Mohamed Bourouissa, Périphérique

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Loose Joints (here). Open spine softcover with gatefolds and multiple paper stocks (21 x 27.5 cm), 176 pages, with 120 color photographs. Includes essays by Taous R. Dahmani and Clément Chéroux. Design by Loose Joints Studio. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Périphérique is also available in a special edition (here). This version includes a signed book housed in a hand-made blind debossed portfolio box, and an archival pigment print of “La butte”, 2007 (8 × 10″ cm), signed by the artist. In an edition of 50+5AP.

Comments/Context: Mohamed Bourouissa, the French Algerian artist whose practice encompasses various mediums, is known for his depiction of marginalized and economically disenfranchised communities. In 2020, he won the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation prize, and earlier in 2018, he was shortlisted for Prix Marcel Duchamp (the most prestigious art prize in France). His work is inspired by both photographers like Jamel Shabazz and Jeff Wall and classical painters such as Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Géricault, and Caravaggio.

Bourouissa was born in Algeria and moved to France with his mother at the age of five. He grew up in Courbevoie, a northwestern suburb of Paris. Through his artistic practice, he is interested in documenting his community and the generation of young immigrants living in the outskirts of Paris. The French suburbs are usually referred to as “banlieues”, but the term also has become pejorative, full of disapproval for the low-income housing projects dominated by immigrants found there. “We were from the banlieues, which means that we were ‘outside'”, says Bourouissa. His new photobook titled Périphérique, brings attention back to individuals neglected in contemporary society, by creating staged dramatic moments on the outskirts of Paris. 

The book title refers to the Paris ring road, the Boulevard Périphérique, that cuts a clean line between the suburbs and the inner city. Périphérique is a softcover book, with a strong vertical orientation. The book cover doesn’t reveal much: the title is placed at the very top, close to the edge, playing with the meaning of the title, and a thin green linen strip covers the book spine. Inside, the photographs are printed on different paper stocks, while the book design creatively uses split photographs and multiple gatefolds to break up the flow. Two essays by the photography historian Taous R. Dahmani and the curator Clément Chéroux provide background and context for the series. 

The photographs in the series were taken between 2005 and 2008, during the years of France’s urban riots. In 2005, two young boys, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, were electrocuted while hiding from the police in an electricity substation. Their death triggered weeks of unrest that splashed across the banlieues. As events were unfolding, Bourouissa was in Algeria, following the news on TV. “I remember sitting in my home in a nearby banlieue following the news with a contagious and unabated sense of rage against the continued othering of my fellow residents,” he recalls. 

Bourouissa’s photographs are meticulously orchestrated. He creates detailed preliminary sketches and then further tunes the images during the actual photoshoot. The precision of the compositions and the strategically used lighting make his works stand out. Each image captures overdramatized, yet graceful scenes, combining an exaggerated documentary-style aesthetic with the clarity of formal portraiture. These imagined scenarios provide a rich commentary on urgent social and economic issues, and also the stereotypes about life in the suburbs.

Bourouissa’s subjects are the African and Arab youths, captured in charged encounters, often in stairwells, communal spaces, buildings, and generally between groups of boys. The images reveal a male dominated world, and women appear only occasionally, in fleeting moments. The book opens with the image of a young man leaning against the wall in what looks like a mailroom, he looks at the guy in front of him, whose out of focus arm frames the left side of the photograph. Turn the page, and a similar photo appears, this time with the young man looking directly at the camera. It immediately signals that people in these photographs are well aware of the presence of the photographer. 

The images at the beginning and the end of the book show preparatory study shots for the series. There are shots of buildings, individual portraits, and also details and various street scenes. The central section of the book is printed on a different paper, and presents the main body of work. It has many gatefolds, emphasizing the dynamic and tension in the visual flow. The captions are elegantly placed at the edge of the pages. One of the most known images of the series is “La république, 2006”. It reflects the drama and extreme tension of a moment during a protest, a person holds the French flag standing on the roof of a low building, while others are seen in an anxious confrontation. It is shot at night, and the scene is lit from car headlights, creating an indelible frozen moment.

Another gate fold opens to a horizontal photograph titled “Le Reflet, 2009”; in it a young man in a hooded sweater sits outside, with his back towards the camera, in front of a wall of TV screens. A couple of pages later, a vertical image shows a close up of two young men facing each other in what feels like an extremely tense moment, and then this photo unfolds into a full horizontal spread revealing two more young men watching the confrontation, one of them recording it on his phone. Their poses and gestures are all inspired by art history, connecting these contemporary moments back to a more timeless set of human struggles. Once again, the format of the book and the excellent use of gatefolds brings in new interpretations and reinforces the dynamic of the photographs. While conspicuous tension is present in every gesture, Bourouissa’s theatrical photographs also reveal the humanity of people he captures. 

Périphérique is a well conceived and impeccably designed photobook that contextualizes and amplifies this important series. In staging precise visual scenes of violence and social inequality in these complex environments, Bourouissa raises questions about representation, boundaries, and control, while also allowing the unexpected tenderness and intimacy found in life in the Parisian banlieues to show through. 

Collector’s POV: Mohamed Bourouissa is represented by Kamel Mennour in Paris (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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