Q&A with writer and photographer Jason Oddy

Jason Oddy will be showing his latest series of work ‘Concrete Spring’ at The Mosaic Rooms on 19 June 2014. Find out about this event here.

Salle Omnisport, Algiers, Algeria, 2013


Q1/ Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us about some of the projects you have worked on?

I am a writer and photographic artist, with a strong interest in  
place.  Many of the sites I have focused on have politics or history  
or ideology at their core.  For example I have made work in the  
Pentagon, Guantanamo Bay, the United Nations headquarters and  
ex-Soviet sanatoria in the Crimea.  Equally I have sought out places  
with more idiosyncratic or personal resonances.   Homes of the  
recently deceased and the cryonics industry in America are a couple that  
come to mind.

Q2/ Can you tell us a bit about your latest series of work ‘Concrete Spring’ - what does the series depict and why did you choose to focus on this subject?

Concrete Spring is an exploration of celebrated Brazilian architect  
Oscar Niemeyer’s legacy in Algeria.  Shortly after Algerian  
independence Niemeyer was invited by the then president to help the  
new nation establish a modern, international outlook, one that would  
represent a break with its colonial past.  While not all Niemeyer’s  
proposed Algerian projects were built, today two extensive university  
campuses and an Olympic sports hall stand as testament to this  
ambition.  I first became aware of Niemeyer’s Algerian work as a  
result of an EU artist residency in Algiers I was invited to take part  
in by the British Council.  That was in November 2010 which, by  
chance, was the very month the Arab Spring ignited in neighbouring 
Tunisia.  I spent over two years trying to return, motivated in a large  
part by the decidedly political nature of these buildings.  I wanted  
to capture and make visible again the post-independence optimism that  
is an integral part of these largely forgotten modernist masterpieces.  With the Arab Spring unfurling, I felt the project had an extra urgency, the ideas that led to the creation of such places over a generation ago, now as relevant as ever in a region that continues to find itself at a critical crossroads.

Mentouri University, Constantine, Agleria, 2013

Q3/ Can you tell us a bit about your experience of photographing in Algeria  – did you face any particular challenges? What were your impressions of the country, people and culture?

A good portion of any project I undertake involves gaining access to what are often hard to reach or off-limits places.  Similarly, taking pictures in Algeria was not straightforward.  When I first went there in November 2010 I spent nearly the whole week of the residency unsuccessfully trying to get permission to photograph Niemeyer’s Algiers buildings.  Eventually I succeeded but only the day before I was leaving.  It took me nearly two and half years to return.  In part this was a problem of funding, in part it was a problem of obtaining permissions.  It seemed I had to reach right to the top of each university to get the green light.  Likewise bringing cameras into  
Algeria is problematic.  In the end I entered overland by taxi in the middle of the night from Tunisia and there was no problem - the customs officers didn’t search the boot.  However once in the country things were more relaxed.  I was working either on the campuses or in the Olympic Sports Hall - I had the right pieces of paper endorsed by the right, i.e., top, people if anyone challenged me.  Overall I had the impression that the country is quite hierarchical - getting things done is largely dependent on whom you know or whom you are able to obtain access to.  Luckily I found one or two very helpful and generous contacts who saw the value of the project and assisted me from afar when I was in England.

I spent three weeks in the country and in that time slowly got an idea of its complexity.  Aside from Algeria’s not so distant colonial past, there is the Arab - Berber divide, and the whole question of the Islamists who, whilst having been defeated in the recent bloody civil war - known locally as the ‘black decade’ - apparently have a growing influence. Then there is the matter of the ‘deep state’, the military that is said to control the country.   A number of people I met were outspoken with strong opinions on the political situation.  However, allied to that is what I felt was a certain sense of powerlessness, a lack of individual agency.  Algeria is an authoritarian state, the Arab Spring didn’t reach the country - at least the protests there  
never really caught fire as they did elsewhere.  Now Algerians will tell you that they knew all along that the Arab Spring would come to no good playing into the hands either of Islamists or autocrats.  I think that after the civil war in which so many people died so horribly, many Algerians have convinced themselves that perhaps it is better to stick with the devil they know.  While the pain of that period is still palpable (I met people who had lost family members to the conflict), it did seem to have produced a certain carefree attitude.  The Algerians I met were often funny and warm and, in  
Algiers at least, quite hedonistic.

The Houari Boumediene University of Science and Technology, Bab-Ezzouar, Algiers, Algeria 2013


Q4/ What are you working on right now? Are you planning any new projects/ where should we watch-out for your next exhibition?

At present I am finishing writing a book about a town in New  
Mexico which the American government bought and then turned into an  
anti-terrorist training centre.  The book, Notes From The Desert, will  
also include a number of my photographs and is being published by  
Grasset, France.  Currently I am participating in a group show at  
Belmacz Gallery in London.  In September Concrete Spring will show at  
the Amsterdam Unseen photography fair, before it moves on to be a part  
of the Milan Triennale in October.  In May 2015 Concrete Spring will  
be on show at the Royal Academy in London.

Q&A with artist and filmmaker Ronnie Close

Ronnie Close will be joining us to screen and discuss his film work More Out of Curiosity on 13 June.
 
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Q1/ Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us about some of the projects you have been worked on?
 
I am an Irish artist currently based in Cairo, Egypt. My work explores social issues and narrative through the medium of film. The current film project ‘More Out of Curiosity’ looks at a football fan movement in Egypt called the Ultras who mix politics with football. I am an Assistant Professor of Photography at the American University in Cairo. Previously I lived in Bristol and completed a practice-based PhD at the University of Wales in 2010.
 
Q2/ Your film work ‘More Out of Curiosity’ will be shown at The Mosaic Rooms on 13 June – it focuses on the ‘Ultras’, a group of Egyptian football fans. Can you tell us a bit more about this group and why they are significant in Egyptian politics?
 
The Ultras are one of the key players in the political debate in Egypt. Although a movement of fanatical football supporters and affiliated to different teams in the domestic league they often joined forces in street protests to remove Hosni Mubarak in 2011. This street activism was tragically played out in the Port Said incident in February 2012 when 74 Al-Ahly fans were killed in suspicious circumstances at a football game. The court verdict a year later found 21 guilty of murder and they were sentenced to death. The Ultras are a non-sectarian, classless mass movement and pose a threat to the post-2011 Egyptian governments; either Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood or the military backed new president Al-Sisi.

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Q3/ Can you tell us a bit about your experience of working in Egypt?
 
I arrived in Cairo to live in January 2012, three weeks before the Port Said incident. This event became a basis for me to engage with the legacy of the 2011 street politics as it became clear that a terrible violent reprisal against the Al-Ahly Ultras had taken place. I originally visited in 2011 when there seemed to be a real sense of optimism and social change however the atmosphere has transformed since those days. Over the years there have been some dark times of curfews and extreme violence. But outside of this everyday life in Cairo is amazing and the people are mostly resilient with a very vibrant culture. I feel privileged to live here and if you adjust or connect to the city it can be a very stimulating place to live. For me it’s  fascinating to explore and throws up the unexpected regularly as it is a place continually in flux.
 

Q4/ What are you working on right now? Are you planning any new projects?
 
I am continuing to work with the Ultras and will develop a 3rd film project that expands the ideas of representation and mediation of events into a long portrait film format. In addition to this Cairo seems to have an endless supply of interesting projects that surface randomly. I am working on a new film work on image censorship in Egypt. This new work will look at the stark difference between outward censorship versus private or hidden desires. I came across some intriguing images accidentally, first on a shared computer and then secondly in art books in a bookshop that have been doctored by a government agency. This traffic and control of imagery is particularly powerful in this context where public discourse is stifled and media outlets are essentially propagandist. And am also involved in an artist collective called the Ranciere Reading Group in Cairo and we have a number of shared projects. One of which, the Pensive Image, will be included in the Brighton Photo Biennial 2014.

Find more out about Ronnie Close’s event at The Mosaic Rooms, 7pm, 13 June, here. RSVP to reserve your place at rsvp@mosaicrooms.org

Algerian Supper Club with Chris Benarab of Azou Restaurant - MENU

The Mosaic Rooms at No 6 Brixton

The Mosaic Rooms hosted a community workshop day at No 6 Brixton in April 2014. Inspired by current artist in residence Sadek Rahim who is working in the studio there, members of the community were asked to draw a portrait of someone significant to them in their local community, as well as take their own portrait. A wall of images representing the local community was then created. The installation will be up for three weeks for visitors to the community space to see. Part of the Intervening Space: From The Intimate To The World exhibition programme, supported by Arts Council England.

Poetry workshops with Warsan Shire

Young Poet Laureate Warsan Shire led a workshop with young people from Baraka Youth, introducing them to Somali poetry and stimulating short texts written by the young people which were captured as audio recordings. Listen to the recordings here.

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Kate Holt from Arete Stories led a photography workshop with young girls from Baraka Youth and MCWG in April 2014, developing their composition and editing skills and learning how to make photo stories about their lives.

Kate Holt from Arete Stories led a photography workshop with young boys from Baraka Youth and MCWG in April 2014, developing their composition and editing skills and learning how to make photo stories about their lives.

Photo project with young people from the RBKC

Kate Holt from Arete Stories led photography workshops with young people from Baraka Youth and MCWG in April 2014, developing their composition and editing skills and learning how to make photo stories about their lives.

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Here’s a taster of The Mosaic Rooms’ new book, Mogadishu - Lost Moderns, by Rashid Ali and Andrew Cross

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Foreword, by Omar Al-Qattan

‘Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices’ accent, and also the features of their faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place.’1 Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, pp 30-31

The Mosaic Rooms are delighted to present Mogadishu - Lost Moderns, as part of Disappearing Cities of the Arab World, an ambitious cultural programme of exhibitions, talks and screening vcxzs, focused on the destruction of Arab urban life in the post-colonial age.

The city is the space where civic life becomes possible; where the tribal, ethnic or confessional divisions of the peoples who settle in it can potentially dissolve and mutate into unfamiliar forms of social order governed by new rules and customs. The city is also a centre of resistance to the invader and of rebellion against injustice. In it also lovers will meet anonymously, discovering new spaces in the imagination that would have been unthinkable in the countryside or desert, and developing new kinds of relationships. The city transforms our perceptions of childhood; our experiences of light and sound, of space and perspective, and of the past, present and future.

But cities are also great betrayers of their own inhabitants, repositories of vermin and dirt and pollution, as well as theatres of chaos, civil war and massacre. In the contemporary Arab world, cities have often been profoundly deceitful—promising lawfulness, peace, equality and freedom only to turn into prisons and traps for the unsuspecting citizen, who is often chased out from them or persecuted for the language he speaks or the God she worships (or indeed the one she repudiates).

Jaffa, Beirut, Lydd, Baghdad, Cairo, Aleppo, Homs, Tripoli (Libya and Lebanon), Kuwait City, Jerusalem, Mogadishu—these cities have, to varying degrees of course, undergone terrible destruction and violence in the post-colonial age, bearing witness to what can only be described as a failure of the civic project. Other cities are tragically promised similar fates…

Our programme explores the histories and consequences of this failure through art, architecture, literature, music and cinema. Far from a merely academic or nostalgic reflection on the processes that have led to this failure, we examine how the inhabitants of modern-day Arab cities have continued to resist the breakdown or destruction of their environments through civic projects or artistic expression—or simply through an improbable love affair!

The Programme opened in Spring 2013 with Dor Guez’s show 40 DAYS, focussed on the remaining Palestinian minority in the previously Palestiniancity of Lydd, almost completely depopulated in the 1948 war by the invading Israeli forces. Earlier in 2014, we featured two exhibitions on Baghdad, including a homage to its cultural hub at Al-Mutanabbi Street, which was devastated by a bomb in 2007. Spring 2014 hosted Mogadishu-Lost Moderns an exhibition looking at the past, present, and potential future of the Somali capital city.Other talks, lectures and readings within this programme will attempt to throw light on the continuing tragedies tearing apart the region’s societies where they are most intensely gathered: in the urban space.

This book accompanies The Mosaic Rooms’ current exhibition Mogadishu - Lost Moderns (on show until 26 April 2014). Find out about the exhibition here.

Buy the book in The Mosaic Rooms online bookshop here.

Q&A with photographer and filmmaker Andrew Cross, currently on show in The Mosaic Rooms’ exhibition Mogadishu – Lost Moderns (open until 26 April 2014)

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Q1/ Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us a bit about how you work / your approach to photography?

Actually, this is not an easy question to answer. I came to photography both early and late!?! I grew up with my father being an avid ‘amateur’ photographer and although I had my own camera from a fairly young age, I did not establish my own photographic practice as such until after studying fine art painting and working for a number of years as a gallery curator.

I sometimes describe my approach as ‘looking around corners’. In other words, I do not look at things head-on as it were, but in a manner that suggests there is also something unseen out of view that might in fact be the true subject of the work. This I believe is very much how we experience architecture.

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Q2/ These photographic works, specially commissioned by The Mosaic Rooms, were taken in the summer of 2013 during your trip to Mogadishu (Somalia’s capital city), with Somali-British architect Rashid Ali. Can you tell us a bit about the challenges you faced whilst photographing there?

For a multitude of reasons, many far to complex to explain here, my visit to Mogadishu was both intense and profound. What has to be recognised is that this was the first time I have been to Africa and certainly the first time I’ve visited what might be described as a ‘conflict-zone’. Not that these facts themselves were necessarily the most challenging aspects of my trip. Firstly I was made to feel very welcome and was looked after well by Rashid and his generous friends in Mogadishu. This was a very different way of working for me. I usually work alone often in remote locations and after considerable research and planning. To some extent I was working ‘blind’ and having to respond very quickly to what was in front of me. This was hard work in itself but very exciting. I was working perhaps much more in the manner of a ‘photo-journalist’, something I wouldn’t usually consider myself. This was very satisfying. Also I generally don’t ‘do people’ (and deal more with their traces). In Mogadishu, even though we were visiting sites mostly cordoned off from the general public, I did not have the luxury of being able to leave people out of the images. I am now so pleased this was something I had no choice but to confront.

Otherwise, my programme was very limited on a number of counts. Access to sites was limited, my ‘security’ was not always available, and I physically could not be out in the sun for more than 2-3 hours max. I therefore had to work very fast and was in the hotel for the rest of the time. Fortunately, not only could I relax watching the Tour de France but I was able to shoot video from my hotel room window, something that allowed yet another way of observing the city. Despite the frenetic nature of life on Mogadishu’s streets the ‘slow’ contemplative nature of these films is very much ‘my thing’..!

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Q3/ What do you hope these photographs will tell us about Mogadishu?

My visit to Mogadishu confirmed for me the social potential of architecture and I hope my pictures help people recognise this potential in the context of situations like Mogadishu today. I would like to refer to a quote by Nietzsche I recently came across. “Of what use, then, is the monumentalistic conception of the past, to the man of the present? He learns from it that the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again.”

To find out more, join Andrew Cross in conversation with Michaela Crimmin and Eugenie Dolberg, at As Seen from Here (26 March, 7pm at The Mosaic Rooms), rsvp@mosaicrooms.org.

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