Staying faithful to my blood
If the core of Sadik’s approach can be put in a single word, that word is fragility. Her characters, both real and imaginary, are fragile, even if they don’t want it to show, because of their social and political status. The “homies,” Blacks, Arabs, Muslims, etc., who populate and sustain her work are the same people called, not so long ago, the “wretched of the earth.” Cursed by the field of politics, structural racism, unemployment, and job insecurity, cursed for their religion, culture, and language. This fragility is “objective”; in and of itself it tells us nothing about what Sadik’s texts and images are talking about. Yet it has to be mentioned to understand what her work is not. When an object is fragile, you don’t want it to fall into the wrong hands. Ever since rap and “urban culture” have spread everywhere—in fashion, music, advertising, sports, radio and social media—the figure of the “gangsta,” the “youth,” potential producer and consumer, has become a prime aesthetic object for the commodity merchants. It goes without saying that artists inevitably see their work requested and digested all the better to conquer people’s imaginations, i.e., to figure out what’s hot or to make things hot, producing trendy merchandise even as new trends are barely being born in various subcultures.
This by-the-book looting of minority cultures does not, however, represent a way out for its actors. Far from it. Sadik’s approach is an antidote to this aesthetics of looting. Rather than exploit the fragility of her characters, she tries to welcome it and make it a subjective force. Her texts and images never invite the viewer who is a stranger to the urban cultures she stages (and addresses in an almost robotic voice in several of her films and performances) to enjoy the thrill of some shocking image, the latest punchline or fashionable putdown. Sadik’s universe is well rooted in the material universe and the online imagery of young men in the hood. A significant part of her work consists of documenting these subjective worlds in Marseille, where she is deeply rooted, a city that has its own codes, rap and, references.
If Sadik welcomes this fragility, it’s because she knows it all too well. As soon as you leave the space allotted to you by social, economic and symbolic apartheid, you’re no longer “at home”. You’ll never be at home in “the business world,” nor at school, nor in university lecture halls or the art world. At best, they’ll take from you whatever sells well. But they’ll ask you to forget where you came from, your friends, family, accent and street talk. You’ll be expected to change the way you speak, see the world, the way you feel, eat, walk, and pray, the way you dress. They try to make you ashamed of who you were and the people you were with.
The appropriation of subaltern lifestyles (working class, “the projects,” urban) by an aesthetics of looting is never redemptive. Sadik teaches us that in order to resist shame, it’s not enough to hype three ghetto-style influencers, copy their fashion statements, or make shiny paper prints of nice photos of your building and your friends smoking a water pipe. You can have fun and make a little money (which ain’t bupkis, of course), but that’s not learning to love yourself and those who look like you.
All too often the debate about aesthetics focuses on “minority representation.” Liberation is thus depicted as getting beyond stereotypes. That is, the children of immigrants are not all unemployed, all incarcerated, all delinquents, all macho guys, all Islamist fundamentalists. Yet for Sadik, these images don’t need fixing. While a “corrective” aesthetics may be possible, the only result would be to promote truly insipid models of social integration.
What she wants is to enlarge these images of her people. For instance, in Zetla Zone (2019), she presents a desert oasis. She invents superpowers borrowed from the Saiyans from Dragon Ball Z and Jul’s OVNI;she turns Oasis fruit soda and Capri Sun juice boxes into marvelous elixirs. Sadik works with augmented reality, making worlds where fantasy and futuristic memes offer to corps d’exception (colonialized bodies whose lives don’t matter) other ways to know and recognize themselves and each other, to get together and love each other.
The self-knowledge Sadik imparts is neither a fashion statement nor a sociological representation of an impoverished world. The mirror she offers the wretched of the earth is above all a mirror that reflects the soul, or better said, the heart. Her texts, sculptures and images are extracts from an archive of the self—but a secret archive, a private place that nevertheless opens up wherever you want to find it. Sadik’s not a psychologist, she’s an archeologist of the present. She gleans from cultural expressions, social media, rap, Tiktok clips and prisoners’ Instagram accounts, everything that reveals an interiority, an affectivity, a subterranean place where emotions just being born are nipped in the bud by the war of each against all—and the “character-armor” that is the only refuge from the violence among the poor themselves driven by the system.
Thus, the self-recognition that emerges from her work is not just an identitarian potpourri, as hurried viewers often see it. Her search for phrases and references is akin to “gestic theater,” as Walter Benjamin wrote about Bertolt Brecht. Benjamin was able to recognize the importance of the gesture in Brecht’s work because for the former, allegories could only come to life through montage, composite images. Recognizing yourself in the fantastical journeys Sadik’s characters undergo means projecting your imaginary and cultural life into the realm of the fable. Rediscovering your own references, your own ways of doing things and talking, is not just a self-indulgent pastime, as pleasurable as it may be. Certain “codes”—cultural, vernacular, minority—are usually considered illegitimate, but they reflect unexplored interior realities that are accorded no rightful place. This is the beauty Sadik brings out, the beauty of certain gestures and phrases that suddenly impart a powerful mythic dimension to life on the streets.
What Sadik also teaches us—since she presents herself as someone who offers instruction—is that the wretched of the earth are also the forgotten of caring contact and the forgotten of love. As is said further on, love can’t be reduced to a romantic encounter, but loving relationships—or their absence—occupy an important place in her work overall. Readers of Fredric Jameson know just how useful science fiction can be for representing other modes of relating to one another, other kinds of daily lives. Sadik imagines worlds where machines reteach us how to love and dating becomes (again) a game, like in the virtual environment built with GTA tools in Khtobtogone (2021) and the competition in Carnalito Full Option (2020). It’s no accident that the latter work was made in collaboration with young reform school inmates. Literal prisons, the prison of a neighborhood or a bullshit job, are all prisons of the heart. But Sadik isn’t trying to fix gender or male-female relationships. She’s reporting about the mourning for authentic contact, and offers as a replacement a fertile regression—not the psychoanalytic kind but a group regression into boys being boys.
Teenage gangs designate another site of love, beyond interactions between lovers—love of your homies, of your mama, the people you would give your life for. Sadik’s virtual scenarios involve ways in which people relearn how to love one another, and being able to do that is in itself one of the most intimate and political themes in her work. When the white world sees you and makes you see yourself as a barbarian, rapist, predator, hoodlum, when this world doesn’t want your hijabi mothers and sisters to go along on school outings to help the teacher, when this world promises you prison, an electronic bracelet or dead-end jobs for life, learning to love yourself is a real struggle. Loving yourself is not just the narcissistic consumerism of a selfie. Loving yourself and others like you turns out to be inextricably linked. They constitute the secret desire driving the dream-work in this artist’s compositions and collages, and are at the heart of an ethical question: How can I give without losing myself since I’ve already given everything? How can I get away from the traitors and stay faithful to my blood?
Love, omnipresent in its expanded meaning in Sadik’s work, goes up against the war of each against all. It also goes up against the state of unworthiness to which the media/ political complex seeks to reduce ghetto inhabitants and the illegitimacy with which their dreams are branded. Skeptical viewers inevitably ask, Isn’t this just an undeserved romanticization of young men whose crimes and misdemeanors “everybody knows about”? That question says more about the person who asks it than young men of color and the aggressive and sexual phantasmagoria they are tainted with, even if that fantasy might be close to reality. The excitement felt by the petty bourgeois and upper classes when enjoying nasty stories, minor perversions and morbid, pornographic tales about the poor recalls the classical (and extremely moralistic) portraits found in the French naturalistic literary tradition, denounced at the time by socialist theorists—just read the acerbic critique of Zola’s novels by Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law. But even more, this voyeuristic reveling in debauchery is also a feature of the art world, even among self-styled “progressive” critics and museum-goers who embrace their era’s most extreme cynicism and totally abandon any attachment to truth and its beauty.
At a time when the French power structure is denouncing and passing laws against a fictional “separatism” in immigrant communities, Sadik reminds us that “community” is not a choice or solution offered to those excluded from the white world, but a real question. Love is more than a frustrated aspiration; it’s also a profound feeling that shakes up what you expected from yourself and from life, like the character in Khtobtogone who interrogates himself about his deepest existential choices. The political power of Sadik’s productions is the way it shows the complex—and always necessarily recommenced— work of subaltern cultures to bring together and raise people whom a whole world wants to divide, crush, and humiliate. The incredulous, people who consider themselves well-informed and well-behaved, will see nothing here but a major industry peopled with phony auto-tuned singers and semi-illiterate rappers, teenagers lost forever in their screens, and pathetic video game junkies.
At a far distance from the clichés of the dominant opinion—from white nationalist TV talk shows to high school staffrooms—and breaking with market-based looting, art can also be truly contemporaneous with the subaltern and their own “cultural work.”
Félix Boggio Éwanjé-Épée is a high school philosophy teacher.
Stella Magliani-Belkacem is a publisher (La fabrique éditions).
In the French text, the expression le sang (blood) refers to a slang expression from Marseille which means a person so close that they could be of the same family, the same blood
Jul is a French rap artist from Marseille, whose sixth album, called L’Ovni (the UFO), refers to his nickname on the rap scene.