The compulsive, creative energy of Hamid Zenati

Late Algerian artist's manifold works are being showcased at a new UK exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary

An undated archival photo showing Hamid Zenati wearing one of his designs – in front of another. Photo: Hamid Zenati Estate
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The word "productive" barely begins to describe the late Algerian artist Hamid Zenati. Over the course of his life, he produced more than 1,000 textiles, each hand-stencilled. He painted vases, tables and chairs, designed hats and jumpers and even embellished CD covers while waiting on the phone.

At the same time, he was very little known, either in Algiers and his adopted hometown of Munich.

But now, a suite of exhibitions are exploring his manifold works. There was a retrospective last year at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. And now, Hamid Zenati: Two Steps at a Time, currently on at Nottingham Contemporary in the UK.

“It's impossible to not be blown away by an artist who had an unstoppable passion for working and for creating,” says Salma Tuqan, the director of Nottingham Contemporary and curator of the exhibition. “He had a mind full of experimentation, and the most acute sensitivity with composition and form. He produced thousands of textiles in his life and not one is the same.”

Zenati was born in Algeria in 1944. The family was part of a large Amazigh tribe in the east of the country, but they raised Hamid and his siblings in Algiers – a city then on the precipice of change. In November 1954, the National Liberation Front launched what became one of the most bloody and significant wars among the anticolonial struggles for independence. Hamid was too young to fight, but the Zenatis lost their eldest son in the conflict.

After the war ended in 1962, Zenati began to participate in the search for a cultural aesthetic for the new state.

This was then a general mood in Algeria, with the emergence of groups such as the short-lived Aouchem – Amazigh for “tattoo” – which counted Baya Mahieddine among its members. Aouchem looked back to the rock paintings of the Sahara desert and to the Amazigh crafts of weaving and jewellery-making as the source of an identity that synthesised African, Arab and Amazigh sources, as they wrote in their 1967 manifesto.

The group was controversial from the beginning, with an altercation breaking out between the members and other artists at their first show, and they disbanded within a year. Around this time, Zenati left Algeria for Germany.

Moreover, Zenati’s interests did not only lie in the idea of an Algerian identity. His niece, Wassila Bedjaoui, describes him as voraciously ecumenical. His interests in music included Qawwali mystical sounds, Nina Simone, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, western Algerian style, gnawa, Snoop Dog and Eminem. For art, he looked to Matisse as much as Amazigh designs and even biological forms. He read German and French literature, in their original languages, as well as ancient Persian poetry and writers of the anti-colonial movement.

“He was an autodidact,” says Bedjaoui. “Everything he learnt, he learnt by himself. He wanted above all to be free and to live his own way.”

After he moved to Munich in the 1960s, he found work as a translator. He did not have German residence, which meant he had to leave the country every three months, and he spent every summer back at the family home in Algeria.

The itineracy suited him, and he travelled often to learn about different countries and particularly other cultural techniques in textile design, such as in India and Indonesia.

Bedjaoui recalls him turning up to Algiers with suitcases full of fabrics that he would spend the summer designing and stencilling, all the while listening to the radio. When he was finished for the day, he would sometimes spread paper on the floor, separate it into sections, and allow his nieces and nephews to work on it.

“It was our invitation to be creative,” she says. “We were able to play with the colour as he did.”

The show at Nottingham Contemporary demonstrates the richness of his practice, opening with a display of his fabrics and painted vases alongside documentary material of his time in Algeria in the 1960s and later images of him modelling his wearable clothing.

His bright, jauntily designed fabrics hang in a subsequent room. The repetition of forms looks musical – like notes rendered as visual pattern – and Tuqan also includes a majlis-like area with sadu-woven covers for the benches and a selection of music for visitors to play. Two low tables display CD covers that Zenati decorated in his signature “all-over” aesthetics of swirls, arrows, geometric figures, and blocks of colours, just as he did his fabrics.

“When you think about Zenati, he was pushing back on colonial systems of categorisation – whether it be value systems and distinctions imposed in the west of art, craft, design, fashion and material culture,” says Tuqan. “Even though on the surface there's so much joy in his work, it is grounded in struggle and resistance.”

Zenati’s story also yields a window into the priorities of museums as they navigate a moment of change, with a push to open up not only to artists from the Global South but also those who in their lifetime challenged artistic restrictions.

It also means, for Zenati, who died in 2022, a huge change in terms of visibility.

While he was alive, Zenati had few exhibitions at commercial galleries or institutions. He showed his works in flea markets or in the countryside, laying out his fabrics on the ground or hanging them from trees, and then packing them up at the end of the day. In part this was because of his commitment to freedom – the textiles, which he never stretched on canvases, could be easily transported, and he valued the independence that came with never fully belonging to any art scene or academy.

At the same time, he also fell between the cracks of various disciplines. As a textile designer, he managed to sell some designs to companies for beach towels and scarves, but his prototypes for jumpers mainly remained one-offs that were bought by his friends. And few museums collected his textiles as art.

For Tuqan, the new Nottingham Contemporary director, Zenati's spirit of radical openness is exactly what drew her in. Tuqan, who is British-Palestinian, was appointed director of Nottingham Contemporary, an art space in the English midlands, in December 2022. The three exhibitions that opened in May are the first of her programme. Institutions typically plan years in advance, so an incoming director will temporarily oversee the programme of the former head.

She pairs Zenati’s works with a room-size installation by the Quechuan-Peruvian artist Claudia Martinez-Garay that reflects on the extraction of pre-Colombian statuary from Latin America. In the next gallery is a mechanised musical installation by the Indonesian artist Julian Abraham, who goes by Togar. The instruments – ocean drums, piano, keyboards, synthesisers, Shruti boxes, accordions, bass guitars – play on their own, and can also be used by visitors and performers.

The space already plays weekly host to the local Robin Hood Youth Orchestra, whom Togar collaborated with during his residency in Nottingham at the Primary, a studio and exhibition space in the city. Members of the Nottingham Contemporary installation team also participated in a jam session while they were building the exhibitions.

“I want Nottingham Contemporary to be a space of discovery, of experimentation, of platforming important overlooked critical voices, and also of giving space to alternative forms of looking and thinking about the world,” says Tuqan. “A big focus for me is thinking about exhibitions as living, breathing sites that audiences feed into and also receive – and which evolve over time and leave lessons for the institution. An exhibition hosts an artists but it also allows the institute to think about what it means to host. It leaves knowledge for the institution to learn from.”

Hamid Zenati: Two Steps at a Time is at Nottingham Contemporary runs until September 8, 2024

Updated: June 11, 2024, 6:31 AM