“Art Couscous”: Chewing on the Colonial Experience

By Sylvie Durmelat
Submitted to Session P4886 (Colonialism and Culinary Cultures in the Middle East and North Africa, 2017 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
Maghreb;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The North African specialty of couscous holds a particularly meaningful, if ambiguous, place in the French culinary pantheon. The dish has consistently ranked among the French’s top favorite food in national polls since 2004. It is a ubiquitous and regular offering, not just in ethnic restaurants, but also in cafeteria, collective catering, fast food joints, and supermarkets. Notably, by the end of the twentieth century, France was the leading producer and consumer of couscous in Europe. Paradoxically, this specialty has also had the potential to crystallize anxieties about sexual, racial and national identities, colonial legacies and immigration. Because couscous is considered both as familiar and exotic, authentic and industrialized, homey and cosmopolitan, it provides a unique window into how colonial legacies are embodied and reprocessed into new hegemonies, and new forms of resistances.
My paper examines how a number of works by contemporary visual artists of Maghrebi origins, working in and out of France, have used couscous as a material, building on its rich social, historical and symbolic connotations, and thus have reinvigorated the cultural capital of the dish. Recently exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York, French-Algerian artist Kader Attia’s Untitled (Gardhaïa) (2009) represents a scale model of the ancient Algerian city of Gardhaïa, made entirely out of cooked couscous. Placed on a very large dish that mimics the one used to roll and serve couscous, this couscous feast of sorts is ironically served to two large pictures of Le Corbusier and Pouillon, both modernist architects who were inspired by the clean lines of the ancient city but never acknowledged this influence. As building block and offering, couscous clearly highlights the fact that the colonized fed the colonizer ideas and models, as well as food. Attia’s work is also an homage being paid to his mother’s couscous and to the gestures and culinary know how that make this dish, which he likens to an art form.
My paper also focuses on lesser known artists and their works such as “Ni, ni, ni” (2007) by Zoulikha Bouabdellah, “Handmade: Graines” (2012) by Ymane Kakhir, and works by Mehdi-Georges Lalou and Yazid Oulab, exhibited together in Paris. These works demonstrate that couscous, moving from the colonial burlesque, via industrialized food, to highbrow contemporary art, has become a tool to reflect about, and not just reproduce, the past, and propose a more convivial future.