Mohamed Bourouissa. That’s Just the Way It Is

Text by Martha Kirszenbaum

In his multi-layered practice spanning photography, film, installation, sculpture and drawing, Mohamed Bourouissa (born in Blida, Algeria in 1978, lives and works in Gennevilliers, France) addresses systems of power and domination, and questions the circulation of images, ideas and money. Enrooted in the post-colonial French suburban culture, his work articulates notions of transgression, subjectivity and appropriation and interrogates the social role of the subaltern—the immigrant, the poor, the voiceless. Over the past fifteen years of a prolific and complex body of work, he photographed the French suburban youth of immigrant descent (Périphérique, 2005-09), depicted African-American cowboys in Philadelphia (Horse Day, 2018), created a community garden in Liverpool inspired by a patient of the psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon (2018), produced coins showing the effigy of French rapper Booba (All-In, 2012), or exchanged images with a friend in prison through a smuggled phone (Temps Mort, 2009), constantly attempting to convey and deconstruct the tension between reality and its stereotyped representations.

The visual essay That’s Just the Way It Is builds a relationship between music and images in Mohamed Bourouissa’s practice. In his early series Nous Sommes “Halles” (2003-05), produced around the neighborhood of Les Halles—a central suburban train station in Paris where youth often gathers to hang out—he photographed young people from the suburbs randomly met on the streets. Referring to the New York street photography of Jamel Shabazz or the iconography of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, the images strike by their proximity with the subject staring straight into the camera. The series Blida (2009) is composed of medium-format photographs taken in the eponymous Algerian town, where Bourouissa was born and raised as a young child. Here we see faces of younger and older inhabitants of Blida, sometimes posing at home, sometimes captured in public places, paired with views of landscapes and animals. They convey a kind of softness, a nostalgia maybe, a reserve certainly.

To accompany these images taken in France and Algeria, I asked Mohamed to scan the covers of his old CDs and to select some of his favorite songs, the ones he grew up with, or still listens to. We decided on transcribing the lyrics of three tracks—one in English, one in French and one in Arabic. First of all, West Coast rapper Tupac and his iconic Changes from 1998, in which he comments on the life in the ghetto, the treatment of black people by the police and more generally racism in America. Then, La Misère Est Si Belle (Misery Is So Beautiful), a 2019 tune by PNL, one of the most popular French hip-hop bands acclaimed for their hazy arrangements and romantic yet rough lyrics. Here self-reflective, dark lyrics express a certain disenchantment of the everyday. Finally, a classic Algerian 1970s chaâbi song, covered in 1993 by French-Algerian musician Rachid Taha, whose musical influence draws from traditional Northern-African compositions to British punk. Ya Rayah (The Emigrant) is a nostalgic ballad, an ode to the immigrant and the traveler longing to return to his native country.

Tupac, Changes, 1998

Come on come on
I see no changes wake up in the morning and I ask myself
Is life worth living should I blast myself?
I’m tired of bein’ poor and even worse I’m black
My stomach hurts so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch
Cops give a damn about a negro
Pull the trigger kill a nigga he’s a hero
Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares
One less hungry mouth on the welfare
First ship `em dope and let `em deal the brothers
Give `em guns step back watch `em kill each other
It’s time to fight back that’s what Huey said
Two shots in the dark now Huey’s dead
I got love for my brother but we can never go nowhere
Unless we share with each other
We gotta start makin’ changes
Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers
And that’s how it’s supposed to be
How can the Devil take a brother if he’s close to me?
I’d love to go back to when we played as kids
But things changed, and that’s the way it is
That’s just the way it is
Things will never be the same
That’s just the way it is
Aww yeah
That’s just the way it is
Things will never be the same
That’s just the way it is
Aww yeah

PNL, La Misère est si belle, 2019

J’suis triste comme d’hab
Fuck c’est pas la peine de réfléchir
La mélodie me fait du bien
J’pense plus à Gucci pour me vêtir
Parfois j’m’habille en geush, bats les couilles
Plaire à qui, à quoi, pour quoi faire?
Les années passent comme la galère
J’rêve toujours de cette maison sur la mer
Y’a eu des bons moments mais beaucoup moins que ceux noirs
Qui s’installent dans mon regard, dans mon miroir
Igo c’est no comment, vécu de poissard
Va savoir pourquoi j’ai plus rien dans le tiroir
J’sors un sourire, j’me dis qu’il est faux
C’est pas normal d’être si malheureux
J’dors pas à deux heures, j’me dis qu’il est tôt
J’vois mes démons mais j’suis pas peureux
La solitude c’est juste une te-pu
Être accompagné de ces faux serait une partouze
Et ce soir j’fume, j’suis torse nu
J’suis devenu aussi vide que ma trousse
Faut s’en sortir Tarik
La vie c’est ça Tarik
Tu les encules Tarik
Un jour viendra no panic
Ma foi, les larmes sont brûlantes
Oh mon dieu, j’attends les dés et vite
La roue a tourné ou peut-être pas
Au fond tout ça c’est toi qui décides
Y’a pas d’amour qui tienne
J’les laisse croire qu’ils connaissent tous ça
Si ils savaient ce que ça veut dire, ce que ça comporte
Mais bon comme on dit qui vivra verra
Hey, c’est la vie, la vie ma belle
Wow, ce pauvre récit moi j’le trouve beau
T’façon la misère est si belle
Hey, toute l’année je les aime
J’rêve d’un avenir heureux pour eux
Car au fond sourire nous va à merveille
La misère est si belle (zoo)

Rachid Taha, Ya Rayah / The Emigrant, 1993

Ya rayah win msafar trouh taaya wa twali
Chhal nadmou laabad el ghaflin qablak ou qabli
Chhal cheft al bouldan laamrine wa lber al khali
Chhal dhiyaat wqat chhal tzid mazal ou t’khali
Ya lghayeb fi bled ennas chhal taaya ma tadjri
Tzid waad el qoudra wala zmane wenta ma tedri
Ya rayah win msafar trouh taaya wa twali
Chhal nadmou laabad el ghaflin qablak ou qabli
Aalach qalbek hzine waalach hakdha ki zawali
Matdoum achadda wila tzid taalem ou tabni
maydoumou layyam walay doum seghrek ou seghri
Ya hlilou meskine li ghab saadou ki zahri
Ya rayah win msafar trouh taaya wa twali
Chhal nadmou laabad el ghaflin qablak ou qabli
Ya msafer naatik oussaayti addiha el bakri
Chouf ma yeslah bik qbal ma tbia ou ma techri
Ya nnayem djani khabrek ma sralek ma srali
Hakdha rad el qalb bel djbine sabhane el aali
Oh emigrant, where you going?
Don’t hurry up you’ll end up returning
Just like many ignorants before you
Just like many ignorants before me
Have returned
How many overpopulated countries and desert lands have you seen?
How much time have you wasted? How much more are you going to lose?
Oh emigrant, do you know what is going on?
Destiny and time follow their race but you don’t know about it
Why is it your heart so sad?
Why are you standing here so miserable?
Failure will be the result of your closed mind
The days will pass, just like your youth
Poor boy, you missed your opportunity just as I missed mine
Oh travel, let me give you an advice
See what suits you before you buy or sell
Hey, sleepy one, I’ve heard about you
What happened to you has happened to me too,
So the heart returns to its creator, God

Mohamed Bourouissa.
That’s Just the Way It Is
Text by Martha Kirszenbaum


Nous sommes Halles (series), 2003-2005, in collaboration with Anoushkashoot / Blida (series), 2008
All images © ADAGP Mohamed Bourouissa Courtesy: the artist, kamel mennour, Paris/London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/ Tokyo

MOHAMED BOUROUISSA (b. 1978, Bilda, Algeria) lives and works in Paris. He is known for his direct, imposing color photographs of everyday life in the Paris suburbs. Bourouissa is fascinated by systems, how society is structured, and how social processes are activated. He always works within and in collaboration with communities.
Selected solo exhibitions include: Blum and Poe, Los Angeles (2019); Les rencontres de la photographie, Arles (2019); Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2018); The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia (2017); De School, Amsterdam (2016). He took part, among others, in group exhibitions at: Studio Museum, Harlem (2016); Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (2015); Biennale de Lyon (2015); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2014).

MARTHA KIRSZENBAUM is a curator and writer based in Paris and Los Angeles. She was the curator of the French Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale represented by Laure Prouvost. Previously, she was the director and curator of Fahrenheit in Los Angeles, and has held positions at the MoMA in New York, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, New Museum in New York, Belvedere Museum, 21er Haus in Vienna.