25/10/21 • ◠ Focus: Art and Oil : Natasha Marie Llorens

The Saharoui as Figure and Ground

25/10/21 • ◠ Focus: Art and Oil : Natasha Marie Llorens

The Saharoui as Figure and Ground

Throughout 2021, CAS has been exploring the complex relationship between the art and oil industries. This week, curator and writer Natasha Marie Llorens further explores this relationship by examining a single artwork by Mourad Krinah – NON AU GAZ DE SCHISTE (2020) – and considering how it succinctly portrays the complex socio-political dynamics surrounding the extraction industry in Algiers.

A bright yellow rectangle proliferates across a long wall at the back of the exhibition hall. 1 The vivid yellow rectangle is part of a geometric motif that fills the wall. 2 From a distance the pattern looks like an abstract composition reminiscent of arabesque tilework. The rectangle’s fluorescent color contrasts sharply with the dense, quiet navy blue that is the only other color used to produce the impression of shapes. There is something punk about the design’s effect, like a noise band poster that matured to middle age and became foyer tilework, but without completely losing its edge.

  1. The exhibition referred to was “En Attendant Omar Gatlato: Regard sur l'art en Algérie et dans sa diaspora,” on view between February 12–May 16, 2021, a group exhibition featuring the work of twenty-nine contemporary artists, including Krinah. I curated it at the invitation of Triangle France – Astérides. More
  1. Installation shots of the work and context are available online here ; scroll to magnify the work using the cursor.

The design is a wallpaper installation entitled NON AU GAZ DE SCHISTE (2020) by Algiers-based artist Mourad Krinah. It was installed in Marseille for the first time in large format as part of a large group exhibition devoted to work by 25 artists based in Algeria and in its European diaspora, “Waiting for Omar Gatlato.” Krinah, who studied graphic design at the École des Beaux-Arts in Algiers, has produced several wallpaper installations drawn from mass-media images documenting political events, as well as iconic cultural forms from the visual landscape in Algeria. An example of the latter are zelliges, small ceramic tiles used to make geometric patterns in interior hallways. They are also used for decorative public murals that line the main highways in and out of the capital and on the walls of shops and waiting rooms. These small ubiquitous tiles exemplify the principle of geometric patterning at the foundation of North African aesthetics. Like zelliges, wallpaper, the artist says, is considered an innocuous decorative object par excellence. It is an aesthetic surface created to occupy large areas without becoming an object of attention; it is both figure and ground.

Mourad Krinah, NON AU GAZ DE SCHISTE, 2020 – En attendant Omar Gatlato – Fiche la Belle de Mai – Marseille.

On first impression, the yellow and blue wallpaper that stretches across the gallery space is nothing more than an edgy background, there to set the tone for the rest of the exhibition. As the viewer approaches, drawn in by that yellow rectangle, the patterns begin to differentiate into figures. A face emerges, then another. The figures are borrowed from photographs taken during the protests that erupted in 2012 against fracking planned by SONATRACH, the national petrochemical corporation operating mainly in the south of Algeria. The central motif in the wallpaper is composed of two repeating and overlapping images: a man in a checkered flannel shirt holding up a sign in protest, and the figure stenciled onto it. The sign, which is the striking yellow rectangle so noticeable from a distance, bears the logo from a citizens’ political campaign in the city of Ain Salah, which coordinated some of the most intense protests against fracking in the south of the country. The figure’s head and shoulders are wrapped in the long scarf traditionally used by the Tuareg, a nomadic people indigenous to the desert regions of Algeria, and by the Sahrawi, which translates literally to “the people of the Sahara.” The figure wears a gas mask obscuring their face. NO TO FRACKING is written in Arabic script at the bottom of the sign. The design is simple, which is typical of the way Krinah works with appropriated images, but the installation as whole functions to slow down the viewer’s approach to meaning in a manner appropriate to the history it references: the story of the oil and gas industry in Algeria is complex and determinedly concealed from view.

Algeria is home to the world’s third largest reserves of natural gas derived from shale, which constitute four times the volume of its already considerable conventional natural gas reserves. Large-scale extraction of these reserves began in 2015 and faced broad popular opposition and intense public protest, especially in the southern cities of Ain Salah and Ourgala where protestors were brutally repressed, arrested, and saw their organizations banned. Fracking in the area was temporarily suspended in response to the protests, then reinitiated in 2017.


Fracking involves injecting pressurized water mixed with sand into the ground to fracture the bedrock in which natural gas is held in order to release it. The environmental cost of transporting large quantities of water into the desert for industrial use is only one negative impact of this technology. The process also releases dangerous chemicals trapped in the bedrock alongside gas, such as radioactive material produced by nuclear explosions that settles in the ground near the test site and rest-waste that is stored in barrels in undergound facilities. This effect is especially relevant in Algeria because the Sahara was used extensively by the French military for nuclear testing from 1960 to 1966.

The first French test—the Blue Jerboa bomb—was conducted near Reggane, a small city in the southwest of the country. It was three times larger than the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki by the US military in 1945, which vaporized everything within a mile of the blast site. 3 The distances between Reggane and contemporary fracking sites seems far—Ain Salah is 250 kilometers northeast of the blast site, and Ourgala is more than 1000 kilometers away—but because of the lack of data about the testing sites, contamination is possible. The radioactive effects of years of testing both above ground and in underground shafts at testing sites in the far south at In Ekker have not been adequately studied. The precise location of the nuclear waste produced during the tests and stored underground is also unknown. 4 To protest against fracking in 2015 and in 2021 is to protest the destruction of the desert’s fragile ecosystem, but it is also a renewed protest against continued exposure to toxic radiation, which is the legacy of French colonialism’s immense crime of arrogance.

  1. “France-Algeria relations: The lingering fallout from nuclear tests in the Sahara,” BBC World Africa (April 27, 2021),
  1. “The Long Legacy of France’s Nuclear Tests in Algeria,” The Economist (June 26, 2021), See also: Christine Chanton, Les Vétérans Des Essais Nucléaires Français Au Sahara (Paris: Harmattan, 2006) and Louis Bulidon, Les Irradiés De Béryl: L'essai Nucléaire Français Non Contrôlé (Paris: Editions Thaddée, 2011).

In a recent article entitled “The Double Presence of Southern Algerians,” sociologist and aesthetic theoretician Ratiba Hadj-Moussa argues that a generation of young Algerians from the south of the country is responsible for the momentum behind protests across Algeria. 5 She is not only referring to the protests against fracking in 2015, but also the mass protests in 2011 that coincided with the Arab Spring and the popular protests that swept through the nation in 2019 demanding that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika step down, referred to as the Hirak, which translates to English as uprising. Hadj-Moussa credits this generation with imploding “a certain anthro-political imaginary universe … under which the South and its population were ruled through a mode of quasi-colonial domination.” 6

  1. Ratiba Hadj-Moussa, “The Double Presence of Southern Algerians: Space, Generation and Unemployment,” in Protests and Generations: Legacies and Emergences in the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean (Leiden; Boston: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2017), 198–223.
  1. Hadj-Moussa, “The Double Presence of Southern Algerians,” 214.

Krinah’s work makes a similar point in graphic language: the young man in flannel—who could be anyone, from anywhere in the country—draws on the icon of resistance fighters from the desert to bolster his protest. This icon represents the specific protestors in Ain Salah that reproduced it as their logo, but the reference doesn’t stop there. The Tuareg people traditionally control the trade routes through the Sahara and resist the nationalism of the countries that overlap with their territory: Algeria, but also Niger, Mali, Libya, and Burkina Faso. For Algerians, the Tuareg represent an abstract and pre-colonial kind of freedom; the use of their image against the companies that would control resources in the desert builds on this symbolic image their representation has grown to become. Krinah constructs a visual solidarity between the protestor in flannel and the Tuareg-as-symbol. The composition’s density heightens the viewer’s confusion about exactly which figure is in the crowd. Protestor and sign merge as the image multiplies across the wall’s expanse. Hadj-Moussa’s southern Algerian does not stay on the sign, he is in the crowd with the protestor, all around him, while also remaining the symbol for the fight in a broad sense.

The reasons that political protests in Algeria evolve from the south are complex. On the basis of extensive interviews Hadj-Moussa conducted in 2015 and 2016, she offers several possible explanations. The first is paradoxical: throughout the intense and violent civil unrest that crippled Algeria between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, known as the Black Decade, the south of the country was largely stable due to the presence of large oil and gas extraction facilities capable of providing their own security. The political movement against the domination of the oil and gas industry in Algeria was, therefore, born in part from the civil stability it maintained during this time of crisis. Second, while there was a significant effort made to protect the natural resources exploited in the south, little was done to gainfully employ its inhabitants. Rather than training the local population, foreign consultants and skilled labor from the urban centers in the north of Algeria were brought into the region on contract.

As a result, the south’s oil and gas reserves produce the overwhelming share of Algerian exports and sustain the country’s economy, yet the south is the region with the least developed infrastructure in terms of health care, education, and other basic social services. Resources are distributed unequally all over Algeria, but oil-revenue-driven inequality is most blatant in the south. 7 The region is therefore home to a generation who were left relatively untraumatized by the Black Decade but are also severely under-employed in one of the most resource-rich territories in the world: these are some of the factors that make the south an engine for political dissent in Algeria today.

  1. Journalism in English related to Algeria is limited, but a recent article in French provides biographical details for some of the key political organizers in the region:

Krinah’s work was produced during the Hirak, and the artist references the anti-fracking movement in the Sahara in a way that marks its resurgence in the wake of the Hirak’s successful bid to force Bouteflika to step down. It is also a reminder that the south was present in the streets of Algiers, Oran, Constantine, and elsewhere during the Hirak—the southerner, the Sahrawi—is thus omnipresent both as figure and ground of a swelling refusal to accept the current oligarchy masquerading as a democratically elected government.

The figure Krinah places at the center of his fractal design—wrapped in cotton and wearing a gas mask to metaphorically protect against the oil companies’ gas and also to literally protect against the tear gas used by police to disperse protestors—is a reminder that the struggle for a nation state based on the rule of law and equal rights for all its citizens is ongoing in Algeria, despite brutal repression. Writing in July 2021 based on interviews in Algiers, freelance journalist Ilhem Rachidi notes that “over 6,570 people, many of whom have been repeatedly arrested or summoned, have been detained since last February.” 8 Protestors have been killed and jailed for decades, their social movements and political organizations banned, and a state of exception imposed for years on end to obstruct any public manifestation of dissent. 9

  1. “Helpless Hirak? Democratic Disappointments in Algeria,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (June 10, 2021),
  1. A recent, English-language study of Algeria introduces this broad topic: Martin Evans and John Phillips, Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), see chapter eight for a historical sketch since the Black Decade.

Krinah’s work exemplifies the Algerian people’s persistent protest with their bodies but also with recourse to aesthetics. Much like the zelliges and the multi-scale geometric patterns they produce when they are configured into aesthetic solidarity, Krinah’s work suggests that when the Sahrawi and the urban protestor stand together, a pattern emerges that might be capable of dismantling the monumental ideology propagated by the Algerian government in defense of its monopoly on oil revenues.

Mourad Krinah (born Algiers, 1976) studied biology at the University of Bab Ezzouar in Algiers, then dropped out when he passed the entrance exam for the École des Beaux-Arts of Algiers. He studied there from 1999 to 2006. In 2008, he co-founded the Box24, an exhibition space and artist residency in downtown Algiers that was instrumental in organizing three large-scale exhibitions of contemporary art, Picturie générale in 2013 at Artissimo, in 2014 at La Baignoire, and in 2016 at Volta. Krinah’s work has been shown at Triangle-Astérides in Marseille (2021), the Wallach Art Gallery in New York (2019), the Triennial of Design in Milan (2018), Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Algiers (2017), the 4th Mediterranean Biennale of Contemporary Art in Oran, Algeria (2017), the Museum of African Design in Johannesburg (2016), la Friche la Belle de Mai in Marseille (2015), and the Dakar Biennial (2014), among others. He lives and works in Algiers.

Natasha Marie Llorens is a Franco-American curator and writer based in Stockholm, where she the professor of art and theory at the Royal Institute of Art. Recent curatorial projects include “From what will we reassemble ourselves,” a group exhibition on the representation of genocide co-curated with Anna Dasović at Framer Framed in Amsterdam and “En Attendant Omar Gatlato,” a survey of contemporary art from Algeria and its diaspora at Triangle France / Astérides in Marseille. Llorens is a regular contributor to Art Agenda, and she writes more broadly about North African and Middle Eastern contemporary art and film, feminist and queer politics in art, philosophies of violence, decolonial curatorial practice, and the work of her long-term collaborators. A graduate of the MA program at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard, Llorens received a Ph.D. in art history from Columbia University in 2021. Her academic research is focused on five experimental films from Algeria produced between 1965 and 1979.