In the Sahara Desert, on a vast plateau in southeastern Algeria near the border with Libya, there stands a dense grid of eroded sandstone, a maze of canyons, spires and hoodoos. This is Tassili n’Ajjer, or the Plateau of Rivers, a landscape once carved by water, now sculpted by wind. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Algerian national park, it is geologically dramatic but also uniquely marked by humans: On its rock walls are hundreds of figures, human and animal, realistic and surreal, carved or painted in several different Neolithic periods, as far back as 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, when the area was a fertile savannah.
This remarkable place, considered one of the most important collections of prehistoric rock art in the world, is also uniquely inaccessible: Large sections have been closed to foreign tourists and it takes days of hiking with local guides and pack animals to see much of the rock art. In an act of metaphysical exploration, the Algerian artist Lydia Ourahmane did just that to make Tassili, a wordless and hypnotic 47-minute film that reveals the landscape and the rock paintings, and is now showing at the Mercer Union gallery in Toronto.
“It’s one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had with a geographic region,” Ourahmane said in a recent interview. “It’s powerful for me because, as someone who makes things, as an artist, I am very aware of what I am bringing into this world and what am I leaving in it. What do I deem worthy or urgent to produce? Will it be meaningful to people beyond this moment in time? The fact these paintings can still communicate after 12,000 years, the fact we can still look at them and recognize what these people were saying, is profound.”
But what exactly the prehistoric artists were saying has been the subject of some debate since the controversial French anthropologist Henri Lhote led expeditions to Tassili from the 1930s through the 1950s, copying the art using destructive techniques such as tracing or washing the rock to brighten the colours. Some of the drawings and engravings are clearly records of daily life, showing cattle and people, often with remarkable naturalism, but others, with masked or horned figures, oversized bulbous heads, and odd protrusions have led to much speculation, mainly about spiritual practices, but also far-out theories of prehistoric contact with aliens.
Ourahmane figures the images were partly about communicating and partly about decorating, but her film does not speculate on the meaning or purpose of the rock art.
“I just think it’s a miracle they still exist,” she said. “I don’t know how to talk about that place; I can’t describe why it has this gravity. It is mysterious and it is resistant, such an overwhelming reality to confront that language does not suffice. The only way that I could deal with the film was not to have words in it.” Instead, there is moody music, four pieces composed by Nicolas Jaar, felicita, Yawning Portal and Sega Bodega.
Tassili is the first film Ourahmane has ever made, but its non-documentary approach links it to her previous work. She has expressed concern that her to trip to Tassili might be interpreted as another colonial expedition, another occasion to expose the Saharan rock art to European theories. Born in Algeria to an Algerian father and Malaysian mother, Ourahmane grew up as an immigrant to Britain, where she trained as an artist. Now dividing her career between Algiers and Barcelona, she has often considered issues of immigration and geopolitics in her work.
This film, however, could not be overtly political.
“The route we took was decided by the guides. But they report exactly where we were going to the Ministry of Culture, to the national park and to the military, because that’s the protocol. The film has this first-person perspective. It was essentially directed by the forces that allowed us to be there, we were just kind of executing under the directorship of the government. I was very aware, with it being something backed by the Ministry of Culture, it couldn’t be overly political. But I’m not sure it’s even necessary to bring that kind of narrative into the space. That is not what I want to impose on prehistory.”
It took a great deal of wrangling to get permission to film in Tassili, and many of Ourahmane’s film crew and collaborators were non-Algerians who needed special permits to be on the plateau.
“Doing anything in Algeria … the bureaucracy becomes a work of art,” she said. “A simple gesture will require you to get permission … There has never been a film made in that area; it was beyond the politics of the space.”
Once there, the project entailed complete trust in the local guides, members of the Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic Berber people who live in the Sahara. On a first eight-day trip to Tassili in 2019, Ourahmane had tagged along with a group of anthropologists and got an introduction to their guide. Convinced by the power of low-fi images she shot on that trip, she then planned a second, 13-day trip in 2022 with nine guides and six collaborators. The guides packed the donkeys, rationed the food and water and determined the trail. It took 20 donkeys to carry the equipment, including a generator so the camera batteries could be recharged. There was no retracing one’s steps to get a better shot or taking an alternate route because it looked interesting.
“I was very struck by the notion that you couldn’t go back. Like it’s now or never. Then it’s a light thing, and then it’s like ‘This lens is wrong. We need to change the memory card; the light’s gone.’ … The terrain is impossible, there are stones everywhere. It was a very difficult shoot,” she said. “At times during the trip I would just turn around and look at all the equipment we’d lugged, two weeks walking with all of this stuff. It felt so absurd. The fact these images exist is absurd.”
The Tuareg guides told her that they call the drawings demons and will never touch them or sleep near them. “These images can possess you and cause you to lose your way,” they said. Ourahmane figures their wariness of the rock art is the very reason the ancient images have survived.
Tassili is showing continuously at the Mercer Union in Toronto until April 15.