Amid the misery of the world we live in, Paris-based Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi believes that art has the power to bring about change and is a symbol of hope. “The Garden of Africa” is the only private, non-denominational cemetery and memorial in the world, which he has personally funded to provide a dignified final resting place for hundreds of refugees, regardless of age, nationality or religion. , who drowned while crossing the Mediterranean. I sit down with him to discuss his journey, his art and how he came to build this heavenly cemetery for migrants.
You were born in 1947 in Aïn Beïda. What was it like growing up in Algeria when it was a French department?
Colonization has affected this area in a very deep and disastrous way in the sense that a lot of land has been grabbed, which has dislocated a tribal fabric that was working extremely well and allowing people to live happy and peaceful lives. During the First and Second World Wars, many people in our country were taken into the French army to defend a cause that was not theirs, so you can imagine the tragedy of the families who lost their children to the colonizer. During the Algerian Revolution, we lived under bombs, napalm, torture and imprisonment, and at the same time, it was a moment of great happiness, not in relation to war, but in relation to life , because the population was totally united, in fraternity and humanity. We shared death and pain, but we also shared the desire to liberate our country.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
First, I never wanted to have a boss. I wanted to go through life, which is short compared to an olive tree, without hindrances, impediments or prohibitions. In my opinion, art arrived very early, from my youth. From the age of five, I went to Koranic school around 5 a.m. before the dawn prayer. We worked on wooden tablets coated with polished clay which were heated in the oven. We wrote the Koranic texts and, at the end of each chapter, we drew in calligraphy, in geometric design, so I was already starting to draw at that time. After the Koranic school, we went home for breakfast and afterwards we went to the French school, where we learned spelling, French grammar, geography, a little history, etc – the classic way of Western schools today. But in the afternoon, when we left the French school, we didn’t come home. We went to the medersa where we learned Arabic grammar and vocabulary, physics, chemistry, science. We came home after that, did our homework for the next day, had dinner and recited the Quran, one chapter before going to sleep, so there was no space to play or anything like that. It was quite austere but, at the same time, it was also the way to enter into spirituality. And the houses where we lived, there were many beautiful calligraphy, beautiful texts from the Koran on the walls.
Describe to me the works “Blue Lacrymatory Vases” and “Handkerchiefs of Hope” you created during the pandemic for the “Tears that Taste of the Sea” exhibition at the October Gallery in London, which depict tears shed to cry the loss of loved ones due to displacement, migration, disaster or COVID-19.
Indeed, the “Blue Tear Vases” started from tiny blown glass tear gas canisters that women put in the corner of their eye or the angle of their nose to collect their tears when there was tragedy, pain, loss, etc. or tears of happiness due to birth, love, passion, marriage, etc., and he accompanied them in the coffin, the catafalque or the tomb. I had the idea to say that since it is painful with more than 30,000 dead today in the Mediterranean, it is as if the big tear gas were for the man and the woman to cry in the same container. That’s why there are four handles. They are like a woman who has two hands on her buttocks and the man in front of her also has two hands on his buttocks so that he can lower his head a little and cry inside. It is to recover those tears from this terrible time that we live in today: first the dead at sea and, at the same time, COVID-19, the whole terrifying history of this world today. Instead of just wiping away tears of pain, the “Handkerchiefs of Hope” are painted on canvas with white acrylic paint on a black background, not the other way around. It’s tragedy, but the white paint that can perhaps totally cover the black canvas is a place of hope.
The number of migrants who die trying to reach Europe by sea continues to rise. What motivated you to embark on the project “The Garden of Africa” in Tunisia with your own funds?
For me, it was fundamental because during my childhood at the beginning of the independence of Algeria, I was 15 years old and I had a 16-year-old brother, who disappeared in the Mediterranean and whose body never been found. And when I read that there were corpses of Christians, Muslims, animists and Buddhists washed up on the seashore because they were smuggled out of Libya in rotting boats given to them by gangsters, decided with great anger not only to grant them a dignified and honorable burial status, but also to build them a cemetery imagined as a palace and a garden of paradise, so that they would not end up in the garbage dump devoured by dogs. It cost me all my savings. There is a sea current that carries the bodies on the beach of a town in southern Tunisia called Zarzis, on the coast. The population categorically refuses to allow any body, even Muslim, to enter their cemetery. They took them with the garbage truck and threw them in the dump, women, children, babies, men, etc. since 2003. Given the number of corpses arriving, I will certainly have to double or even triple the size of the cemetery. It was classified by UNESCO, by the director general Audrey Azoulay who went there to inaugurate it. For me, it’s to honor all the people who are there, and it’s the only private cemetery that exists in the world because cemeteries depend on cities all the time everywhere, in the United States, in Argentina, in the Maghreb, in Europe and elsewhere. It is a cemetery that belongs to the Koraïchi family. I bought the land, I pay the caretaker and the gardener, and my children and grandchildren may one day continue to maintain this place symbolically to say that we are all children of the same God, if we believe in it. There are Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, animists, everyone is there, in a house that I financed for them.
Describe the cemetery you built. Is your art an act of resistance?
There are lots of plants in my cemetery garden angry at cemeteries where you find condoms and the panties of the girls who go there to have sex, cans of beer between two bottles of wine, plastic bottles, plastic bags, it’s disgusting. In my cemetery, I have made the deceased a palace such as you will never have, even in your own homes. I have included many crafts. For example, the ceramics were made by hand, one by one. I paid three times the purchase price of the land. i incorporated 17e-century Tunisian ceramics, when the Andalusians left traces of their work, the locks of the doors were made by locksmiths by hand, lock by lock, there is cabinetmaking, the work of the nails on the doors was done by ironworkers. I wanted to make a big garden of paradise to hide the pestilential odors of the bodies that unfortunately remain for a month and a half to marinate in seawater and rot on the beaches and also in the dumps. At the entrance, I ended up finding a 130-year-old olive tree that looks like a watchtower or a lighthouse, you know. He gives olives which gives olive oil, a symbol of peace. Inside there are five olive trees which symbolize the five pillars of Islam, which are an act of faith, prayer, fasting, giving to the poor and pilgrimage to Mecca. There are gorgeous marble tables and marble benches to have mint tea, cookies, a sandwich, sit down. It’s not a grim graveyard; it’s bright. I even slept in the rooms there. For Christians, I put 12 huge vines symbolizing the 12 apostles around Jesus Christ. I made a large multi-denominational prayer room inside. On the opening day with Audrey Azoulay, the director of UNESCO, I brought the Chief Rabbi from the island of Djerba, where the oldest synagogue in the world is located, I brought the Archbishop of Tunis , I brought an imam. The three of them said a prayer for all the dead. There are two large avenues of bitter orange trees. We call them bitter oranges, but we make jam out of them, not sweet oranges. And at the same time, we make orange blossom extract to put in cakes, to wipe our hands, to put a lot of things in life. It is called “ma’zhar” in Arabic, the water of luck, although bitter. After that, there are two end-to-end sidewalks with grenades. The closed pomegranate with its shell symbolizes strength. You can’t break a pomegranate with your hand like that, but you crush a pomegranate seed between your fingers. The good thing is that the pomegranates, under their exterior, are like rubies embedded against each other, which forms the power of the pomegranate in a fabulous way. After that, there are two side aisles of North African jasmine, which is very sweet and very fragrant. After that, there is a fourth aisle, out of seven. The fourth aisle is an aisle of Persian jasmine with thicker petals and a spicier smell. And then, in the fifth aisle, there is night jasmine, or “night musk”. It is a plant that gives off an odor only at night, but extraordinary. It even covers the jasmine that we no longer smell, so fragrant is the night jasmine, and it’s extraordinary. Then there are two sidewalks of red bougainvillea, the red symbolizing the blood in the human body, which is very oxygenated blood. All of these plants like jasmine and bougainvillea are vines, but I don’t treat them like vines. I put metal supports on them so that they become trees by pruning and that they do not climb on the walls. We prune to let the body below harden and thicken and become like bitter orange, jasmine, Persian jasmine, night-flowering jasmine, bougainvillea, etc. Almost no one did this, but I absolutely wanted to give them a forest, as mentioned in the sacred texts, the Old New Testament and the Koran, where they speak of gardens of paradise. My cemetery is their garden of paradise.