By **Rachel Somerstein**
The debate surrounding the banning of the veil in France, Belgium, Germany, and other European countries has focused the conversation about observant Islam and North African immigrants squarely on women. In fact, as many writers have pointed out, the Muslim communities that advocate for the veil are most often male-dominated, particularly in Paris’s banlieues.
Algerian-born Mohamed Bourouissa’s staged photographs, set in the Parisian suburbs, spotlight these societies of men—always on the precipice of trouble. The scenes—a man and woman reclining on a bed as another man sips a beer (La main, 2006); a hooded young man standing amid a circle of fire—are set in the moment after the decision’s been made but before the transaction, conflict, or competition (for sex or power) begins. When women do appear, it’s as bit-players—passing a group of men gathered beneath a highway overpass, say—with nary a veil in site.
Other pieces offer a more overt take on the perception of the French state in the banlieues. La République (2006), shot at night, shows a tangle of men scrambling around a white, one-story structure. A figure standing on the building’s roof grasps a French flag—to unfurl or set aflame, it’s not clear. With a signature high-rise in the background, the scene seems an authentic still from the 2005 riots that rocked the Paris suburbs.
Bourouissa’s “documentary” photos appear to come out of the tradition of street photography, those spontaneous, casual-seeming shots of people smoking, walking, talking—anything but posing for the camera. But because the artist so carefully stages his photos, scouting locations, hand-picking actors, and arranging the light just so, they also owe a lot to the early work of Jeff Wall, who staged similarly spontaneous-seeming photographs.
Bourouissa’s first solo show in the U.S. recently closed at New York’s Yossi Milo Gallery. But his work is on view through August 8 at the 6th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art and in the group show Dynasty, at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, through September 5th.
Copyright 2010 Rachel Somerstein
Rachel Somerstein is staff writer at Next American City. Her essays and criticism have appeared in ARTnews and n+1, among other publications. She is working on a book about photojournalism and on a novel.