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Fatiha Kheddaoui interviewed by the author Mickey Weems about Nomadic Art Net process, May 2021
What was it like, growing up in France as a French citizen of Algerian descent?
I lived in Chelles, a small town in the suburbs of Paris. Chelles is what I consider the most home in my nomadic mind. It was like being in a village but conveniently located on the East side.
Our town was a nice melting pot of middle-class French people from various ethnic backgrounds and a few from the old colonies. Most of the population were white Europeans, German, Spanish, Jewish, Portuguese, Italian, Antiguas, or the Asian communities such as Laos or Indochine. Algerians were the new wave of residents when we arrived. As more nomads came to settle in our town, I could feel it became less welcoming to the "others.” The Far Right started to rise as unemployment was 10% to 13% every year. With fewer jobs, the more visible French (Algerians, Marocains, Gypsies, Africans) became the perfect targets for discrimination.
Our family is large and scattered in the south of France and Rouen. We operate as a tribe. Our elders are the leaders, and most of them are Harkis from the same village, Sidi Slimane. Harki means "indigenous soldiers" with a pejorative connotation as the ones who fought in the French army during the war France lost to Algeria. We visit and interact often, and our doors are always open, connecting for family and Muslim events. Hybridization is part of my upbringing as a French citizen of Algerian descent and child of a Harki.
As we entered adult life, most of us experienced discrimination and knew we were pioneers. We saw that girls were having more chances of being employed than boys, but some institutions would never welcome us. It was not easy and still a struggle. I experienced discrimination, but I was also an asset because of my particular background. My professor at the Sorbonne welcomed my ideas and encouraged me. I was the only French Muslim from the suburbs in my department for the first few years. I met my best friends in this sheltered environment of higher education and artistic dreamers.
When I left for the US, I dreamt of returning to university. I enrolled at UH, realizing it was time to advance my education and use my perspective from France to accomplish my goal of expressing feminism as well as multiethnic and multinational views in my art.
Tell us about your father.
My dad was career military in the French army. He got out the first time after the Indochine war. The Ulama (an Islam savant) and one of our most respected family elders was murdered by a group of FLN (Algerian liberation front) in my father’s village. In order to protect his family, he needed to return to the French army when the Algerian War of Independence happened.
He was a warrior with a strong spirit and values. He refused to be part of genocide, fighting to almost the death with a commander from the French Legion who wanted to massacre a village in Algeria. He won the fight, but went to jail and lost rank at the time. He was also held prisoner for two years in Indochine.
At the end of the war in 1962, a family member told him the FLN would kill all the French-supporting Algerians and families if they stayed.
France was less than honorable as the government decided to disarm and abandon its Harkis in Algeria. Some honorable generals refused to obey orders and took as many as they could in the few boats they got. Up to 80,000 Harkis families were tortured and murdered by the FLN after the war. France did not want us either. The few years in France were difficult for my parents until my dad got his French military pension and rights.
Being quiet was not possible for this man. He had many anecdotes for us and our gathering with our tribe. For example, when a nurse wanted my parents to give their new baby a French name, he answered: "Okay, when you name your kid Mohammed, I will name my child with a good French name and let you choose.” When people asked him for his green card, he responded that he was more French than they were, and his favorite one was this: “How many wars did you fight for France?” He believed in gender equality, and was proud of me when I graduated from the Sorbonne. I am proud to be his daughter.
What is your positionality concerning your art?
I see myself as a nomad, never knowing when I will be moving on, but feeling the urge sometimes to seek other lands. I am somewhere forever. I don’t understand the need to settle, even after so many years. I also understand that I am privileged in comparison to other nomads (migrants) as I was able to adapt to a new status over time so far... I can control my narrative in what could be seen as constant uncertainty.
I have changed my status from a citizen to an immigrant in the US for personal reasons, to tourist, to expatriat, and now a dual citizen of the US and France. I experienced changes of social status in those states, from underclass nomad when my parents first moved to France, to middle-class citizen after many years of improvement, to today, as one of the privileged nomads, able to travel for leisure as a tourist or as an expat when I lived in Panama, and now as an American and European citizen, two prized citizenship for today’s migrants.
I absorb the notion of being the outsider and my otherness in my artwork as well as my life. Part of my work and research focuses on contrasting active versus passive viewers, using craft as a tool to engage with my audience.
There is one work, a tent onto which people may stitch an image or words. Could you describe this ongoing project?
Nomadic Art Net consists of two US Army surplus mosquito-net tents, two cots, two sheets, tent poles to support structures that fit easily into my traveling bag, and a video. I purchased the net in the army surplus store on Sand Island. Embroidery materials such as various colored threads, needles, hoops, and other implements are offered during sessions so that others may add their own embroidery to the net.
The work began in Hawaii in 2007, noting American conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are the longest since the Vietnam War and the most costly to date. As my piece moved to countries not involved in these conflicts, such as Thailand or Panama, it evolved from the original intention and became more universal. The Net is a temporary shelter and offers little protection from the elements. It embodies me as a nomad, temporary, exposed, and being seen as the other. The sessions consist of human connection and shared purpose where we engage and exchange cultures and ideas. Marks are left from the settled and contemporary nomads I encounter.
I see embroidery as a universal language and less intimidating than other art mediums. I use my background to approach and create an environment that encourages sharing of words. I record and take pictures of handworks. I document my encounters in a video of photo collage and sound mixing of multilingual interactions as the witness of our collaboration.
The stitching sessions consist of an invitation to embroider on the mosquito-net tent with me. I am the mediator artist creating an opportunity to engage with the artistic process, and I am the storyteller of past sessions. I provide all the materials; no prior experience is needed. During a session, participants converse with each other while they are stitching. I give a brief introduction of the embroideries by the prior participants. The voices are recorded, documenting the session and to be mixed with the prior recordings as well as the handworks photos. I explain the concept of nomadism in my work, which includes identity, places, people, and trade. I retrace prior encounters and discuss possible journeys in the future.
Nomadic Art Net is ongoing since 2007 and presented in its current state in an installation. It will continue its nomadic journey throughout my life.
Describe your first sessions with Nomadic Art Net.
My initial site was in Hawaii, where the nomads took the form of students from the mainland US, China, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Tonga, and Samoa. The students were in transit to get diplomas and move on to jobs in their home countries, or perhaps settle in the US. Some other participants lived in Hawaii from various backgrounds, being either first or second-generation immigrants to Hawaii for work, personal choices, or military relocation. The embroideries in Hawaii are various in style and contain symbolic interpretations of stars and the sun, little compositions of colored circles that are filled or contoured, flowers, a tattoo motif, nature, a musical instrument, and abstract thoughts.
In Thailand I was a tourist in Bangkok, visiting my husband who worked there for more than a year. I no longer had a large familiar group of people to interact with, and instead sought out a different group who would have the time and inclination to participate. On the street we were staying, Soi 8 Sukumvit, there was a neighborhood massage parlor where the women spent long hours waiting for customers and passed the time knitting and embroidering during the day in front of the shop. The women I saw were also nomads, but for economic reasons, mostly staying within their home country. They came from poor areas, the north, and north-east, as well as Cambodia, to seek a better life for themselves and their families. I used business cards in the Thai language to explain my work, presenting the embroidered Nomadic Art Net as an invitation to contribute.
The stitching session changed with the very limited English that was spoken; we used the shop owner as a translator and our hands for communication while the ladies spoke Thai amongst themselves. The embroidery motifs were flowers like tulips, a house, and the first time that someone embroidered words.
In France, I was with my people, most of whom were French Algerians. The sessions took place in houses and a hospital bedroom. I was in familiar surroundings with people I have known my whole life. Nomadic Art Net speaks to us because of our roots and the reason we came or were born there. My parents and their generation were nomads, forced to flee the country where they were born for political reasons and war; refugees. Most of the participants of the sessions were women, with a few children and one man of the family. We spoke Arabic and some French in the sessions and had our traditional tea. The embroideries were flowers, geometrical stitching, the first business logo, a mathematical symbol, and the first religious/superstitious sign, a protective eye to keep me safe during my journey.
In Panama, some of the participants were from the city and others from parts of the country, having come to the city to lift themselves from poverty and other dangers. They included Embera from Darien, an area close to Colombia with the paramilitary FARC in the jungle, Kuna from Kuna Yala, an autonomous territory on the Caribbean, and other mixed-race Panamanians whose forefathers migrated to Panama for economic reasons, including the canal. The Embera and Kuna are indigenous to Panama and, as in Thailand, are nomads in their lands for economic opportunities offered in Panama City. The other people contributing were mostly privileged expat nomads, enjoying the comfort of affordable living conditions until their next assignment to another country. The embroidery ranged from flowers to geometric shapes, my name, a message of love, religious blessings from Christian to Voudou, references to their places of origin, a house, a flag, and kites. A few started to respond to embroidery they noticed on the tent, stitching another version.
Is Honolulu is an easy place to meet strangers?
When I moved for the first time to Honolulu, I noticed how people were warm. They initiated a conversation with perfect strangers, in stores, beaches, restaurants, streets. I found it strange and in contrast with my original location, Chelles, Paris, France, where one has to be accepted before this type of exchange could happen. In Hawaii, I met people who became part of my tribe/ohana here. After 911 and living in mainland Chicago for 5 years, I knew to return to Honolulu. I felt safer in Honolulu as the gaze toward people who look like me ("the other”) became suspicious and hostile in mainland and as the war started. It was natural for Nomadic Art Net to start here as an experiment and in the cocoon Hawaii provides.
It is absolutely strange and a contradiction, that a place that saw the entrance of the US to WWII and where so many military bases are, is feeling warm and safe to “the other.” I think Hawaii operates like France, Communities live and interact. Ethnicities are diluted as people live and work. Recreation and religious activities seem to help. I am not saying Hawaii is immune to racism; it is prevalent here too, and we saw it with the recent elections and tensions we experienced. Like France, I am familiar with it and hope it is less violent. The mainland is from my perspective a place where people from various communities live parallel lives within their communal, ethnic, social, and now political affiliations. I see in Hawaii possibilities to create opportunities for conversation that can bridge differences. Nomadic Art Net is mean to foster such conversations.