for the artists. Bringing the space to life and attracting visitors and clients took creativity. Brokk’art teaches art workshops on weekends, mainly to children. In service of synesthetic stimulation, Zazoua and company also serve prix fixe Algerian meals in the apartment, surrounded by art.

Conversation over dinner leaves their customers feeling like friends and draws them back again for exhibitions. “We tickled their bellies in order to attract them to the art,” Zazoua told Inside Arabia.

Selling Art

The centerpiece of Brokk’art’s economic model is its “concept store,” which monetizes artwork by turning it into consumable goods. Here, Brokk’art steps into the liminal space between art and design. As Zazoua defines it, design is “in service of an ultimate function, and in service of a client. Art, overall, is not. Asking questions [in art] is not to bring answers, but rather more questions, while [in design], it is to provide concrete answers.”

In the days before Brokk’art, Zazoua was first and foremost an interior designer, working under the name Bergson & Jung to envision client’s spaces and the things within them: furniture, upholstery, wallpaper. She dealt in shapes, spaces and textures that served particular functions, but with aesthetic appeal. At first, the choice of working in design was “because it was more secure. You had commissions, you had clients.” But the occasional disappearing client frustrated that stability, so she “put [her] artist hat back on.”

Zazoua began creating art that prompted questions, and focused less on producing designs that solved problems. She showed it in exhibitions, but little money came out of it. When she sought to build the collaborative project that would become Brokk’art, it was clear that, while her own exhibitions’ financial flatness was “not such a big deal,” if she were to bring other artists into the mix, she could not “afford to tell them, oh, O.K., you will have nothing; it’s an adventure and you cannot get paid.”

The concept store emerged as a piece of the solution. In the absence of an inclusive, moneyed, art economy, Brokk’art sells commodified, functional art in order to fund artistic expression. These goods come in the form of shoulder bags, handbags, wallets, pillows, upholstery, magnets, notebooks any usable item that has surfaces to bear image and texture.

A stack of bags bearing copies of the same artwork (and a little Brokk’art brand logo) inevitably shifts one’s perception of the original away from unique, valuable, or individual. But for Brokk’art, replicating and merchandising its art does not cheapen it. Zazoua said that “Art with a big ‘A’ and applied art, or design . . . are concretely two totally different things.” While a bag might be adorned with Art, the process to design it changes what it is.

Tongue in cheek, Zazoua describes the process of art-ifying everyday objects as “contamination.” This “contamination” works to “democratize art . . . and allows [it] to travel into everyone’s lives.” Instagram acts as a kind of democratized, client-run advertising wing. Art should not just be for elite buyers of original pieces, she said. These products act as another kind of alternative, “intellectually accessible” space for exhibiting art and the messages it holds. Further, consumers can think of themselves rather as patrons who are helping support artists create their (big “A”) Art.

But, in the end, while the concept store and the sale of goods are some of “the solutions that we found [for Brokk’art], it isn’t really what we do,” Zazoua said.

Dreamlike Objects of Princess Zazou

Much of what Brokk’art sells bears Zazoua’s work, under the name Princess Zazou. Zazoua’s works are lush visual feasts, indulgent in their detail. She weaves a kaleidoscopic panoply of patterns and colors together with soccer balls, flowers, and cut-up, vintage images of people and animals. Military rabbits with location indicator eyes, tarbush-wearing sheep, Algerian women with Superwoman torsos, sunglasses or fish-covered eyes all gather in conference on a foundation of bright, intricate textiles and zellij tiles. Words written in French and Arabic (“WOW,” “MarHba” or “مقعد”) declare themselves in Roy Lichtenstein-like pop art speech bubbles.

Brokk’art Dreams and Dreamscapes in Algiers

Her style is audacious, but measured the riot of color and ornament could, under a different hand, be gaudy and overwrought. But Zazoua’s aesthetic is striking and successful. Each of her works feels like both a puzzle and a story or rather, a puzzle whose solution reveals a story. They are fertile grounds for interpretation.

Zazoua speaks about Algerian art in the process of rebuilding itself, and her own art embodies that process. Shying away from the word “collage,” she said, “I take images and I deconstruct them and reconstruct them . . . . I call myself a ‘creator of dreamlike objects’ not elemental ‘things,’ but objects of reflection.” Her art has a “contemporary, Algerian vision that embraces its identity, but . . . is not folkloric.”

Brokk’art Dreams and Dreamscapes in Algiers

The bright color and texture of her “dreamlike objects” acts as a “Trojan horse,” whose visual appeal masks socio-political commentary. She hesitates to put her messages in plain sight for concern that it might be “repellant, boring, and awkward.”

Zazoua uses symbols to speak her piece. A recurring motif is an old photograph of a Naïli woman, which Zazoua has adopted as a kind of self-portrait. Naïli women, from the Ouled Naïl tribe in Algeria’s northern mountains, have long been seen as an anomaly in North Africa for their self-determination and “emancipation,” Zazoua says.

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#BROKKART Work in Progress.

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Traditional gender roles in the nomadic society prescribed that Naïli women leave home on their own to work as entertainers in sedentary towns. With their renowned “belly dances” and songs, and occasional sex work, they earned enough wealth to return home and get married on their terms. Even in marriage, they kept their wealth and freedoms.

While today’s feminist observers regard them as liberated inspirations, orientalist European visitors long painted them as exotic, sexualized dancers and prostitutes. French colonialism and forcible assimilation by the post-independence Algerian government all but extinguished this social system and, with it, Naïli women’s self-determination.

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Avant goût du New Chez #BrokkART 💗

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Zazoua reflects on this history by taking the image of a Naïli woman in her headpiece adorned with coins and transforming it in dozens of ways, with sprays of flowers, sunglasses, and fish on the eyes. Her presence, weighty with cultural baggage, speaks to Algeria’s thorny past.

Like the Naïli woman, many of Zazoua’s symbols crop up repeatedly. The artful fish is a frequent presence, usually covering people’s eyes. Zazoua explained that she chose the fish because they are “more mobile than I am, who holds a green passport.” (Most Arab countries’ passports are green and do not always afford ample travel privileges.)

She also uses the fish to manipulate perception, obscuring the identity of the women in her work. “If we see a woman in a karako (North African dress), we deduce that she is Maghrebi,” Zazoua said, “but we can put this outfit on anyone.” She takes heads of English or French women, inserts them onto the body of an Algerian woman and places a fish on her eyes. Her viewers, she says, do a “speed reading,” and assume that the woman is Algerian.

The recurring rabbit stands in for the anxious White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, who is always pressed for time. In Zazoua’s visual language, the rabbit represents the “media man,” who has very little time to analyze and present information about today’s “ugly reality,” and thus resorts to harmful clichés and generalizations.

The soccer ball refers to the sport she calls the “opium of the people.” Soccer games are the only moments, Zazoua said, that “make us believe that we have the right to have opinions.”

Her grandparents, in a photograph from their wedding day, appear in several pieces, with their eyes obscured by fish. Married at age 14, Zazoua’s grandmother was a “warrior [and] a housewife” with “an entrepreneurial spirit.” Her grandfather worked as a printer — although he died before Brokk’art began, he “subconsciously impacted” the project. Now, her grandparents are traveling the world on the sides of shoulder bags.

Reconstructing Algeria and Its Art

As Zazoua frames it, Algeria’s artists are seeking to understand and reconstruct an Algerian artistic identity from pieces of its past. There are classic Algerian artists from “the old wave: classicism, surrealism, realism”: Mohammed Khadda, Baya, M’hamed Issiakham. European artists like Picasso and Matisse drew inspiration from Algeria and its artists, but with an orientalist eye.

Today’s artists want to change the narrative. Graphic designer Walid Aidoud told PRI that local artists are “sick of art in Algeria being stuck — or just portrayed in orientalist paintings, or images of camels and deserts . . . . We want it to be known that many Algerian artists are creating contemporary art . . . .”

The substance of that art sometimes reflects on a recent, traumatic past marred by war and French colonialism. From 1991 to 2002, Algeria suffered a brutal civil war, referred to as “the Dirty War” for its remarkable violence. A patchwork of Islamist rebel groups battled the military government and civilians for a decade, leaving at least 100,000 dead. The groups eventually dissipated, in part because a new government, led by current president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, granted amnesty for “repenters” in 1999.

The wound of the civil war is still very fresh. Many of those responsible for the brutality, including government forces, are alive and free today. Militants executed artists and intellectuals during the war, stifling expression and shifting the way artists created art.

During the last throes of the civil war, Zazoua was trying to decide what to study. In those years, she said, “parents did not see many possible paths . . . ; you were there to save your country . . . either as architects, as doctors, or as lawyers, but after that, the other trades [were] not valued.”

She gravitated towards fine arts, which her parents thought were to “amuse yourself or to reflect,” not to make a living. To compromise, she went to the Algiers School of Fine Arts and studied interior architecture, because, to her parents, “it was a trade and it reassured them somehow.” Zazoua learned “the codes,” but “still felt thirsty,” so she went to study fine arts in Aix-en-Provence, France, and returned to Algiers with “two hats” — the designer and the artist.

The designer hat buoyed her livelihood, but unambitious employers stifled her creativity and chided her for being unrealistic because she “wasn’t an entrepreneur and didn’t know the risks of the trade.” Thus Brokk’art was born, “a bit by accident,” allowing expression to flourish while being grounded in the complicated art of entrepreneurship.

For Zazoua, the reconstruction of an Algerian artistic identity is an important step in “giving a positive, contemporary and optimistic image” of the country to both Algerians and foreigners. A fair share of talented Algerian artists, seeing more opportunity and appreciation abroad, have emigrated. Though Algerians are limited in their possibilities for travel, the internet has provided a window to art and artists around the world. At the same time that it has brought global disparities into sharper relief, the internet has also brought a world of inspiration and conversation into view.

To shift the image of Algeria would be beneficial for tourism, but perhaps more importantly, could encourage young Algerians to “promote and invest in Algeria.” In doing so, Algerian artists must remember they are “not obliged to become Western. Be proud of who you are. You can also tell a story about other things,” Zazoua reminded in an interview with the hip, new Algerian blog The Crazy Souq.

Uncritical Criticism

Brokk’art is helping furnish the Algerian art scene with a home, but Zazoua said that the real work needed to make it flourish is “not on a level of artistic creation, but on the level of analysis of what [we] do.” What little art criticism exists in Algeria is frustratingly superficial, she said, only offering basic approval or disapproval. Critics do not look past the bright colors to interpret the meaning behind them. Without a “relay of cultural information,” people in Algeria know Brokk’art “more for the bags and wallets and think we are only a boutique.”

“We need an external view of an art critic who knows history, cinema, architecture in Algeria and beyond,” Zazoua explained. A narrow frame of reference leads critics to declare that “every day, there is something completely new,” even if Algeria has seen similar before. The bloom of performance, visual art, independent cinema and music in the 1970s should be taken into account when observing the work being made by youth today, she said.

Brokk’art Family

The Brokk’art community is growing as new artists bring their works into the Issue 98 space. Most have been visual artists from Algiers, but plans are in the works for collaborations with performers and dancers. Young photographers Midou Baba Ali, alias Tarbouche, and Sonia Merabet, both of whose work Zazoua describes as “sublime,” have shown at Issue 98. Recently, Brokk’art hosted an Algerian artist who uses the pseudonym Svën (thus named because if people think he is “a foreigner, a Swede, he can talk about what he wants”). Turned off by the absence of thoughtful, local criticism, he had to be convinced by Zazoua to exhibit in Algiers.

Svën, who previously worked with Zazoua as a designer, turns out a wide array of strange, comical visuals: a golden donkey in a brightly-lit TV box; an ogre-like, pink-skinned couple (Mr. and Mrs. Slibard) in bathing suits, made into chunky, rectangular pillows; a line-drawn, mechanical Jesus crucified on a Y, M, C and A; a series of tubular “D.Heads” — caricatures of violent soccer fans, Santa Claus, and a retro Algerian couple.

This spring, Brokk’art hosted a very different energy, in an exhibition of work by Mizo, a painter who shrouds photographic portraits in a kind of frenetic static, sometimes dark and uncanny, other times warm and prismatic. One critic described the show as an exploration of society’s dark side: “hypocrisy, hidden fantasies, and all kinds of perversions.”

Most of Brokk’art’s collaborators have been Algerian, not because of closed minds, but because Algeria is not a common destination, for foreign artists or tourists. Algeria does not receive nearly as many visitors as its much smaller neighbors, Morocco and Tunisia, so international artistic dialogue is wanting. But, Zazoua explained that, regardless of the closed land border between Morocco and Algeria, Maghrebi artists are starting to communicate across the lines that divide their countries.

Brokk’art has traveled to Tunis for a collaboration with artist Wassim Ghozlani’s Maison d’Images, and to Casablanca for a weekend-long exhibition at the art space L’Uzine. Dubbed “Casalgéria,” the show presented the “new generation of Algerian artists.” Zazoua set up a pop-up shop selling Brokk’art goods, walls carried photographs, paintings and designs, and Algerian musicians performed.

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FROM A TO C, Invités chez nos voisins. Un grand merci à L'uzine pour cette superbe initiative et d'avoir impliqué #BROKKART dans cette aventure. Après Palest'in&out et le succès qu'on connaît à ce festival, c'est #CASALGÉRIA Dzaïr fi Casa qui invite les voisins Algériens à Casablanca. On se prépare donc à filer du Point A au point C. La preuve qu'il il n'est pas toujours nécessaire d'aller au bout du monde pour faire des rencontres extra-ordinaires. Les voyages Sud-Sud sont aussi constructifs et enrichissants. Du 05 au 07 Octobre CASALGÉRIA 🔥 Dzaïr f’Casa. CASALGÉRIA DZAIR FI CASA" // VERNISSAGE LE 05/10 A L'UZINE // A NE PAS RATER AUSSI DU 05 AU 07/10: EXPOSITIONS : COLLECTIF 220 – EL MOUSTACH BOUTIQUE :BROKK'ART DOCUMENTAIRES : DANS MA TETE UN ROND-POINT MAMI LE MÔME MASTER CLASS : LA SAGA DU RAÏ RENCONTRE : CREER EN ALGERIE PROJECTION : 3 COURTS-METRAGES DEBAT : AUTOUR DU JEUNE CINEMA ALGERIEN CONCERTS : EL3OU – DIAZ Un événement organisé par L'UZINE en partenariat avec BROKK'ART.

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One of the most striking of the bunch was a Brokk’art friend, El Moustach. His work is essentially portraiture: cartoonish, posterized images of Algerians, politicians, old musicians, movie stars, and so on.

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He floods these images with brash, psychedelic blocks of color, a profusion of brand logos, and bolded words in Arabic or Tamazight. It’s ironic, crass semi-satire of throwaway consumerism and social politics. He put a bikini on a bag of milk and turned Donald Trump into Darth Vader and King Salman into a stormtrooper. El Moustache’s illustrations are like a distinctly Algerian, Andy Warhol-inspired punch in the face.

This dialogue between neighbors is part and parcel of the effort to define a new, interconnected generation of Maghrebis seeking to shake off the dregs of colonialism, orientalism, and oppressive regimes.

As Algeria and its artists move forward, Brokk’art will be a laboratory to experiment with new kinds of futures. That exploratory character is baked into its story, and its name. When read aloud by a French speaker, Brokk’art sounds like brocart (brocade in English), a luxurious, ornamented fabric made with silk interwoven with gold and silver threads, in homage to Algeria’s textile arts. When Brokk’art is split at the apostrophe, you have “Brokk,” the name of a vainglorious goldsmith elf from Norse mythology. In a contest of craftsmanship, with his head on the chopping block, the nervous Brokk stumbled into the execution of his well-planned design.

Ultimately, luckily, what he made by accident ended up being even more beautiful than what he had imagined. Zazoua adopted the name because, in her view, Brokk’s tale mirrors her own. This “coming and going between what is envisaged and what is accidental,” makes Brokk’art special. Throughout the years, her vision — her “carrot” — fed by thorough artistic studies and entrepreneurial volition, has drawn her forward.

But, as she told Inside Arabia, that does not stop her from “taking shortcuts . . . , conversing with grandmothers, wandering and watching the world around her, getting lost . . . .” No matter the peregrinations, the carrot is always there.