The Deeply Meaningful Art of Affif Cherfaoui

On 31 October 2007, Algerian artist Affif Cherfaoui was in attendance at the event marking the opening of his retrospective at the Musée National Zabana in Oran, Algeria. The following day, 1 November, is a national holiday in remembrance of the 1954 declaration of armed resistance against the colonial government of France which resulted in the Algerian war. The timing for the opening was coincidental, but nevertheless appropriate, because this tumultuous period of Algeria’s history has had a profound effect on Affif Cherfaoui, which is reflected in his artistic works.

In October 1962, Affif Cherfaoui started taking art classes at the École des Beaux Arts in Oran. This was just four months after Algeria’s declaration of independence from France. At this time, Oran was considered to be the most Europeanized city in Algeria. During the year following independence, a million or more people left the country. In 1966, a professor from the art school who had fled to France took the initiative to arrange visas for three of his most promising students to travel to France and continue their art studies. Affif Cherfaoui was one of the three students who were offered this opportunity. He settled in Nantes, France, where he met and married his French wife Annick.

Affif Cherfaoui developed his signature technique while studying and working in Nantes. His interesting technique of layering Western and Eastern artistic traditions is evident in his current exhibition at Musée National Zabana. His watercolor landscapes are skillfully overlaid with geometric patterns which are strongly reminiscent of Arabic calligraphy and African textiles.

In 1975, Affif Cherfaoui, accompanied by his wife and two daughters, returned to Algeria and accepted a position as professor at the École des Beaux Arts. Islam had been instituted as the state religion which influenced the subject matter of paintings and also the students themselves, both becoming more conservative.

From December 1991 Algeria was embroiled in a civil war which was precipitated by a military coup. This dark period in the country’s history is reflected in Cherfaoui’s paintings done at the time, even though he and his wife returned to France in 1992 to join their daughters who had left Algeria soon after the military coup. Cherfaoui found that having Algeria as the subject matter of many of his paintings had a therapeutic effect on him as his homeland was always on his mind.

Affif Cherfaoui’s more recent works reflect nostalgia for the past, as well as hope for the future of Algeria. As part of his exhibition, this renowned Algerian artist will host student workshops during which he hopes to show local artists the immense potential Algeria has for a bright future.