Trauma can be experienced through the body and the mind, either as severe physical injury or mental distress that causes long-term emotional impact. Performance artist Youcef Hadjazi bridges the gap between the body and the mind to explore and face individual trauma. Using movement and language to explore different spaces significant to the Algerian Civil War, Hadjazi’s exhibition—hosted by The Royal Standard as part of Liverpool Arab Arts Festival’s 2021 programme—depicts the artist performing a series of uniformed, erratic and strong movements, in a filmed performance, while shouting out locations of violent importance from the Algerian Civil War, in Arabic.
From growing up in Algeria then moving to Kuwait and now the UK, Hadjazi’s experiences of civil war and different locations have driven an interest in understandings of conflict and colonial trauma. A historic context is vital in understanding and engaging with Hadjazi’s performances and workshops. The Algerian Civil War began in 1991, officially coming to a close in 2002 and is often described as ‘The Black Decade’ by the media due to its sheer violence and loss of life. During this time, the conflict between Algerian government officials and various Islamic rebel groups meant that a significant number of lives were lost, cities were destroyed and refugees displaced. This conflict is viewed as a direct consequence of a French colonialism that created an identity disparity; being part of the French colony and being Algerian. It caused economic struggles and unemployment amongst Arabic-speaking graduates and professionals, as they were deemed less valuable than their French-speaking counterparts by the ruling class.
Alongside this political history and his personal experience of it, Hadjazi also uses psychotherapeutic methods such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), which he describes as ‘bilateral movements that distract the body from the mind,’ to help a person engage with, process and heal from trauma. Hadjazi’s experience of undergoing EMDR, alongside his observations of societal reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic, helped shape the exhibition, Trauma Then, Trauma Now, informing his research and the development of a workshop that took place on October 23 —also at The Royal Standard—that explored acts of everyday performance such as daily activities like making tea, and the different ways those activities can be acted out. Hadjazi draws parallels with how global society has adapted to the pandemic and how Algerian society adapted to the Algerian Civil War. The research he has conducted into the traumas of colonialism and of civil war’s conflicts, alongside the processes of psychotherapy, have provided him with new ways to connect with his own history and his current community.
Through this work, Hadjazi has begun a conversation and exploration into why societies act the way that they do, specifically members of society who identify as part of a diaspora. This emphasises their histories as colonies and the generational, assimilated trauma that these histories have produced. In a interview for this article held prior to the opening of the exhibition, Hadjazi stressed the importance of emphasising colonial history in the understanding of one’s own trauma, of how to bring awareness to each individual’s sociopolitical positionality, and what this means for our healing processes. For example, the intergenerational trauma resulting from colonial conflict suggests that, as Hadjazi expresses, ‘colonialism is infinite’ as throughout generations people are affected by their ancestors’ untreated trauma.
Intergenerational trauma is explored and investigated throughout Hadjazi’s research and art practice and notably in his public workshops. The workshop on October 23rd invited a variety of individuals, particularly those of post-colonial backgrounds, who have been affected by some form of European colonialism to explore their own connections with their ancestors and diasporic spaces. The main aim of the workshop was to engage people and different perspectives as part of the development of Hadjazi’s project, while giving individuals a space and chance to explore their individual ideas about or experiences of trauma. As someone with a history of post-colonial conflict and displacement, Hadjazi describes a close relationship with his research. For him, including other perspectives is vital to ‘depersonalise’ it and build some objectivity and broader understanding around his research and art practice.
The workshop began with an overview of Hadjazi’s research conducted over the last year or so, collated primarily by looking at the kinds of media and art created during the Algerian Civil War and listening to and reading the testimonies of those who were affected by the civil war. This workshop was Hadjazi’s first chance to explore the research materials through others’ perspectives. A psychoanalytic understanding of civil war was followed by an acknowledgement of the assimilation of trauma and how trauma is performed by people today. This approach helped frame the workshop as Hadjazi encouraged the participants to share their own understanding of trauma by simply asking each of us, ‘What is trauma?’ Throughout the workshop, Hadjazi reminded the participants that, ‘We are all artists’ to create a comfortable environment for thoughts and ideas to be shared and explored. Following discussion of this initial question, we began exploring the next question addressed to us, ‘What does trauma look like?’ This task suggested that participants draw out on paper their understandings and experiences of trauma and we were encouraged to write our names down, emphasising the importance of personal positionality and context of such art-making.
We were then asked to join in on a meditation activity that encouraged us to imagine trauma in a part of our body. This was further explored by drawing that part of the body that we viewed as afflicted by trauma. The final activity in the workshop included the song ‘Galou Hasni Mat’ by Cheb Hasni—a famous Algerian singer who was killed during the Algerian Civil—and participants were asked to listen to a reversed version of the song and then write three words that came to mind. Hadjazi described this as ‘turning the picture upside down’ and encouraging a subconscious response to the sounds. The workshop ended by putting up all the participants’ drawings and writings on the wall to create connections between the various ideas presented, using pins and thread.
Hadjazi carefully asked the group to share their understanding of trauma, visualising and physicalising that understanding to create connections between our own thought processes and the thought processes of others in the workshop. The workshop’s immersive and experimental structure helped to create physical connections between our own thoughts and memories whilst also creating social connections between the participants by exploring trauma and its consequences. By creating meaningful connections through activities and discussion, the workshop illuminated how trauma is relative and subjective; individuals respond to trauma in different physical and mental ways.
It is important, also, to note the importance of space when exploring post-colonial, generational trauma. Diasporic communities who have fled spaces of colonial conflict, civil war and economic disasters, are performing ‘acts of escapism,’ as Hadjazi terms it. Individuals and families flee homes that through traumatic experience have become spaces where physical and mental conflict has taken place as a result of colonialism and civil war, as in the case of Algeria. Therefore, being aware of how different spaces have affected these communities is important in the healing process. This act of escapism is a direct consequence of colonial and conflictual trauma which societies have attempted to solve by moving to more affluent countries. However, relocation itself doesn’t deal with the assimilated trauma that conflict creates. Hadjazi believes that once we bridge this gap between the present society and history, we can understand and face all our individual traumas better.
Hadjazi’s performances and public workshops demonstrate his point of view as both an artist and an observer. Using his own experience with trauma and conflict, his positionality and his art practice, Hadjazi is able to enter into complex conversations about trauma that support the generational healing of diasporic communities.
Mymona Bibi is a writer based in Newcastle.
Trauma Then, Trauma Now was hosted by The Royal Standard 21 October – 30 October, as part of Liverpool Arab Arts Festival‘s 2021 programme, which continues until 14 November.
This article is supported by Liverpool Arab Arts Festival.