Amidst the misery of the world in which we live, Paris-based Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi believes that art has the power to enact change and is a symbol of hope. “The Garden of Africa” is the world’s only private, non-denominational cemetery and memorial, which he personally funded to provide a dignified final resting place for hundreds of refugees, regardless of age, nationality or religion, who drowned while crossing the Mediterranean. I sit down with him to discuss his background, his art and how he came to build this paradisaical cemetery for migrants.
You were born in 1947 in Aïn Beïda. What was it like growing up in Algeria when it was a French department?
Colonization affected this area in a very profound and disastrous way in the sense that a lot of land was grabbed, which dislocated a tribal fabric that functioned formidably well and allowed the populations to live happily and peacefully. During the First and Second World Wars, many people in our country were taken to join the French army to defend a cause that wasn’t theirs, so you can imagine the tragedy of families who lost their children to the colonizer. During the Algerian Revolution, we lived under bombs, napalm, torture and imprisonment, and at the same time, it was a moment of great happiness, not in relation to the war, but in relation to life, as the population was totally united, in fraternity and humanity. We shared death and pain, but we also shared the desire to free our country.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Firstly, I never wanted to have a boss. I wanted to go through life, which is short compared to an olive tree, without any hindrances, impediments or prohibitions. In my opinion, art happened very early on, since my youth. From the age of five, I went to Koranic school at around 5 o’clock in the morning before the dawn prayer. We would work on wooden tablets coated in polished clay that we would heat up in the oven. We would write the Koranic texts and, at the end of each chapter, we drew in calligraphy, in geometrical drawing, so I already started to draw at that time. After Koranic school, we came back home for breakfast and afterwards, we went to the French school, where we learned spelling, French grammar, geography, a little history, etc. – the classic path of Western schools today. But in the afternoon, when we left French school, we didn’t go back home. We went to the madrasah where we learned Arabic grammar and vocabulary, physics, chemistry, the sciences. We went back home after that, did our homework for the next day, had dinner and recited from the Koran, one chapter before going to sleep, so there was no space for playing or anything like that. It was quite austere but, at the same time, it was also the way to penetrate into spirituality. And the houses where we lived, there was a lot of beautiful calligraphy, beautiful texts from the Koran on the walls.
Describe to me the works “Blue Lachrymatory Vases” and “Handkerchiefs of Hope” that you created during the pandemic for the exhibition “Tears that Taste of the Sea” at October Gallery in London, which represent tears shed to mourn the loss of loved ones due to displacement, migration, disaster or COVID-19.
In fact, the “Blue Lachrymatory Vases” started from the very small lachrymatories in blown glass that women put at the corner of their eye or at the angle of their nose to recover their tears when there was tragedy, pain, loss, etc. or tears of happiness due to birth, love, passion, marriage, etc., and it accompanied them in the coffin, the catafalque or the tomb. I had the idea to say that since it is painful with more than 30,000 dead today in the Mediterranean Sea, it is as if the big lachrymatories are for both the man and the woman to cry into the same container. That’s why there are four handles. They are like a woman who has two hands on her buttocks and the man who is in front of her also has two hands on his buttocks to be able to lower their heads a little and cry inside. It is to recover these tears of this terrible time that we are living in today: first the dead in the sea and, at the same time, COVID-19, all the terrifying history of this world today. Instead of only wiping away tears of pain, “Handkerchiefs of Hope” are painted on canvas with white acrylic paint on a black background, not the opposite. That’s the tragedy, but white paint that can maybe totally cover the black canvas is a place of hope.
The number of migrants who die trying to reach Europe by sea continues to rise. What motivated you to embark on “The Garden of Africa” project in Tunisia using your own funds?
For me, it was fundamental because during my childhood at the beginning of Algeria’s independence, I was 15 years old and I had a 16-year-old brother, who disappeared in the Mediterranean and his body was never found. And when I read that there were corpses of Christians, Muslims, animists and Buddhists washed up by the sea because they were leaving Libya clandestinely in rotting boats given to them by gangsters, I decided with great anger not only to give them a dignified and honorable burial, but also to build a cemetery for them imagined as a palace and garden of paradise, so they don’t end up in the public landfill eaten by dogs. It cost me all my life savings. There is a sea current that washes the bodies onto the beach of a town in the south of Tunisia called Zarzis, on the coast. The population absolutely refuses to let any body, even Muslim bodies, go into their cemetery. They have taken them with the garbage truck and thrown them into the rubbish tip, women, children, babies, men, etc. since 2003. Given the number of corpses that arrive, I’ll certainly have to double or even triple the size of the cemetery. It has been classified by UNESCO, by the director-general Audrey Azoulay who went there to inaugurate it. For me, it is to honor all the people who are there, and it is the only private cemetery that exists in the world because cemeteries depend all the time on cities everywhere, in the United States, in Argentina, in the Maghreb, in Europe and elsewhere. It is a cemetery that belongs to the Koraïchi family. I bought the land, I pay the caretaker and the gardener, and my children and grandchildren perhaps one day will continue to maintain this place symbolically to say we are all children of the same God, if we believe in it. There are Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, animists, everyone is here, in a house that I have financed for them.
Describe the cemetery you built. Is your art an act of resistance?
There are lots of plants in my cemetery garden in anger against cemeteries where you find condoms and the panties of girls who are going to make love there, beer cans between two bottles of wine, plastic bottles, plastic bags, it’s disgusting. In my cemetery, I made the deceased a palace like you will never have, even in your own houses. I included many crafts. For example, the ceramics were made by hand, one by one. I paid three times the price of the purchase of the land. I incorporated 17th-century Tunisian ceramics, when the people of Andalusia left traces of their work, the locks of the doors were made by locksmiths by hand, lock by lock, there’s cabinetmaking, the nail work on the doors was done by ironworkers. I wanted to make a large garden of paradise to hide the pestilential odors of the bodies that unfortunately remain a month and a half marinating in seawater and rotting on the beaches and also in the garbage dump. At the entrance, I ended up finding a 130-year-old olive tree that’s like a mirador or a lighthouse, you know. It gives olives that gives olive oil, a symbol of peace. Inside, there are five olive trees that symbolize the five pillars of Islam, which are an act of faith, prayer, fasting, donations to the poor and the pilgrimage to Mecca. There are magnificent marble tables and marble benches to have mint tea, cookies, a sandwich, to sit. It’s not a sinister cemetery; it’s bright. I even slept in the rooms there. For the Christians, I put 12 huge vines symbolizing the 12 apostles around Jesus Christ. I made a big multi-faith prayer room inside. On the opening day with Audrey Azoulay, the director of UNESCO, I brought the chief rabbi of the island of Djerba, where there is the oldest synagogue in the world, I brought the archbishop of Tunis, I brought an imam. The three of them said a prayer for all the dead. There are two big aisles of bitter orange trees. We call them bitter oranges, but we make jam from them, not sweet oranges. And at the same time, we make orange blossom extract to put into cakes, to wipe hands, to put in many things in life. We call it “ma’zhar” in the Arabic language, the water of luck, although bitter. After that, there are two counter-alleys from end to end with pomegranates. The closed pomegranate with its shell symbolizes strength. You can’t break a pomegranate with your hand like that, but a pomegranate seed, you crush it between your fingers. The good thing is that pomegranates, under their exterior, are like rubies that are encrusted against each other, which forms the power of the pomegranate in a fabulous way. After, there are two counter-alleys of jasmine from North Africa, which is very sweet and very fragrant. After, there is a fourth alley, out of seven. The fourth alley is an alley of Persian jasmine with thicker petals and a spicier smell. And then, in the fifth alley, there is night-blooming jasmine, or “night musk”. It is a plant that gives off an odor only at night, but extraordinary. It even covers the jasmine that we don’t smell anymore, so odorous is night-blooming jasmine, and it is extraordinary. Then, there are two counter-alleys of red bougainvillea, red symbolizing the blood in the human body, which is very oxygenated blood. All these plants like jasmine and bougainvillea are climbing plants, but I don’t treat them as climbers. I put metal supports on them so that they can become trees through pruning and they don’t climb on the walls. We prune to let the body below harden and thicken and become like the bitter orange tree, the jasmine tree, the Persian jasmine tree, the night-blooming jasmine tree, the bougainvillea tree, etc. Almost nobody has done this, but I absolutely wanted to give them a forest, as mentioned in the sacred texts, the old New Testament and the Koran, where we talk about gardens of paradise. My cemetery is their garden of paradise.