Adel Abdessemed is no stranger to controversy. His violent work is a vast collection of hard-hitting provocations executed with discerning sensitivity, serving both to reflect and antagonise the world he operates within. Working across sculpture, film, drawing, installation, live ‘acts’ and photography, Abdessemed is a world-class contemporary polymath who remains the youngest artist in history to be given a solo retrospective at the Pompidou Centre.
Born in Constantine, Algeria in 1971, Abdessemed’s life and art has been shaped by terror and violence. During the first few years of increasing tensions between the government and various guerrilla factions in Algeria, Abdessemed studied Fine Art at École Supérieure des Beaux Arts. In 1994 Ahmed Assalah, the University’s director, and his son were murdered on school grounds, which led Abdessemed to evacuate his home country. Moving to Lyon, he enrolled at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts to complete his studies and then worked at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. In 2000, Abdessemed was awarded a prestigious residency at MoMA PS1 in New York, where his work was exhibited in the group exhibition Uniform: Order and Disorder. With his time in the city marked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Abdessemed moved back to Paris, where he is still tirelessly exposing the cruel and inconvenient realities of systemic, organised violence through his work.
Abdessemed’s solo retrospective, Je Suis Innocent at the Pompidou Centre in 2013 saw a five metre tall, bronze effigy of the seminal moment that Zinedine Zidane head-butted Marco Materazzi in the final minutes of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final between France and Italy. Zidane, like Abdessemed, is of Algerian, Berber descent; while he was provoked by a racial slur from Materazzi, the reaction ended Zidane’s illustrious career, France went on to lose the match, and is ultimately remembered as a shameful national failure. Monumentalising such a complex contemporary moment with the epic grandeur of Soviet nationalist sculpture rouses an intricate web of racial, religious, micro and macro violences that collide with the murky boundaries between aggressor and victim.
In Cri Abdessemed reproduces the figure of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, famously known as ‘Napalm Girl’, from the iconic photograph The Terror of War, which captured a group of children fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam. First presented in Silent Warriors at London’s Parasol Unit in 2010, Cri is made solely out of mammoth ivory: the young child’s polished naked figure, screaming with terror and arms flailing, freezes the cruel frantic reality into a slow, vicious and unignorable stillness.
The use of animals in Abdessemed’s work has made him the subject of protest and public outcry. The 2018 video, Spring, showing a line of chickens hung on a wall being set on fire, was taken out of his solo show L’antidote at the MAC Lyon following outrage from animal rights activists. Although Abdessemed worked with special effects technicians to ensure no animals were harmed during filming and stated that the work in fact denounces the mistreatment of animals, it was not the first time that the ethics of Abdessemed’s work had been questioned. Perhaps most notably, his solo show at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2018, Don’t Trust Me, was shut down after death threats made to the artist due to a video that documented animals being brutally slaughtered. Abdessemed maintains that the violence he documented in the video would have happened whether he witnessed it or not, yet such controversy only emphasises the urgency of Abdessemed’s practice. Serving to expose an ugly but necessary truth, his work is merely an articulation of the world in which he has lived; as Abdessemed put it himself, “The world is violent – not me”.