We’re living in a barred world, too afraid of the unknown
After a first edition celebrating a decade of existence and a certain cosmopolitan and cheerfully inclusive vision of contemporary art in Brussels, CENTRALE is putting in a repeat performance with BXL UNIVERSEL II: multipli.city, a forum exhibition which aims to be a subjective portrait of the city, its artists and its inhabitants. Oussama Tabti, born in Algiers, is one of those artists who offers us his vision of the city through his work. Active as artist and anthropologist, Oussama is critical of hermetic geopolitics, made up of impassable borders and cultures that close in on themselves. In Tabti’s words: ‘Wherever one lives, whatever one does, the world remains closed and prejudices remain operative.’
You grew up in Algeria. Why did you come to Belgium?
I have been living in Belgium for about two and a half years now. Actually, I have always hesitated to leave my country; Algeria is known for its many expatriates which come looking for a better life or a higher salary, but that wasn’t the case for me. I didn’t lack anything, I could always fulfil my needs. In the end, it was my interest in other cultures and metropolises which triggered my journey.
Nonetheless, it’s good that you mention it. People always have this idea that African expatriates coming here are always running either from war or famine. It really upsets me sometimes. When an American, British or any other plain guy walks down the street, for example, there are no questions asked. But as soon as there’s a person of colour, all kinds of bells start ringing. That’s no fair game.
You recycle anger and frustration through your work as an artist. What is your biggest discontent at the moment?
I guess it’s the rise of people who are being misunderstood. We’re currently living in a barred world, in which we’re too afraid of the unknown, of strange and older people. There’s always many clichés and prejudices to counter because people hear each other but don’t listen, which is such a pity. People can’t be reduced to just their nationality and can’t ever be labelled.
People can’t be reduced to just their nationality and can’t ever be labelled.
Can this problem be solved?
I wish people would listen more carefully to each other, be more open to dialogue while disregarding the looks or background of the interlocutor. This would at least set the ball rolling. In my most recent work for BXL UNIVERSEL I try to bring people closer to each other by recording all kinds of testimonies behind the doorbells and parlophone.
How did you come up with the idea to use doorbells and parlophones to spread the message of your work?
When I arrived in Belgium, I was fascinated by the use of doorbells in the city centre of Brussels. A five-storey building here has a parlophone combined with many doorbells, displaying the name of each inhabitant. I started to think: now I know the names of my neighbours, but I may never know them in person. Who’s living behind those walls? Wanting to bring those flat names to life, I recorded their life stories and immortalized them behind the doorbells in my work. Now visitors can truly listen to a person’s life story, without any prejudice, discrimination or hatred. Sometimes fake names are being used as well, for the sake of privacy.
Wanting to bring those flat names to life, I recorded their life stories and immortalized them behind the doorbells in my work.
Which story has moved you the most?
To be honest, it’s impossible to pick out a single one. That’s not my purpose either. They all have their own unique story and they’re all harsh in their own way. But it’s not about that as well actually. I look for unfiltered reality, not for complicated or emotional stories. I want to push people to make an effort themselves so I refuse to create a comfortable situation. We can only understand a person’s life story when the intrinsic effort is there too.
For instance, a visitor once asked me to implicate a chair next to my parlophone, because the testimonies can be quite long sometimes. I refused her proposal for the very same reason: once again, to push people to make the effort themselves, to listen and to actually feel the story as well. In the end, it definitely pays off. I can now recognise myself in every single testimony, despite the many differences in culture and heritage. Embracing these differences is what brings us together and is the way to learn from one another.