Algeria celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence from France this year, and a local project has been part of the festivities.
Five years ago, artist Geo Sipp and writer Conger Beasley Jr., both of Kansas City, had a meeting of the minds.
Independently, each had been looking into the history of the French-Algerian War, notorious for the widespread use of torture.
In the course of their readings, both came to see parallels between what happened at Abu Ghraib during the U.S. war in Iraq and what happened in Algeria half a century ago, when the French military used techniques such as waterboarding to elicit information from members of the Algerian resistance.
There were horrific acts on both sides.
“The French-Algerian war was the first modern war,” Sipp said in an interview at his home studio in the Roanoke/Valentine neighborhood. “There were suicide bombers, women fighters (see accompanying story), terrorism, street-to-street and house-to-house combat. Torture was implemented with no apology.”
Beasley, a novelist and travel writer, lives in St. Joseph; Sipp is a professor of art at Western Missouri University in St. Joseph. Together, they conceived the idea of doing a graphic novel about the Algerian war.
Beasley would write the narrative; Sipp, an accomplished printmaker who enjoyed a successful career as an illustrator before turning to teaching, would do the images.
Their “Wolves in the City” tells the story of Buster Higby, an American who serves in the French Foreign Legion during the French-Algerian War. Fleeing a murder rap in small-town Missouri, he enlists in the French military and is sent to Algeria. There, Buster, who has taken the name Bertrand, becomes part of a special squad charged with interrogating Algerian insurgents.
Bertrand becomes a highly effective torturer. He also falls in love, and his professional and personal involvements entwine in a dramatic denouement.
As of this fall, Beasley has the story blocked out and Sipp has completed four dozen of the anticipated 200-plus images for the novel.
In October, he exhibited 22 of them in a solo show at the Festival International de la Bande Dessinee Algeria, a big comics and graphic novel festival that coincided with the country’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
“I was invited by the Algerian Cultural Ministry and the directors of the festival to show work,” Sipp said. He traveled to Algiers to attend the festival, where he spoke on several panels. His visit included a dinner with the French ambassador to Algeria and the French cultural minister.
Most of the images Sipp is creating for the book are drawings on glass, which he grains with carborundum grit to achieve a frost-textured surface.
By exposing the drawings on glass to photosensitized etching plates, he has made editioned prints, which he exhibits as stand-alone works of art.
Printmaking is Sipp’s specialty. For the chapter breaks of “Wolves in the City” he is creating a series of woodcuts. Like the drawings, they reflect his admiration for German expressionist artists such as Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann, who exaggerated and abstracted their figurative compositions to convey anxiety and emotion.
Sipp also is working on a series of paintings based on French newsreels of the Algerian war, which will be used, he said, for “scenes of drama and historical impact — particularly battle scenes” — in the book.
Drawing on a technique he used as a commercial illustrator, he makes a copy of the newsreel image he wants to use, then traces it on drafting film, heightening the contrasts.
“I eliminate a lot of detail and go mostly for the emotive form,” he said. The process involves applying repeated layers of tape, paint and resin to the image, which, he said, heightens luminosity and a sense of transparency.
Sipp’s images will carry most of the narrative. Text passages will appear, not as word balloons but on a separate page or in a box below the images, which will sometimes run for several pages.
“It relies on a visually educated audience,” Sipp said.
The graphic novel has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years, as evidenced by an international proliferation of comics and graphic novel festivals and the format’s increasing appearance on library shelves and in school curricula.
Some date the medium’s literary legitimacy to Art Spiegelman’s 1992 graphic novel, “Maus,” which earned the author a Pulitzer Prize.
In summer 2011, Spiegelman joined master comics artists Gary Panter and Chris Ware for a panel on the fine art of comics at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Earlier this month, in a column on “graphic novels that would make good gifts,” the Boston Globe cited Ware’s boxed set, “Building Stories,” as “the standout work of the year.”
Ware is one of the artists Sipp most admires.
To date, most of Sipp’s drawings for “Wolves in the City” have been of riots and raids — what he calls “establishment shots,” evoking the mood of the story. Guiding his visualizations are detailed scripts written by Beasley.
For the book’s opening image of a French army raid on an Arab village east of Algiers, Beasley’s script calls for a “wide, full-page visual show(ing) soldiers, Foreign Legionnaires — a hard-bitten band of disciplined killers — armed with automatic weapons, dressed in camouflaged uniforms, fatigue caps with pointed bills, baggy blouses bound across the chest with bandoleers of machine-gun bullets, pant legs tucked into the tops of dusty combat boots, charging across a dry, grassless patch of red-dirt earth.”
“The story draws in part on popular American mythology,” Sipp said. “In the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, joining the French Foreign Legion was a popular fantasy for a man with a sense of adventure and virility.”
At the time, “Beau Geste,” a 1924 novel adapted for film and stage about the adventures of three brothers who join the force, fired the public imagination. It also, Sipp said, served as a touchstone for “Wolves in the City.”
Lately Sipp has been concentrating on how he will depict his story’s main characters, and three of his students have agreed to serve as models. For Bertrand, he found a young man with chiseled features and short cropped hair.
He is using a grizzled model for Bertrand’s friend, Emile, who figures early in the story, and a dark-haired young woman for Bertrand’s lover, Marta, a Moroccan Jew and Holocaust survivor. Sipp has taken multiple photographs of the three students, including numerous facial shots.
Sipp was moved to do the project after reading French-Algerian journalist Henri Alleg’s 1958 book, “La Question,” in which the author described being tortured by French soldiers seeking information about the FLN, or National Liberation Front resistance. Offering a vivid window onto the methods and tactics of torture employed by the French military, the book was banned by the French government.
“That was a book that led me to believe this is a very contemporary story,” Sipp said. “That was the real spark that made me think, ‘I’m interested in spending a good chunk of my life doing this.’ ”
“The FLN wanted to create a free Algeria,” Sipp said. “They were considered terrorists by the French military. It’s very similar to today. We see the same amorphous struggles in conflicts ranging from the Balkans to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the Palestinian territories.”
Another important impetus to “Wolves in the City,” he said, was the 1966 film “The Battle of Algiers.”
“It’s a phenomenal picture, which was filmed in Algiers just a couple of years after the war had ended, so the wounds and emotions were still very fresh,” Sipp said in an email.
“What makes it particularly remarkable is that there was only one professional actor in the film. Every other participant in the film was an Algerian or French citizen, and the person who played the lead role as the head of the FLN (National Liberation Front) was the actual person who was head of the FLN.
“I own a copy and watch it frequently when I need to refresh myself with the verisimilitude I’m looking for in my work.”
In their research for “Wolves in the City,” Sipp and Beasley also read Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace,” a definitive history of the Algerian war, first published in 1977.
In his preface to the 2006 edition of “War,” Horne drew a series of parallels between the Algerian war and the U.S. involvement in Iraq, including Iraq’s adoption of some of the same tactics used by the Algerian resistance and the U.S. government’s use of torture.
Sipp estimates that “Wolves in the City” is two or three years away from completion. In the meantime, he will continue to exhibit editioned prints of the drawings for the book and delve further into the details of the war.
“I’m not trying to politicize or editorialize,” he said. “What I’m really interested in is: How do we deal with conflict and different ideologies and live together?”
Women on the front line
Women played a key role in the Algerian war for independence as spies, nurses, messengers and combatants.
Zohra Drif and Djamila Bouhired planted bombs in a French sector of Algiers, seeking to avenge the deaths of Muslim children from a bomb in the Casbah.
Daniele Minne also served as a bomb carrier.
Tiny photographs of the three women are part of a new acquisition at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.
Asad Faulwell’s “Mujahidat #11,” on view in the museum’s ongoing “Oppenheimer Collection@20” exhibition, enshrines these women fighters within a colorful, patterned abstraction influenced by Islamic art and Moroccan textiles. The work is part of the young L.A. artist’s series of paintings devoted to the women of Algiers, many of whom were imprisoned and tortured by the French and rejected by their Algerian countrymen when the war ended in 1962.
“They (Algerian men) were taking women who they had no intention of empowering after the war, getting them to fight on the front lines and then (the resistance) turning their backs on them as soon as the war was over,” Faulwell told the Middle Eastern art journal, Muraqqua, in 2010.
As writer Yasmine Mohseni observed, “These women planted bombs and fired guns, yet, even today, people see them as victims.
“It is this dichotomy of viewing the Arab woman as a victim that makes the subject matter so compelling,” she said.
One positive outgrowth of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and the conflict between the West and Islam has been an increased interest in Islamic culture and history by American artists such as Sipp and Faulwell, who is of Iranian descent.
A growing number of exhibits are featuring artists from Islamic cultures and Middle Eastern countries. The recent “On Watch” exhibit at Block Artspace, for instance, introduced the local art audience to the work of Iraqi-born Jananne Al-Ani and Palestinian Taysir Batniji.
Nationally, exhibits in the works include “Iran Modern, 1950-1980” at the Asia Society and a big exhibit of Shirin Neshat’s work at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is also working on a show about Islamic art and contemporary artists.
“Art is the perfect medium to promote cultural awareness and understanding,” said Kim Masteller, the museum’s curator of South and Southeast Asian art, who will present the show next fall in the Bloch Building Project Space.
The project, a collaboration with the Kansas City Artists Coalition, “is meant to create a dialogue between historical and contemporary art,” Masteller said. The exhibit will include work from Neshat’s “Women of Allah” series and Kansas City artist Asheer Akram’s version of an elaborately decorated Pakistani cargo truck.
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