by Lola Gazounaud
First, there was the creation of "Jardin d'Orient" in 2005, in the Château Royal d'Amboise: twenty-five graves made to honor the members of the retinue of the émir Abd El-Qader.
Then, in 2021, “Jardin d’Afrique” was in turn born in Zarzis. To become the last resting place of the men and women who perished on the way to Europe, and whose bodies the Mediterranean brought back, by the hundreds, to the shores of this port city in southern Tunisia. This time, it is in Seine-Saint-Denis. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Algerian independence, the visual artist, Rachid Koraïchi, born in Aïn Beïda in 1947, inaugurates on November 1, 2022, in the heart of the Park Georges-Valbon in the Courneuve, an impressive bronze sculpture. Called “Le Vigilant”, this silhouette, all in signs and symbols, stretches over three meters.
A graphic language now emblematic of the artist's work, which combines a modern and personal aesthetic with various heritages, all bearing the memory of his ancestors, his territory and a thousand-year-old Sufi tradition before blending into the material: bronze, clay, ceramic, steel, stone, textile, etc. Here, the vertiginous memory of this dazzlingly technical "human hand" is also expressed through the know-how of the craftsmen with whom the artist collaborates to create his often monumental works. And they are many. From Cairo's fashion designers to Madrid's Factum Arte workshops - which the artist likes to call the "Nasa of art" and where the sculpture's mold was made - the artist has a wide range of partners.
Erected on a high pedestal, the sculpture of the "Vigilant", aptly named, "guardian, and with his gaze dominates the visitors. He is the one who protects. A kind of shield". Against oblivion. A sign of fidelity too, says the artist, "The shadow never abandons us. It lives and dies with us". The sculpture will now project its own on the lawn that descends to the Grand Lac, in the Parc de la Courneuve. Close by, the two houses in the park stand watch, that of Victoria Montou, named so since 2022 after one of the great female figures of the Haitian revolution and its independence in 1804, and that of Édouard Glissant, poet, philosopher and Martiniquan activist.
In this vast green space of more than 400 hectares, the department of Seine-Saint-Denis wishes to "push" memory. Its President, Stéphane Troussel and Vice President Dominique Dellac, evoke "a tireless fight to be waged". Thus, they gladly make themselves the champions of art which, "in the published space, contributes to bringing us into the age of memory maturity". History is looming. Starting with the colonial past, evident in a territory like that of Seine-Saint-Denis, "Where the history between France and Algeria resonates even more strongly than elsewhere".
Memory, a fight? There is little doubt that Rachid Koraïchi would answer the question in the affirmative. In the name of dignity. He never seems afraid to denounce the cynicism of realpolitik; the artist, an activist, elevates this struggle against "indignity" beyond the purely political dimension. To the ugliness of the world, the artist always appeals to the beauty of the forms he invents. From one work to another, he pursues his "alphabet of memory", as he has beautifully defined by the past. "Le Vigilant" is therefore a new letter. This time, to those who sacrificed their lives for an independent Algeria.
Interview with Rachid Koraïchi
“The more you give, the more heaven gives you.”
Lola Gazounaud: What was the genesis of “Le Vigilant”?
Rachid Koraïchi: The department of the Seine-Saint-Denis wished, as part of the 60th anniversary of independence, to acquire one of my works.
The President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, had called for commemorations on French territory. For me, selling anything as a tribute to the dead was out of the question. I find that undignified. As for where it would be, I didn’t want it to be in a museum. Who would go see it? On the other hand, the idea of donating a work, which can be seen by a large number of people, in an open place, where the families of the martyrs could gather, lay flowers or mourn a loved one... It is around this symbolism that we have reflected with the managers of the department at the Parc de la Courneuve.
LG: Part of this park covers the old shantytowns of the camp which saw hundreds of Algerian families settle in the 60s... Did you know them?
RK: Yes, I have a vivid memory of these slums and the misery of the people who lived there, mainly workers, and among them, many Algerians, some of whom came from the region of Aurès, the one where I grew up. For these people and their families, some of whom live in the surrounding area, “Le Vigilant” is the opportunity to see, during their walk in the park, a work in honor of their brothers and fathers, French and Algerian, who fought for independence here and there, who also went out to demonstrate in Paris and never returned. It is simply a matter of putting things back in place. In my own way: that of an artist.
LG: Why did you choose to inaugurate it on November 1st and not on July 5th, the official day of the commemoration of the independence of Algeria?
RK: I wanted to go against the grain or rather beyond the decision of the President of the Republic whose intentions are obviously not devoid of political interests in a global context marked by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. November 1st marks the start of the Liberation war. My Moujahid father had already joined the Aurès maquis. And then it is also All Saints' Day. It is this day of all Saints that I have chosen to honor the dead.
LG: You have made Le Jardin d’Orient in Amboise and Le Jardin d’Afrique in Zarzis. But before that, Le Jardin du Paradis, an installation presented at the Chaumont-sur-Loire festival in 1998, paid tribute to the Persian poet Farid Ibn ‘Attar (Ibn al-Farid ). Today, again, a green space is your preference...
RK: Another garden is dear to my heart; I have been working there for twenty years. It is the garden of the Mediterranean on the island of Sainte Marguerite, off the coast of the city of Cannes, where, since the beginning of colonization, the bodies of the prisoners of the retinue of the émir Abd El-Qader and the Cheikh Mokrani fighters lie without grave chalk. These gardens are places of contemplation. As I hope “Le Vigilant” will be. In Amboise, the Sufi confreries come from far away to pray and young people from all over France regularly visit the place. A Muslim cemetery in the gardens of the Château de Francois the 1st, next to the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci! Yes, that's also history and memory...Similarly, today, many families have learned that Zarzis is now a place of remembrance for them. Like a first step before the gardens of Paradise. With a morgue and a DNA sampling table, so that mourning can be done.
LG: Your works seem quite eager to repair the bonds between the dead and the living. To create places of recollection and beauty, to weave prayers to celebrate the absent. You have also dedicated some to your mother. In 2013, the exhibition "Maqamate" at the Algerian villa of Dar Abdellatif exhibited your 80 lithographs in homage to ten great masters of Sufism... Commemoration of the dead is self-evident to you.
RK: We, the living, do not want to see cemeteries. In our society, we are not expected or we are not really expected to meet death, to live with it. Yet, it is the only certainty one can have in life. Existence remains vague, impossible to grasp, we can densify it and that's what I try to do through creation. When I work, I need to listen to music. As much as my thermos of tea! I put on Oum Kalthoum, Callas or Farid al-Atrash. They accompany me, they are alive. Their physical tombs, I visited them... but the voice, when it is there, it is right next door. This is called eternal being. And so to make these places, to realize these works, it is to the memory of those who built the civilization of humanity, and I am appeased.
LG: Appeased and at the same time always revolted…
RK: And I am also revolted, yes. For those Algerians drowned in the Seine, those killed at close range and to whom this last piece "Le Vigilant" pays homage. I am revolted to still see bodies today in a public dump, like those found in the Mediterranean. In Zarzis, I became a "gravedigger" artist. An artist who buries our dead with dignity. Because a human is a human no matter what.
LG: You often donate your works, you finance your projects yourself, it's a generosity that is not common…
RK: Even before birth, as soon as the sperm touches the egg, the countdown begins. We must therefore live life with a very strong, very powerful happiness, because we do not know what can happen. In my family, we don't wish each other birthdays because it's one year less of life. No one leaves with all their business in order, but at least we do what we can to the best of our ability. That’s what I learned. That’s why I always feel like I’m running behind the clock. But the more you give, the more the sky also gives you... I hope!