Algerian artist sanctifies sacrifice of lost refugees

Rachid Koraichi's 'Garden of Africa'
6 min read
21 June, 2021
With tragedy often striking the perilous journey to refuge, Algerian visual artist Rachid Koraichi has honoured the lost identities of unburied refugees in his 'Garden of Africa' - a poignant commemoration of our collective humanity.

Algerian visual artist Rachid Koraichi has created a unique cemetery to provide a dignified final resting place for hundreds of unburied refugees of all ages, nationalities and religions whose bodies have been washed ashore along the coastline of Zarzis in South Tunisia.

The garden features Koraichi’s four specially designed works of art: blue and white ceramic vases modelled on 'tear gatherers'  found in ancient burial grounds, steel sculptures whose bodies are forged from a fluid gestural script which act as talismanic guardians of the garden, an enormous etching and paintings from the Handkerchiefs of Hope series.

The Secretary-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, inaugurated the garden on June 9th and presented Koraichi with the Tree of Peace, a sculpture by Hedva Ser, UNESCO Artist for Peace, goodwill ambassador and special envoy for cultural diplomacy. The bronze statue embodies the values of peace with its knotted branches and flying doves.

"Koraichi views the garden as a symbolic place, similar to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He knows first hand the agonies of thousands of grieving relatives who will never find closure for loved ones who vanished without trace"

The burial ground is an amazing open-air artistic project containing a 17th-century wooden gate, olive trees, and hand-painted ceramic tile paths. There are five olive trees, which symbolize the five pillars of Islam, and 12 vines representing the Christian apostles. It is filling up with alarming speed. UNHCR reported that at least 500 people died trying to cross the central Mediterranean this year, more than triple the 150 in the same period of 2020.

Gravestone markers have various descriptions, such as “Man, black shirt, Four Seasons Hotel,” or “Woman, black dress, Hachani beach,” which describe the unidentified corpse, where the body was found, and other elements that could help with identification. There is a DNA testing facility onsite to archive genetic data taken from the remains in the hope that they may one day be identified through DNA provided by relatives. An onsite facility where autopsies can be performed is planned to help identification.

UNESCO director Audrey Azoulay (centre) and Algerian artist Rachid Koriachi (right) at the Garden of Africa cemetery [AFP]
UNESCO director Audrey Azoulay (centre) and Algerian artist Rachid Koraichi (right) at the Garden of Africa cemetery [AFP]

Koraichi views the garden as a symbolic place, similar to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He knows first hand the agonies of thousands of grieving relatives who will never find closure for loved ones who vanished without a trace. When he was 17 his elder brother, Mohamed went missing from the beach at Skidda after being swept out to sea by the riptide. His body was never found.

“This happened in those same waters now claiming hundreds of victims, many of whom are also young men full of promise. I saw how the trauma of that accident affected my family and watched my mother grieve for her missing son until the day she died,” Koraichi told Gerard Houghton who prepared the catalogue for a recent London exhibition held at the October Gallery Tears that Taste of the Sea which featured the four works he specially designed for the garden.

The etching consists of a great circle surrounded by interweaving waves of water with an isolated ‘traveller’ caught at the crossroads in the centre, representing the entry point to another world.  The fateful scene is itself enclosed in a rectangular field of Koraichi’s hand-drawn talismans and auspicious signs which graphically depict the traveller’s final resting place in a walled garden sanctuary shaded by trees.

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The blue and white ceramic vases are based on Lachrymatory vases, small glass vials that were originally found in ancient burial chambers and were later believed by the Victorians to be ‘tear gatherers’  used to collect the tears shed at the loss of a loved one. While contemplating the unending wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq today, and the endless streams of refugees fleeing their homes in search of a new life in the West, Koraichi conceived this series as virtual repositories for the countless uncollected tears spilt because of the individual human tragedies associated with these ongoing events.

Rachid Koraïchi, from the series Lachrymatoires Bleues - Blue Lachrymatory Vases, 2020. Ceramic with cobalt oxide glaze. [October Gallery]
Rachid Koraichi, from the series "Lachrymatoires Bleues" - Blue Lachrymatory Vases, 2020. Ceramic with cobalt oxide glaze. [October Gallery]

The elaborately configures black and white painted squares Handkerchiefs of Hope refer to the emotional outpourings consigned to these intimate accessories.  The steel sculptures which guard the garden seem to provide an assurance that the nightmare is temporarily suspended and though painful memories remain, the monuments, trees and scented herbs of the  walled garden offer safe refuge and repose.

Rachid Koraïchi, from the series Handkerchiefs of Hope (of set of 7), 2020. Acrylic on canvas. [October Gallery]
Rachid Koraichi, from the series "Handkerchiefs of Hope" (set of 7), 2020. Acrylic on canvas. [October Gallery]

Koraichi was first alerted to the problems in Zarzis where officials refused to bury non-Muslim corpses in the local cemetery by his eldest daughter Aisha. Drowned bodies, collected by a bin lorry, were thrown on the public tip.

“I am not a state official, I am an artist,” Koriachi explained in the interview for the exhibition catalogue. “But as an individual, I felt compelled to create a dignified place for the rest of these unfortunate strangers. In 2018 I bought a plot of land with my own money. Since then, I have become the instigator, financier, architect and designer, as well as the artist creating every feature of what in reality is a private cemetery – open to all.

“As a human being, I am incapable of ignoring the fact that these were once living human beings: fathers, mothers and even children. Anyone who feels compassion can imagine how distressed their families would be to see them lying unburied on a foreign shore. The complex chain of events leading to this tragic end, link crises in northern and sub-Saharan Africa with what’s happening across the Middle East and as far away as Pakistan and Bangladesh. These are the final remains of uprooted people of many races, whose only mistake was to try to escape the conflicts, poverty and climatic disasters destroying places they once called home, each one yet another victim of crazed political leaders.”

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Rachid Koraichi was born in 1947 in Ain Beida, Algeria. He studied at the Institute of Fine Arts and the Superior National School of the Arts in Algeria between 1967 and 1977. He later completed his studies at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs and the Institut d’Urbanisme in Paris. He now lives and works between Tunisia and France.

Koraichi’s work extends across an impressive range of materials which include ceramics, textiles, bronze, Corten steel, alabaster, print and etching on paper and paint on canvas. His work is influenced by a fascination with signs: symbols, glyphs and cyphers drawn from a variety of languages and cultures.

His unique creations are in major public collections, including the British Museum, The Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art, New York, the National Gallery Amman, the Guggenhein Abu Dhabi and the Kiran Naddar Museum of Art, New Delhi.

Karen Dabrowska is a London-based freelance journalist focusing on the Middle East and Islamic Affairs. She is also the author of ten books. Her latest, biography, 'Mohamed Makiya: A Modern Architect Renewing Islamic Tradition' will be published by Al-Saqi in July.

Follow her on Twitter: @KarenDabrowska1