The way young Algerian artist Aghiles Issiakhem sees it, the future for many of his 20-something generation is as bleak as his charcoal portraits of them.
“For a young person here, there’s nothing — you can escape abroad or flee into drugs and alcohol,” says the 22-year-old.
The self-taught artist shows off a series of his portraits of friends, members of a disaffected generation who walk the streets of Algiers without training, degrees, jobs or much hope for the future.
The artist — the great-nephew of one of the fathers of modern Algerian painting, the late Mohammed Issiakhem — recalls the protests and food riots of a year ago, when the Arab Spring kicked off across the region.
Amid shortages of sugar and cooking oil, people clashed with police, destroying shops. Five people were killed and hundreds wounded.
“I put myself in the place of these young people because I feel concerned,” says Issiakhem, pointing at a huge charcoal portrait of a “hittiste” — Algerian street slang for a jobless young man who bides his time leaning against a wall.
“Hittiste” derives from the Arabic word for wall and has become a byword for the dismal state of modern Algeria, reflected in the portrait which depicts a youth defiant in his posture but with despair in his eyes.
“I feel their emotion,” said the artist, who roams the streets for inspiration and spends long nights listening to his friends, about how they can’t find work and can’t study, about their lack of money and a place to live.
Anger and disillusionment are rife among Algeria’s young. Those aged under 35 now make up two thirds of the unemployed among the 36 million people of the oil-rich but impoverished north African country.
Issiakhem is a native of Azzefoune, a Mediterranean coastal village in the Kabylia region about 165 kilometres (100 miles) east of Algiers, where violent opposition to the regime has flared in the past.
“I saw the riots” in Kabylia, he said. Young people there battled the Algerian government in April 2001, when Issiakhem was a child.
“I will always remember the images: the blood, the rubber bullets, the cars on fire and the burning tyres.”
At times, “I disappear into my room for weeks. I lock myself in solitude. I block out everything through the cardboard and canvas,” adds the young man with a goatee and intense eyes, who says he is “obsessed with the cancer” that causes havoc around him.
Issiakhem is due to open a new exhibition later this month in a trendy restaurant in the old town of Algiers.
He has already staged about half a dozen exhibitions — the first at the tender age of seven.
His work was included in 2010 in the culture ministry’s Salon d’Automne of Culture, whose curator, Dokman, an Algerian abstract painter who uses a single name, calls Issiakhem “a very promising talent”.
“He’s not in it for the money. It comes from his gut,” said Dokman.
After a decade of bloody warfare between the government and Islamist rebels in the 1990s, art struggles to exist in Algeria where there are few galleries, and many artists — as well as musicians, actors and writers — move to France, the former colonial power.
“There is no real fame in this country,” said Dokman. “Everybody is too busy with himself and money.”
Algerian collector Yacine Gougelin also has high praise for Issiakhem’s work, saying it recalled Jean-Michel Basquiat, the New York graffiti artist turned 1980s star painter who died at the age of 27, at the peak of his fame.
“It is definitely stylized, faces sketched in the manner of his great-uncle, and sometimes a touch of Basquiat,” he said.
Oddly, Issiakhem only discovered his great-uncle’s work four years ago when he arrived in Algiers, following the death of his father, a doctor, who had not wanted his son venturing off and possibly courting trouble.
Instead, his father “gave me paint, pencils and paper and I learned almost everything by myself,” the artist said. “I had a mentor, Aziz, a painter and musician too. He helped me progress.”
Issiakhem never studied fine arts, although this remains a dream. “It takes the baccalaureate (high school diploma) and I missed it because I had many problems,” he confesses. “Like my friends, I am confused.”