LONDON — At a time of burkini bans and rising Islamophobia in France, and Brexit in the UK, artist Katia Kameli’s What Language Do you Speak, Stranger? weaves together video, archival material, and montage to work through the historic relationship and cultural exchange among Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Presenting the first UK solo exhibition of the French-Algerian artist, the Mosaic Rooms houses a rich exploration of colonial history and transcultural influences.
The first room invites the audience to participate in a storytelling circle, known as Al-Halqa, traditional to Morocco. We sit before a filmed performance of a professional storyteller, set in the iconic but unfinished Marrakech Theatre Royale. But “The Story-teller” (2012) cuts between shots of the storyteller and a 1964 hit Bollywood film, Dosti, that explores a friendship between a blind boy and his disabled best friend. By merging two cultures, Moroccan and Indian, Kameli performs cross-cultural exchange. The jarring combination draws connections between traditions of storytelling, but the awkwardness to the cutting technique also evokes our tendency to separate out cultures as distinct from one another.
The second room, the installation “Stream of Stories” (2015), offers an in-depth exploration of traditional French fables by Jean de La Fontaine. Written in the 17th century, his fables became hugely influential; today, they are often reading material for children and a frequent source of aphorisms. Kameli traces the genealogy of these allegorical tales to the Indian Panchatantra, an ancient collection of animal fables, which, while lost, exist in the form of translations into Persian and Arabic dating to 750 CE. The installation maps these origins: from reproductions of original texts, to blown-up extracts of the fable, to montages of overlapping illustrations from historically and geographically distant versions of the stories. By placing this visual material together, Kameli exposes how the translated stories are edited (particularly the didactic morals) to suit different cultures or political aims, while also bearing the traces of earlier manifestations.
Most compelling and novel for a contemporary art exhibition is Kameli’s inclusion of several interviews with academics specializing in the field. The interviews offer conversations about the nature of translation, the purpose of fables, and the transcultural exchange in their histories. Omar Berrada, director of the Centre for Literary Translation in Marrakech, poetically discusses the potential of translation to create a “no-man’s land.” He states that translation “is not just pouring wine from one bottle into another,” but an act of “breaking the bottle.” Translation, he argues, has the potential to break down national binaries. This immersive archival installation demands an acknowledgment that expansive colonial histories, here mapped between India, the former Persian empire, and France, have forever culturally tied nations. The work highlights the fact that no national culture is ‘pure’ or created in isolation from foreign influences.
The final work, “The Algerian Novel,” follows a street stall in Algiers. After the independence of Algeria from France in 1962, most of the colonial administrative archives were taken to France, leaving a hole in Algeria’s collective visual history. This stall selling old postcards represents one of the few ways to access images of colonial Algeria. In the film, passersby muse about how history classes at school teach names of past leaders of the independence struggle, but the faces of them are lost. “The Algerian Novel” considers how national histories are often both shaped and concealed by authoritarian governments, and the stall is just one of the grassroots attempts to challenge and re-imagine such lost narratives.
Kameli seems to question the conventional definition of a ‘stranger.’ By exposing the exchange of stories between different cultures, Kameli suggests that ‘strangers’ are not so strange as we tend to think. The exhibition shows how languages, myths, and society’s shared imagination are indebted to other nations, entwined by histories of international trade, conflict, and colonialism. At a time of rising nationalism across Europe, it seems particularly urgent and pressing to acknowledge how we collectively shape each other.
Katia Kameli’s What Language Do You Speak Stranger? continues at The Mosaic Rooms (Tower House, 226 Cromwell Road, London) through December 3.