A tooth in the right side of Lydia Ourahmane’s mouth had always given her trouble. Seven or eight years ago, she had a disastrous root canal and the tooth, a maxillary molar, never really recovered. Around the time Ourahmane graduated from Goldsmiths, London, in 2014, with an undergraduate degree in fine art, she was driving out of town in a friend’s van. They had taken their lunches with them to eat on the road. Ourahmane took a bite – she can’t recall what she was eating that day but she remembers that it was soft – and the tooth, always bothersome, loosened completely and fell out into her food. There was only a stump of it left in her mouth. She later had to have it extracted, leaving a sizable gap.
Ourahmane’s missing tooth wasn’t the starting point of her strangely moving, curiously powerful, multi-part installation In the Absence of Our Mothers (2018). But, in a way, the story of how and why – and to what effect and with which materials – she has filled the gap is the piece, in its fullest expression. Over the past five years, Ourahmane has produced a highly distinguished body of work balancing brute facts (the cruelties of colonialism, the inequities of late capitalism) and tough materials (oil drums, tyres, concrete and steel rebar, a crumbling wall) with elements of history or experience that might be best described as vaporous, including family secrets, a boxer’s disembodied breath, a trumpet solo, the suggestion of a crime and the rumour of an act of extreme political resistance. Algeria, the country where the artist was born and to which she often returns, has laid out before her a dense matrix of both obvious and hidden concerns, all laced into conflicts that are, she says, ‘very much on the surface, where you can touch everything’. In the Absence of Our Mothers began not with her own toothache but with her grandfather’s decision to pull out every one of his teeth in a single day: a form of extreme self-mutilation that made him definitively unfit for fighting on behalf of the French in World War II.
Raised on the Algeria-Morocco border, Tayeb Ourahmane was a sniper and a good one. He did two years of compulsory military service in colonial Algeria in the 1930s. The French kept him in the army for more than a decade and forced him to train fellow soldiers against his will. When it was clear that he was going to be sent to the trenches of Europe, he took the most drastic measure he could think of to exercise his right to decline. He went on to become a major figure in the Algerian war for independence, a gruesome conflict that lasted nearly a decade, from 1954 to 1962. And his resistance was never tainted. The revolution that liberated the country from France was quickly corrupted in power. Until his death in 1979, Tayeb Ourahmane refused to be honoured by the regime that had won the war but sacrificed a hopeful democracy for a reliable autocracy.
Lydia Ourahmane’s father was one of 12 siblings. All her life, she had heard whispers of her grandfather’s story. But it wasn’t until 2015, when she visited an uncle much older than her father, that she got the full account – with supporting documents. That same year, while she was researching harragas – North African migrants who burn their passports before being trafficked (by flimsy boat) to Spain – Ourahmane met a young man at a street market in Oran. He had his wares laid out on a flat sheet, but the artist wasn’t particularly interested in anything he had to sell. When she turned to leave, he pulled out a woman’s gold chain and offered it to her for €300. Initially she walked away, before returning to ask him where he had gotten the necklace. He said his mother had given it to him to sell for the family. Ourahmane imagined he had stolen it for the cost of the crossing to Spain, that his mother might never know, that he was acting, or rebelling, in her absence.
Ourahmane bought the necklace. She toyed with it as a performance prop for a few years and then had it melted down. She turned the metal into two gold teeth. One of them is delicately mounted wherever In the Absence of Our Mothers is installed. The other has been wound onto a nickel screw drilled directly into her jawbone. The process wasn’t pretty or smooth – the tooth fell out the very first day it was implanted and another four times after that – but the language of integration and acceptance that accompanied it fit beautifully, seamlessly, into her practice. These two gold teeth are foreign objects, both precious and ordinary. They expand the metaphorical potential of Ourahmane’s interest in buried histories and clandestine journeys, making In the Absence of Our Mothers at once corporeal, speculative (as evidence of both actual and imagined transactions), durational and dauntingly intimate.
Reflecting on the piece in her own body, Ourahmane says: ‘Now I’m acutely aware of this thing in my mouth because it’s much hotter than the rest of my teeth. The shape is also not quite right so food gets stuck back there and I’ve had to develop this routine of carrying floss.’ But, like her grandfather, the artist is steadfast. She says she’ll never remove it. It will outlast her own life – but not her art.
Lydia Ourahmane is an artist based in London, UK, and Oran, Algeria. In the Absence of Our Mothers was commissioned by and first shown at Chisenhale Gallery, London, as part of a solo exhibition earlier this year. In 2018, Ourahmane has had solo presentations at Kunstverein Munich, Germany, and Kevin Space, Vienna, Austria, and her work has been shown in group exhibitions including MMAG Foundation, Amman, Jordan, New Museum Triennial, New York, USA, Jaou Tunis, Tunisia, and Manifesta 12, Palermo, Italy. Her work is currently on view in ‘Crude’ at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, UAE, until 30 March 2019 and ‘Vies en Video’ at Museum of Modern Art, Algiers, Algeria, until 31 January 2019.
Published in frieze, issue 199, November-December 2018, with the title ‘One Take: Things to Chew Over’.
Main image: Lydia Ourahmane, In the Absence of Our Mothers, 2018. Courtesy: the artist, Chisenhale Gallery, London; photograph: Andy Keate
First published in Issue 199