October 22, 2020

Mohamed Bourouissa, photographer of the dispossessed, wins Deutsche Börse prize

The French Algerian artist-activist awarded the £30,000 photography prize for an installation first exhibited at a Monoprix supermarket

The French Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa, has won the 2020 Deutsche Börse photography prize for his ambitious installation Free Trade, which was first exhibited across an entire floor of a Monoprix supermarket as part of the Les Rencontres d’Arles photography festival last year.

Using photography, video, painting, text, drawing and sculpture, Bourouissa’s work reflects the precarious lives of the marginalised inhabitants of France’s major cities as they find ways to negotiate the market-driven economy.

Brett Rogers, director of the Photographers’ Gallery in London and the chair of the judges, described the exhibition as “phenomenal”, adding: “It would be impossible not to consider this year’s award announcement through the lens of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the many deep-rooted social, economic, racial and political injustices it has exposed and amplified.” The announcement was made digitally via a short film narrated by the actor Juliet Stevenson.

In my review of the Arles photography festival, I described Bourouissa “a quintessentially contemporary artist”, whose show was “a challenging, compelling report from the margins”. In the cramped confines of the Photographers’ Gallery, Bourouissa’s exhibition inevitably lost some of its sprawling, provocative thrust, but it remained the most powerful and urgently contemporary work on display in a shortlist that was otherwise slightly underwhelming.

Free Trade brought together several of his series from the last 15 years, including Périphérique, which traces the lives of unemployed youths in the Paris banlieues using various mediums including smartphone and surveillance footage as well as virtual sculptures created with augmented reality. The haunting video piece Temps Mort arose out of the artist’s phone communication with a friend who was then in prison.

He says of his work: “When I was in school, I learned about the history of art. But that didn’t introduce other aspects of my home culture or leave traces of the people around me, so later I decided to try to bring my home culture into the history of art. For me it’s about the idea of integration: how we can integrate our own histories into that one.”

Bourouissa engages directly with those who are disempowered and demonised by France’s politicians and rightwing media. His work also highlights the ways in which the often clandestine exchanges of money, goods and labour that define their everyday existence echoes mainstream market capitalism in its Darwinian thrust. Engaged, provocative and alert to the complex political and social tensions reverberating around his subjects, he is an artist-activist for our turbulent times.