Humour as a form of resistance
A conversation with Ivana Vojt, Curator, Museum of African Art of Belgrade.

Massinissa Selmani was a guest of the Museum of African Art (MAA) and the French Institute on June 5 and 6, 2017, as part of his preparation for his first exhibition in Belgrade. At 6pm on June 6, in the French Institute in Belgrade, a public talk was organised, titled “Interpretation of Reality through Newspaper Photography”. There, for the first time, Selmani presented his work to Belgrade’s audience. The talk’s moderator was Ivana Vojt, MAA curator. A year since his first visit to Belgrade, the two of them got together again and talked about his creative work, various influences and inspirations, the assorted forms used to formulate certain ideas, as well as the exhibition Poles Apart at the MAA.

In what way does the fact that you were born and raised in Algiers influence your work, and what is it that you take from your life in France?

I spent my childhood and early youth in Algiers. After that my family moved to Tizi-Ouzou in the Kabylie Region. The events of the 1990s left their mark on the lives of all Algerians, on various levels. I was, in those circumstances, always attracted to humour as a mean of distancing myself from the violence. The comical and tragical were incessantly intertwined. I think that this can to an extent be sensed in my creative work.In 2005, I moved to the city of Tours in France, so that I could enrol in art studies. I continued to live and work there. I did not feel disoriented, seeing that I had been speaking French since I was little.

Why did you opt for the drawing technique and what does it offer you?

I had always been drawing, and I could not explain how that happened to me. They say that drawing is a continuation of thought, and that definition suits me. Drawing provides detachment: an easy feeling; it is a tool that helps me try and understand the things that surround me.

What makes you realise that it is not enough for a certain drawing to be static, making you decide to transform it into a moving image, a video-art work?

I always considered drawing to be a dynamic tool which provides enormous possibilities for experimenting. My first experiences materialise in space, intertwining the object, animating the drawing and various drawing surfaces, such as tracing paper.

My work is guided by research and shaping stories, which are guided by the drawing, seen through the documentary aspect or the analysis of things that surround me.

The ambiguity of your works comes from the process of intersecting extremes, like people from the fringes of society meeting so-called stars (politicians and athletes). From which documentary materials do you draw this process?

Newspaper photography is my passion. Often, some time might pass between an event, its recording and its appearance in the press. In some way, my work takes place in that interval.Generally speaking, my drawings depict the protagonists or elements from various photographic sources published in the newspapers, merged into situations that bring them new context, or a different reality – often absurd or unusual. This opens the opportunity to read the work in various ways.

Drawings depict both the postures of the body and the movements, and they do not show familiar faces, because I do not want that to obstruct the reading of the work. Thus, an empty space that needs to be filled, remains.

In the spaces where you exhibited up until now, the walls were always white, and as such, it appeared like they were becoming a part of your drawings. What does the power of that whiteness, which is, I would say, recognisable in you work, mean?

That’s right. One might say that the white walls are a continuation of my drawings. The white space is very important for my work, especially in drawings. Since I am using elements from various sources, the white space is the materialisation of the intertwining of these contexts, which cancel each other, so that, from them, a unique, new context can emerge.

My works also contain the missing spaces that need to be filled, projecting into them by using the elements that are placed around, and one’s own knowledge.

How would you explain the title of the exhibition “Poles Apart?”

The title evokes the contradictions and elements, without the obvious, often antipodal connection. A part of my work relies on the form of merging and the association of ideas, images and other sources. Besides, that was a song by Pink Floyd from The Division Bell, an album that I listened to a lot when I was younger.

What do you think, how will Belgrade’s audiences experience your works? Will they be able to recognise, with their social background, the situations that you are exposing?

The first time I was in Belgrade in 2017, preparing for exhibition, I was surprised by the numerus similarities with Algiers. I felt the socialist heritage, which can be seen in certain details. Both countries suffered some difficult moments in the 1990s and this can also be felt. I realised that humour was a sort of resistance to those events and that was something recurrent in Algiers as well.

I cannot say in what way my works will be received in Belgrade, but perhaps, the things that connect us could be the starting position and ease the interpretation of the works that will be exhibited.