French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed mixes passion and politics in his first major Los Angeles exhibition

Los Angeles

From Here to Eternity, Adel Abdessemed’s first major exhibition in Los Angeles, marked a startling departure for the French-Algerian artist. Abdessemed, now in his mid-40s, is best known for his powerful, visceral works that often reference the horrific Algerian civil war, which he witnessed when he was an art student in the 1990s. Themes of cruelty, violence and animal sacrifice have been prevalent in his work, and his shows have even been shut down due to their disturbing content, most notably two years ago in Qatar, and in San Francisco in 2008. “As artists, we must generate tensions for something very positive and extraordinary to come out,” the artist once said. “Without struggle, there would be very little art, very little invention.”

But Abdessemed’s latest show, which ran in November and December at Venus gallery in Los Angeles, stood out for its passion and humanity. For his LA debut, Abdessemed unveiled a series of nearly 100 black stone drawings on paper and military tarpaulin, distinguishing this show from previous exhibitions, which generally highlighted video, sculpture and conceptual art. The title of the show, From Here to Eternity, was inspired by the 1953 film starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, and many works in the exhibition depicted variations on the movie’s pivotal scene, in which the two lead actors kiss passionately as waves crash over them.

While it would appear that these works were a simple tribute to the iconic 1953 film, there was — as in most of Abdessemed works — a strong political message that the artist wanted to communicate. As a child in Algeria, Abdessemed viewed Western films under the strict censorship of an oppressive Algerian government, which cut out all scenes that portrayed physical contact between the sexes. Years later, he revisited his youth through his artwork, in an attempt perhaps to revive the love and beauty that the Algerian government had so violently tried to eradicate.

In addition to the works referencing the film From Here to Eternity, Abdessemed also showed drawings of a young woman posing, a man sweeping the floor and an owl that looked out at the viewer with an enigmatic gaze. As with most of Abdessemed’s works, the ultimate message isn’t always immediately evident, but the power of the black stone drawings, and the raw passion they exude, is exactly what we’ve come to expect from the prolific artist.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Interventions Issue #34, on page 35.