Mohamed Bourouissa

Subaltern Views

Mohamed Bourouissa is an Algerian born, Paris-raised,  fine art photographer who was educated at the Sorbonne and then went on to study at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs de Paris.

His work focuses on the fringes of society, the people and the places that are overlooked yet are culturally rich in diversity, language and community and more often than not,  poverty and violence is a part of this reality.


Mohamed’s earliest images looked to his past, capturing the people of the Paris suburbs where he created images that were both poetic in their painting-like composition yet tense with racial stereotypes.

More recent work includes his studies and projects revolving around the urban horsemen of Philadelphia, a thriving subculture of black inner city riding enthusiasts that defy the social and class conventions that surround horsemanship.

Your Horse Day film project looks at a unique group of Black American urban horsemen. What was it about these riders, the stables, the community, that spoke to you and what was the connection with them vis a vis through your own work and your personal experience as a young man in France?

I first discovered this community through the photographer Martha Camarillo’s book Fletcher Street. I got interested in them because in these images I found an echo of my life, maybe because of similarities in our history of minorities. We can find correlations and links between Black American History and African History in France, or in other countries of the European Union. During my stay in Philadelphia what was interesting for me was found in the unspoken. For example, Tim, one of the riders, bought a riding horse and gave him as a name “Running Slave”. As an African-American, calling his horse that – and also being a rider – he was crystallizing all of his History of oppression and tension.

Tim, one of the riders, bought a riding horse and gave him the name “Running Slave”.  As an African-American, calling his horse that – and also being a rider – he was crystalizing all of his history of oppression and tension.

How long did you stay in Philadelphia and did you too end up riding horses? Collaboration is an essential part of your work. When you work start a project, how to you integrate yourself into these communities and gain their trust and allow them to open themselves to you?

I stayed nine months over there and I only rode a horse twice. It was not planned and it was not of interest, it was just an opportunity. I definitely do not see myself as a rider. Also, it did not have any influence on the project. I would rather say that my work is more participatory than collaborative. There is not a common goal between the participants, there is the idea of an exchange, the artistic creation and the shared moments. I think they understood what I wanted to do, but they only started to truly trust me at the end of the contest. I think people did not trust me at the beginning, partly because of my approximate English and also because I was an outsider. They are used to being filmed and photographed, but this time it was about an artistic project which also required their involvement.

You have since developed Horse Day into an installation that was at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam and now a different version in Paris at Kamel Mennour. Can you please explain how the film became the installation ?

The film became an installation because for me, an artistic form is not definitive. Every work I do is in a constant state of evolution as long as I am alive and able to modify it. Probably the final stage and the conclusion of Horse Day will be at the Barnes Foundation. As an artist I see myself influenced in major ways by the environment of a project or an invitation. It is always an opportunity to think and look at things in a different way. I decided to present the film it as a diptych. I thought it was interesting to put through two different temporalities. The first temporality represents the time I stayed there, to try and built this project. In front of it is the second temporality of just a day, the day of the contest. Putting these two temporalities together, both real and fictional, creates a distortion of reality. What is real and what is not. It was the first time I materialized this concept of distortion and became aware of its presence in my work.

Why did you choose to print images of the film onto pieces of car parts and did you create completely new sculptural works from the riders show pieces?

The images printed on car body parts do not come from the film, they are photographs I took in parallel. When I got back from the US, I had all of this photographic material with me and I had to figure out how to use it. I wondered about the relevance of putting these images on paper. As I explained earlier, what struck me the most was the question of language distortion. And that is the distortion of understanding that I tried to show. I saw myself looking at these riders in the street of Philadelphia and seeing their images being distorted on the cars. It became clear to me that I had found the support for my images. The distortion I felt in the language was being materialized through the reflections of bodies on the cars. There is also the idea of a fragmented reality, a deconstructed reality which rebuilds itself differently. This was for me the fairest approach to show what I’ve experimented. I felt the impact would also be stronger if I used French cars, because I am from there. The metaphor would not be as strong if I had used American cars. Regarding the riders’ show pieces they are now part of the installation, they are documentary objects, different witness of what happened.

I saw that you also published a book for this project. How is it? Have you done other books?

I made a book with the Stedelijk Museum. It is a selection of images and sketches from the project, without any text. Bits and pieces to give a small overview of what it felt like. I am currently working on my first monograph for my exhibition at the Barnes Foundation (Urban Riders, June 30–October 2, 2017). It will explore further Horse Day, to show what I went trough working with the different people involved: riders, artists, locals, etc. We have invited several authors to exchange on my different projects. I’ve done several publications in the past, such as Temps mort (Les presses du Réel) and Rip (Filigrane Edition).

Périphérique established your career. Do you feel like things have changed or evolved in the suburbs? How was it for you growing up there ?

Yes, things have changed indeed. There are a lot of youngsters who died lately, killed by the police, often in the Parisian suburbs. It got tougher. The only evolution I can see is architectural. There are efforts made to remodel these areas. But the whole thing feels like a déjà-vu, like an echo. It is the same daily news I used to witness ten, twenty years ago when I lived there.

In Temps Mort, you have prisoners filming for you inside a prison. What were you hoping to express in this film and the images?

Whether it is in Horse Day (with language issues) or in Temps Mort, I speak about a major problem: communication. This film had a necessary function. It does not tell a story that belongs to me, but a mean to communicate developed between individuals in prison and people from outside. By necessity, people re-appropriated a tool: a mobile phone. I simply made it visible. How communication happens in a closed context, such as in jail? How to get out of this confinement and create other spaces: of languages, of exchanges, of images…?

Nous Sommes “Halles” has a distinctly fashion edge to the images. Have you been approached by brands to shoot for them? Would you consider working in fashion?

No I have not been approached by a brand. It was a work around the clothing item, because this piece of clothing was revealing of a re-appropriation that certain youngsters from the suburbs were able to do with “rich people” brands. It was the very beginning of this movement of wanting to dress with luxurious brands and especially the Lacoste one, the chicest. It felt logical to me to show how it was worn in the street and by whom. There was an interesting paradox between the image communicated by the brand and the youngsters. What was also interesting was to see how some managed to get counterfeits. It was not about the style or the fashion side of the brand but more how one can re-appropriate codes of fashion, which are symbols of wealth and success. How a part of the North-African youth, takes possession of these codes. These are actually questions of integration just as rap can be, with the envy to integrate the society in which you would normally feel excluded of.

I like your drawings so much… can you tell us about A G O. What was this project and exhibition? Why plywood and what are the sculptural forms saying?

When I arrived at AGO I discovered the work of Inuit artists and it struck me, like the ones of Annie PootooGook, Simon Tookoome, Kananginak Pootoogook and John Pangnark. Going through their work I connected with their aesthetics, their technique and it got me interested in their history, the Inuit history. This crayon technique I used for the drawings, the graphite, and colored crayon, is a practice in the Inuit community. I wanted to make a reference to this history of drawings and sculpture but also this history of re-appropriation. Today the Inuit community lives under strict rules, they live on small parts of the Canadian territory. However, their art is very much protected and is a major part of their income as well. This is materialized in the exhibition through the sculptures, boxes of plywood. They represent the mercantile process of offer and demand but also the transit of goods between North and South. The idea was to work on the economic consequences of colonization towards the land, the people, the art.

Berlin, Bears and Refugees