Arles, France – At the Rencontres d’Arles in southern France, one of the world’s oldest photography festivals, a supermarket hosts one of the event’s most celebrated exhibitions.
Following in the footsteps of photo legends Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe and Nobuyoshi Araki, who have all attended what is informally described as the Cannes Festival of the photo world, Algeria-born, Paris-raised Mohamed Bourouissa presents Free Trade, a 15-year survey of photos, sculptures, videos and installations that questions the mechanics of power and shines a light on France’s most disenfranchised.
Whether he’s delving into the shadow economy of cigarette smuggling at a Paris subway station, repurposing Polaroid photos of people caught stealing detergent from a supermarket, or building a faceless army of the unemployed through 3D-printed figurines, Bourouissa has long been interested in the relationship between individuals and the systems in which they find themselves.
“People labelled as marginal in our market-driven economy are just as valuable as everyone else,” the 41-year-old artist told Al Jazeera. “They aren’t caught up in a daily grind and have a different outlook on things. That’s sometimes difficult for us to admit when we’re working our fingers to the bone.”
Peripherique (2005-2008), Bourouissa’s breakthrough project, plays on stereotypes about youths living on the other side of the Paris ring road.
He meticulously stages photographs of young men who appear on the precipice of total pandemonium, in poses inspired by art history.
Arles festival director Sam Stourdze believes Bourouissa renders visible a kind of invisible tension.
“He depicts his immediate surroundings in the banlieues (suburbs), by referencing classical painting but in scenes that are highly social and contemporary,” he said. “At the time, it was a very unconventional take on a topical issue. To provide such a heightened artistic representation of these high-rise estates, and what some then referred to as ‘suburban delinquents’, it shifted the public’s perception.”
Long stigmatised as areas plagued by crime, substandard education and unemployment, whose populations mainly hail from France’s former colonies, the Paris suburbs made international headlines in 2005 during a period of urban unrest sparked by the deaths of two teenage boys.
Bourouissa, who grew up in Courbevoie, one of Paris’s northwestern suburbs, is eager to call out the distorted media lens through which multiple generations have come to make sense of the banlieues.
But he never set out to capture a documentary truth.
“My images say something about the era we live in,” he said. “But for me, it was vital to integrate art history to the photographs. I wanted to create icons that wouldn’t fall under photojournalism. My practice is perhaps more political than militant.”
Alongside guerrilla artist JR, whose early work also explored representations of the banlieues but from a more documentary vantage point, as well as filmmaker Ladj Ly, whose debut feature Les Miserables, inspired by the 2005 suburban uprisings, won this year’s Jury Prize at Cannes, Bourouissa’s art has travelled extensively, from the Venice Biennale to forthcoming shows in Beijing, Vienna and Los Angeles.
Earlier this year, Bourouissa was even tapped by American-DJ-turned-fashion-tastemaker Virgil Abloh to direct his first campaign as Louis Vuitton men’s artistic director.
Bourouissa arrived in France aged five with his family from Algeria – he was born in Bilda, about 50km from the capital Algiers.
His parents did not gravitate in artistic circles and his gateway into visual culture consisted of Marvel comics, Westerns and Martin Scorsese.
“I don’t remember visiting museums until much later on,” he said. “Drawing is what brought me to art. It was my way of communicating with others, and it was very gratifying to get compliments from strangers.”
Across his multidisciplinary practice, Bourouissa has always sought to work collaboratively with his participants, whether they be banlieue youths, African American cowboys or prison inmates.
That generosity also extends to other artists.
In Arles, he invited documentary photographer Jacques Windenberger, who has covered themes of labour and immigration for decades, to take portraits of the supermarket’s employees.
“While employed at a press agency in the 1960s, I was constantly asked to cover topical events in the suburbs,” said Windenberger, an 84-year-old veteran of the field. “In parallel to this, I was living in a housing estate and becoming aware of the huge gap between daily life in the area and the highly superficial nature of what I was asked to report on.”
Bourouissa likens the media’s deep-rooted disregard for the banlieues to how art-world gatekeepers have long rejected expressions of popular culture.
“For a long time, if you wanted to talk about pop culture in contemporary art, you had to use certain codes and language,” he says. “For instance, rap in its raw form was not welcome. You had to reinterpret it. There’s an inherent snobbism in deciding that you must necessarily reinterpret pop culture.”
As an example, Bourouissa cites his short film All-In (2012), a commentary on rap as the choice soundtrack to our commodity-driven culture, which he argues received a lukewarm response when it was first shown.
The piece, which features prominently at the festival, documents the minting of a coin embossed with a portrait of French hip-hop don Booba at the Monnaie de Paris as his track, Foetus, plays on.
“Rap from the French banlieues, which in recent decades has established itself as the dominant culture, was once considered counter-cultural,” he said. “Being from the French suburbs or American ghettos was once considered profoundly uncool. There’s a certain irony in seeing Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Gucci now take up streetwear, for instance. Or Kanye West being the cultural figure called upon to meet with Trump. It shows we’re breaking away from those once immutable highbrow-lowbrow divisions.”
The artist, whose international career took off in Arles with Peripherique, is also taken aback at how French culture has shifted.
“During the 2005 uprisings, we were still sort of coming out of that post-colonisation period. The suburbs weren’t integrated to Paris,” he said. “People didn’t mix as much as they now do. Just the fact that they’re developing transit projects like Greater Paris means things are now much more connected. With younger generations, borders are more porous. It’s encouraging to return to Arles with the project and be reminded of that.”