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Above and below, on display at Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK, is the video installation Gardiennes díimages (Image Keepers), 2010, which explores Mohamed Kouaciís work.
Above and below, on display at Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK, is the video installation Gardiennes díimages (Image Keepers), 2010, which explores Mohamed Kouaciís work.

Two artists set to work to preserve Algerian history

Mohamed Kouaci was possibly the only Algerian photojournalist covering the war for independence and now, thanks to two Algerian artists, Zineb Sedira and Amina Menia, his work is being saved and archived.

The Martinique-born theorist and staunch enemy of colonialism, Frantz Fanon, wrote in The Wretched of the Earth that "each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it, in relative opacity". This was written while Fanon was in Algeria, putting his support directly behind those struggling to slough off 120 years of French colonial rule. Today, tracing the edge of Algiers' megalithic El Aurassi Hotel, is the Avenue du Frantz Fanon.

But the artist Zineb Sedira, whom I meet in a cafť behind her home in Brixton, London, is unsure of just how present Fanon is in the mind of young Algerians. "Ask anyone walking on that street and they won't even have heard of him," she says. "There was a huge, complex group of people in Algeria leading up to independence and many who are totally ignored now."

Sedira and her fellow Algerian artist Amina Menia have been working to save and archive the work of Mohamed Kouaci, the country's only native photojournalist covering the war for independence.

Kouaci was everywhere. As an Algerian committed to the fight for independence, he could hike into the mountains with the mujahedeen, document the lives of those orphaned by the conflict, and follow refugees who were forced to the Tunisia border. He snapped every major figure in Algeria at that time, Sedira explains. And that brings us to Fanon.

"In the archive, we've found amazing portraits of Fidel Castro, Frantz Fanon and even Che Guevara." Sedira talks about a negative that was found, slowly deteriorating in the collection, of Castro alongside the four men who would go on to be three future presidents in post-independence Algeria: Ahmed Ben Bella, Houari Boumediene and Abdelaziz Bouteflika. These boxes of negatives, still stored in the Algiers flat of Kouaci's widow, are to her knowledge the only images of the revolution taken by an Algerian.

The collection has been quietly falling apart for decades. Kouaci's wife, Safia, is fiercely protective over the images and refused several offers from the Algerian government to buy them from her. "She's concerned that they will buy the archive only to let it rot somewhere," Sedira explains. "I've told her that things have changed in 40 years. She and Kouaci worked for the provisional government of Algeria in the run-up to independence. She was based in Tunisia, and when independence was proclaimed she stayed there to archive the eight years of the provisional government. But when those images returned to Algeria, they were left to deteriorate." This, Sedira tells us, has made Safia particularly cautious about the way the work is handled. "I think, as well, to lose the collection would be like losing her husband a second time."

Kouaci died in 1996, and since then only one exhibition of his work has taken place, and that was in France. Sedira hopes that the project she and Menia are working on will allow the archive, some day, to be seen in Algeria.

The two artists have recently collaborated on a video work that documents their time with Safia Koauci and the archive. Editing down a six hour-long interview between Menia and Kouaci's widow, this three-screen video piece was recently exhibited in Manchester's Cornerhouse space as part of a large group show of Algerian artists.

As Koauci's images are each carefully and respectfully hand-presented on screen - including several fantastic shots of the female mujahedeen and his photographs of Algiers' historic Casbah - Menia talks to Safia about her life. It's a moving interview; Safia's respect and admiration for her husband's work is coupled with her sadness of growing older alone. It is the 50th anniversary of the Algerian war for independence in 2012, and through Safia's fragile memories of that time we're reminded of two things: the shared idealism of a generation hungry for freedom, and the eventual passing of that generation in the not too distant future.

"If Kouaci's work is not recognised enough, it is partly due to his very discreet personality," says Menia, who has known the Kouaci family since childhood and so was able to interview Safia for the piece. "He was not interested in networking, selling, or spreading his work. He didn't prepare Safia to look after his legacy, so she is improvising.

"As a photographer he is very clever," Menia continues, "but not exceptional or technically innovative. He was more a reporter than artist in the beginning and then developed his own style, which is simple and sober, very frank. If you know the man, then you can confuse him with his work."

Menia is in the process of a forthcoming project titled The Golden Age. "I will try to demonstrate Kouaci's influence on a big number of artists, especially painters," she says. "He created a kind of graphic charter that everybody referred to.

"You can recognise Kouaci's style in some frames of The Battle of Algiers [the 1966 movie about the war]. It was a special way of shooting Algiers and the Casbah and lots of painters recreated the same gesture in a nostalgic way to represent life in Algeria."

Algerians are bombarded with rhetoric about the revolution, Sedira explains. But her concern is that those who talk about it are the leaders and not those with a more day-to-day experience of that time. As a photographer, often directly in the line of fire, Kouaci's visual record offers exactly that vision. Equally, any images that do exist of this key moment in Algeria's history have come from the camera of photographers working for the French army or French press.

Sedira's own practice focuses on the transmission of stories between generations; oral histories. Her parents fought in the war for independence. Her mother was the subject of her 2003 work Retelling Histories: My Mother Told Me - another video piece, in which she describes her experiences of that time. "My parents grew up in the Algerian countryside, under French rule, and history was only transmitted by telling stories because they couldn't read.

"Safia, on the other hand, was raised in Algiers - in the Casbah. She was from a much more middle-class background so [the work] carries another oral history."

Sedira refers to herself and the Kouaci project as Gardiennes d'image, "Image Keeper": "Through images and film I am inscribing a story.

It's the understanding of Algerian history back home that drives Gardiennes d'image: "There's a lack of respect for history and for identity. Algerians were colonised for so long and lost their sense of cultural identity; they don't understand the importance of keeping such things. And that's not only for tourists but for education." She compares the situation to the Casbah, the heart of old Algiers. Once the centre of operations in the fight for independence. this vast district, like Kouaci's photographs before this project, is at risk of being left to rot.

The power of Gardiennes d'image is in its discreetness. Buried in the narrative of a woman grieving for her husband and guarding his life's work are the still-tangible threads of a liberating spirit that charged Algeria's war against colonialism. Kouaci's photographs depict that spirit on a human level, fraught with turmoil and exhilarations. But for those outside Algeria, these images remind us of a global sense of liberation that swept through this period of 20th-century history, and which the portraits of Guevara and Fanon epitomise. The end of colonialism, the dreams of a new world order: Kouaci's photographs remind us of an epoch and spirit that we may too easily forget.

For more information on the project, visit zinebsedira.com.

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