New Yorker: Beauty and Uprising in the Working-Class Suburbs of Paris

April 23, 2022

Tausif Noor

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In the fall of 2005, the artist Mohamed Bourouissa watched the banlieues of France burn on a television screen in Algeria. Riots had engulfed the working-class areas around Paris and soon spread throughout the country, in protest of the deaths of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré—teen-agers who had been electrocuted while hiding from the police in a power substation in Clichy-sous-Bois, on the eastern outskirts of Paris. Bourouissa, at the time a photography student at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, was struck by the images that flashed across the screen. To his mind, the riots were the natural result of long-simmering tensions between the French state and the suburban working class—which included large swathes of immigrants from former colonies in Western Africa and the Maghreb—who were condemned to the geographic and social margins of society as a result of deindustrialization and the attenuation of the welfare state in France. Nicolas Sarkozy, then the interior minister of France, notoriously dismissed these protesting denizens as racaille, or riffraff. 

Upon returning to Paris in the aftermath of the riots, Bourouissa began spending time in the banlieues with friends, who introduced him to more people who lived there. He eventually conscripted these figures, mostly men from immigrant backgrounds, as subjects for a series of staged photographs composed in the tradition of tableaux vivants, or living pictures—an uncanny arrangement that places ordinary people in relief against their normal environments, to an intimate yet estranging effect. The first of these staged pictures, “La fenêtre” (“The Window”), depicts two Black men captured mid-conversation, a shocking lime-green wall their background. The taut musculature of their torsos—one clothed, the other bare, a large tattoo sprawling across the curve of his back—is accentuated by the light streaming in through the titular window at top left, heightening the dramatic tension that pervades the scene. Here, the two figures stand in for the strained relations between the state and its frustrated poor, and between civil society and the immigrant class circumscribed to its périphérique—the name Bourouissa would later give to the series of photographs, after the circular highway separating Paris from its outer suburbs. 

Made between 2005 and 2008, “Périphérique” was Bourouissa’s rejoinder to the sensationalist and sociological representation of the banlieues in the mainstream media of early-two-thousands France. Here, the gritty surroundings of the banlieues provide a stage for his artful dramatizations of everyday life, in which mundane conversations, gatherings, and interactions are heightened to striking effect. Late last year, the stylish photographs from the project were published in a single volume for the first time: accompanied by essays from the art historian and writer Taous R. Dahmani and from Clément Chéroux, the chief curator of photography at moma, the book includes dozens of preparatory images and test shots made by Bourouissa, revealing his methodological blend of rigorous composition, art-historical reference, and chance. From this mass of curated material emerges the erudite sensibility of an artist who is neither glib nor precious about the stakes of representation for his subjects. In their insurgent performances of the European canon, the figures in Bourouissa’s pictures illuminate a fundamental flaw of the nation-state—its failure to imagine the racialized poor as part of its fabric. 

When selections from “Périphérique” were first exhibited, beginning in 2007, they were almost immediately well received. Bourouissa, then barely thirty, was launched into an international circuit of art fairs, museum collections, and large-scale exhibitions, including the inaugural New Museum Triennial, in 2009, aptly titled “Younger Than Jesus.” In their wider circulation, Bourouissa’s images carried a new weight. Through their elegant artifice, the photographs achieved a more truthful narrative of the banlieues. “It was all about creating a language, creating a tension in the image,” Bourouissa told the late curator Okwui Enwezor, in a 2017 interview. “I wanted to bring it into another aesthetic dimension. For me, this dimension, this beauty, can be totally subversive.” 

His motivation was, at least in part, personal. Born in the Algerian city of Blida in 1978, Bourouissa moved to France at the age of five with his mother and grew up in Courbevoie, on the northwest fringes of Paris. He demonstrated a knack for art at a young age, and by the time he was twenty was studying the Old Masters at the Sorbonne. Painting portraits of his friends by day and festooning the streets with graffiti by night, Bourouissa sought to bring the aesthetics of the streets to his studio, and smash together contemporary culture with the dramatic history paintings that he studied in the classroom. 

A chance encounter with a book of photographs by Jamel Shabazz, whose work catalogued the vivacity of New York City’s streets in the nineteen-eighties, presented a way to blend Bourouissa’s two seemingly disparate worlds. Sometime around 2003, having tossed aside his paintbrushes for a camera, he began frequenting the area near Châtelet-Les Halles, the central public-transportation hub that connects Paris to the surrounding suburbs where young banlieusards, decked out in Lacoste, would gather and hang out. Captivated by how these young libertines had adopted the preppy-chic brand as an insouciant form of self-fashioning, Bourouissa documented their street style for a photo series, made with his collaborator Anoushkashoot, “Nous sommes Halles (We Are Halles),” completed between 2003 and 2005. Bourouissa’s understanding of fashion as a form of conspicuous consumption and a means of claiming identity is apparent here, and would shape his approach to his later work. 

From the “Halles” project, Bourouissa learned the art that he wished to create required patience, time, and trust. To produce “Périphérique,” the artist spent time in the neighborhoods of La Courneuve, Clichy-sous-Bois, Grigny, and Argenteuil—the latter a favorite site of Monet and Renoir for plein-air painting. Though the two series appear to share a similar straightforward documentary style, the images in “Périphérique” stage intricate exchanges between individuals and their surroundings. The double-barrelled perspective in “Le couloir,” for instance—ingeniously established through the single, central adjoining wall of a staircase in an apartment complex—allows us to take in two scenes of potential aggression simultaneously, as though we were reading a comic strip. “Carré rouge” shows a group of young men leaning against the tiled walls of an apartment foyer, similarly making use of architecture to play with the viewer’s sense of depth and proximity, holding these subjects and their interiority at arm’s length. 

The project’s fine attunement to place owes much to Bourouissa’s understanding of the banlieue’s critical role in fuelling the imagination of writers and painters of the nineteenth century, who recognized the area as possessing its own poetry. Here, on the margins of the city, as the art historian T. J. Clark has written, at least some aspects of the modern condition could be observed: the juxtaposition of work and leisure, and the unpolished, sketched experience of modern industrialized life, with all its uncertainties. Bourouissa asks the subjects of his photographs to act out scenarios but also encourages them to improvise. He trains his camera on the moments of friction and the gestures, incidental and incendiary, that are laden with anticipatory, uneven weight—the graze of a passing elbow, a backward glance cast over the shoulder. Nowhere is this more evident than in “La république,” the most iconic of the artist’s images from this series; the photograph’s direct referent is Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting “Liberty Leading the People.” Taken in Clichy-sous-Bois on Christmas Day, 2005, just weeks after the riots had sparked, Bourouissa’s photograph freezes a moment of glorious rebellion, the tricolor banner of the French republic dangling right above the image’s punctum—a flash of light around which the Black rebels of the photograph constellate, their bodies forming a loose perimeter that limns an absent center. 

Since débuting his tableaux of France’s marginalized communities, Bourouissa has expanded his practice to include film, installation, and curatorial projects on subjects such as the Black cowboys of Philadelphia and the legacy of Frantz Fanon. Little, however, has changed for the banlieusards in the years since Bourouissa rendered their likenesses; in some regards, their condition has worsened. Looking back at these images, what becomes clear is Bourouissa’s canny knowledge that the people living at the margins were inscribed in a larger global dialogue, that the figures deemed peripheral were forming centers of their own.

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