Kamel Yahiaoui’s artistic process began at birth and has continued throughout his entire life to this day. His art and his artistic approach are enriched by the realities of his life experiences and have taken many paths, from the roughest to the most tranquil of avenues, though the latter is not the most frequent.
The totality of his experiences has forged his ideas, from his states of rebellion to his states of wonder. His uncommon sensitivity to the fate of his human brothers and sisters sparked an impetuous and obsessive desire to create. He uses his resolve always to move forward—a need that is irrepressible and urgent.
Born in Algiers in 1966, Kamel spent his childhood and his youth, until his departure for France in the beginning of the 1990’s, in the Kasbah of Algiers, a magical place, and the object of every Western fantasy. Its Ottoman architecture is, paradoxically, absolutely magnificent, yet
completely in ruins.
It is this very Kasbah—teeming with thousands of lives, all of them connected by poverty and close quarters, where life, from morning to evening, is filled with difficult constraints, but also inventiveness and imagination in order to survive—that forged Kamel’s aesthetic and his convictions.
How can one not be struck by the processions of donkeys collecting garbage in the narrow lanes, by armies of rats and cats marching through the streets? It is imperative for the people to speak to each other in order to survive, and the occasions for meeting each other are frequent: a thorough bath is taken in the Moorish bath houses, each family’s laundry is dried on
the terraces, the dishes are done in the interior courtyard.
Life was a series of shared spaces and resources. Kamel did not fantasize this reality, did not furtively perceive it, but he lived it, experienced it day after day. He is permeated with the history of this country and he relives it in work after work, with his paints, his doubts and his performance.
Very early on, he was able to transform richly and artistically all of the ambiguity of his country, its intermingled roots—Berber, African, Arab, Mediterranean. From Algiers and of Kabyle descent, he discovered, during his travels to Sub-Saharan Africa, the traces of his maternal Berber culture, and very early on, he affirmed his African identity.
The human condition and injustice are for him the source of dedicated battles from which he cannot escape without betraying himself and his own history.
Since art is a matter of what is seen and shared, the public is touched by his works, from whatever culture, and everyone can recognize him or herself in his art. Kamel flees seduction in a visceral way, yet his work always provokes strong reactions.
Warned or not, one is “trapped” by his art. It is necessary to search for and decipher what is imposed by his work, and the reactions to it are always emotional. It is impossible to pass the most finely sharpened blade between his work and his life; the two cannot be separated. What the viewer discovers is a complete absence of deception, an integrity that passes
the test of life. He has gone so far as to refuse the commercial proposals of art dealers if they do not correspond to his ideals. We forget the idea of production, of fashion, and we immediately know that his art is a question of something more profound, something more necessary. He is concerned with creating art that will endure, with addressing our anxious experience of time, and transcending our mortality. The urgency of creating a piece of art is palpable. We are immersed in memory, history, everything that ties us to each other, here and now, but also with those who came before us, and who will come after us. Kamel is an inexhaustible seeker; nothing is simple but everything finds a place and makes sense.
During his childhood, Kamel was strongly marked by the extraordinary tendency of the women in his family to poetize their great moments of joy or pain. Poetry will never leave him.
It is inseparable from his work as a visual artist, even if it originates from a more intimate place. Poetry has an essential role in his work, as does Chaâbi and Arabo-Andalusian song that he
practiced in his youth.
As a young man, his predispositions for drawing and painting took the upper hand, and he enrolled in the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Algiers. He stayed there for four years and showed surprising maturity, investing his seriousness and his concentration in his courses, abandoning other pursuits with the already urgent argument: time! It was in this unique place in Algiers—where life, relationships with others, in particular with women, were not governed by the same codes as on the outside—that he spent time with the greatest artists and professionals of Algiers, and where he was noticed by them. At Beaux-Arts there was a
professor whom Kamel named “clandestine professor,” Abdelwahab Mokrani. With one of his young painter friends, Slimane Ould Mohand, Kamel spent days and nights following Mokrani during his strolls in the city. His discussions were more like lectures, and this was a great
opportunity for Kamel and his friend, for Mokrani exercised his experienced and critical eye, his remarkable intelligence—simultaneously sharp and delicate—and shared his knowledge and his experience. This professor was formative for Kamel in a definitive way.
Kamel often worked in Algiers, and his personality naturally led him to fight against the social injustice that he and his fellow creatures were subjected to in the popular quarters of Algiers. He strongly demonstrated this engagement in his first works: “La Sueur des Pauvres” (“The Sweat of the Poor”) concerning the stevedores whom he met in the Moorish baths of Soustara where he lived due to a lack of space at home. The housing shortage was already widespread and still affects a large part of the population of the Kasbah. Following the events of 1988, during which
more than four hundred people died, and when hundreds of young people were arrested and tortured, he began “On Torture Les Torturés” (“The Tortured are Being Tortured”). His work took form, often in terrible conditions, but an elsewhere attracted him. His field of experiences
had to grow, his desire for liberty had to be fulfilled.
With two hundred francs and a questionable French address in his pocket, he left Algeria for Paris.
In France, the greatest battle was exile. He joined the big family of exiles from yesterday and today, and he spent time with them during the painful 1990’s. These years left Algerian artists and intellectuals—the first to be targeted—distressed and short-circuited in the way they thought about the world, human beings, and life itself. For Kamel, one must work and
denounce by being seen, by showing that one exists. Kamel produced numerous exhibitions during that decade, in his urgent need to speak, act and show.
The human condition occupies a large place in his work. He unambiguously denounced the fundamentalism that sowed terror in Algeria in his series “Tragédie sur scène.” (“Tragedy on Stage”). In 1994, he established himself in the studio on rue Thermopyles in the 14th arrondissement of Paris and began a long investigation and reflection on identity memory. He
positioned himself as an African artist and emphasized this: ”It’s just the negro in me expressing himself.”
He knew author Kateb Yacine very well, and in reading his work recognized himself. In Kamel’s work on suitcases, three series of suitcases follow each other, of which two borrow from Kateb Yacine’s titles: “Mohamed, Reprends Ta Valise,” (“Mohamed, Take Back Your Suitcase”; Kamel makes a word play on the play by Kateb Yacine, “Mohamed, Prends Ta Valise,” “Mohamed, Take Your Suitcase”) “Exode des Mémoires” (“Memory Exodus”), and “Les
Ancêtres Redoublent de Férocité” (“The Ancestors Are Intensifying Their Ferocity”). Kamel Yahiaoui says advisedly: ”I haven’t finished with the suitcase; it’s my home.” He works relentlessly on serious subjects. Several series of works followed one another. His father’s passing led him to an artistic confrontation with death. He created “Mon Père est Un Peuple”
(“My Father Is A People”), derived from the clothes that his father wore before his death, a work now found in the permanent collection of contemporary art at the Musée du Monastère Royal de Brou. His reflections and thoughts are oriented toward racial, colonial and ethnic violence that he adamantly denounces through carefully considered work on deportations, a homage to the victims of difference and domination. Absent from Algeria until 2000, he returned to the Algerian art scene with a highly symbolic exhibition at the Musée des BeauxArts of Algiers, the first significant pictorial event in the period after terrorism, with the
Fondation Asselah (Asselah Foundation). That year, Marcel Bonnaud of the Centres Georges Pompidou invited Kamel to share the poster for the exhibition “Picasso Graveur, Kamel Yahiaoui, peintres sculptures” (“Picasso Engraver, Kamel Yahiaoui, paintings and sculptures”) in Saint-Yrieix. This was a great moment in his life and an honor.
In France, he became friends with many artists from every continent, in particular, the older Paul Rebeyrolle. This friendship reinforced Kamel’s vision of the world, as a result of their numerous conversations. Paul Rebeyrolle then invited him to show his works in his museum.
Kamel gladly shared space with four other Algerian artists in 2003, in the exhibit “Algérie Cinq Artistes” (“Algeria Five Artists”).
Furthermore, noticed and followed by Jean-Luis Pradel, he participated in several important exhibits of contemporary art, some of them under the auspices of Pradel.
In February 2006, at the Centre Culturel Algérien de Paris (Algerian Cultural Center of Paris) the exhibit “Rideau d’Interrogation” (“Curtain of Interrogation”) provoked a controversy.
Indeed, he denounced three massive deportations: of the Africans by slave traders, of Algerians to New Caledonia and French Guiana after the revolt of 1871, and of the Jews during world War II (see the article by the journalist Harry Bellet, Le Monde, March 3, 2006). The work
“Déportations, Les Extincteurs de Dignité” (“Deportations, Extinguishers of Dignity”) is thus painted on gas jerry cans dating from 1943 and 1945. The evocation of the Holocaust provoked anger in some members of the Algerian press. “It’s true that I’m the first artist—brought up and
educated in the Berber-Arab-Muslim culture—to treat this subject,” declared Kamel, who then clarified: ”I fight against all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, and against all those who minimize the universal dimension of genocides and the non-recognition of all crimes against humanity.”
Following the attacks on and criticism of “Deportations, Extinguishers of Dignity,” Kamel persisted in his unremitting efforts by writing an open letter (dated February 25, 2006) worthy of a manifesto against Humankind’s hatred towards others. He considers his action to be a duty.
In the face of Kamel’s oeuvre, life incontestably has meaning: his characters are witness to forces of domination, and they resist. He makes no concession when it is a question of human dignity; he lives his art and generously invites people to share it.
Very affected by the endless suffering of the Palestinian people, he dedicated to them a series of works entitled “Les Enfants des Intifadas” (“Children of the Intifadas”) in 2008.
Kamel declares: “The day that I stop doing art, you can prepare my coffin.”
He is also a poet, like many members of his family who practice an oral tradition. Furthermore, several poets have inspired his work.
Among many other themes treated by him, he perseveres in his human quest: “I don’t do politics, I denounce it when it goes against the human values that I hold.”
Gradually, as one discovers them, his works provide the keys to comprehend his universe and at the same time, their complexity and mystery are enhanced. Thus, they continue to be studied and written about.
Kamel Yahiaoui lives and works in Paris and exhibits his art around the world.
Malka De Alcaraz, traduction Karen Melissa Marcus