Writing (MA)

Lydia Hounat

Lydia Hounat is a British-Algerian writer and photographer, residing between London, Cornwall, and Manchester. She studied English with Creative Writing at Falmouth University before embarking on the MA in Writing at Royal College of Art. She critiques contemporary literature at LITBTICH and edits interdisciplinary art for SOBER. Magazine. She was recently a Poet-in-Residence with Manchester Metropolitan University’s Special Collections Archives. 

Contact

lydia.hounat@network.rca.ac.uk

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Degree Details

School of Arts & Humanities

At the moment I’m interested in the discourses surrounding intergenerational trauma within the Maghreb region of Africa, specifically in Algeria and the indigenous community there, the Amazigh. While the main focus of my practice changes, my core interests often remain the same, looking at dual heritage, post-colonial theory, interdisciplinary practice, fashion, matriarchal societies, representations of femininity, and the female body. 

I wanted to not necessarily just write something, but create an object, which would not be rooted in one single genre. It would require multiple different creative practices and modes of thought to unpack, and that each of those components would be instinguishable from each other. It’s not possible to look at Kabyle-Girl-Karakou orI’m Talking to Wood, I’m Talking to Stone... History Could Bring Fire! without perceiving their intersections both practically and theoretically. Since photography, conversation, translation and needlework were all necessary and inherent in my research, it seemed appropriate to include these methodologies within the work itself, as opposed to just part of the strategic planning. Kabyle-Girl-Karakou is a dark green book with gilded pages with gold-leaf, which is how the Karakou jacket (the main focus of the work) looks, it is a dark green velvet jacket embroidered with spun gold. The structure of writing and photography in the book corresponds to the process of sewing together the Karakou jacket.

The process in writing my final major project at RCA came from an impetus to scrutinise and question the empowerment of women in clothes, and how many pioneers of haute couture fashion for women have been men. Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Le Smoking’ suits and his penchant for creating “androgynous looks” is often conflated with female empowerment, because his clothes embraced typically “masculine” shapes and more “feminine” features. ‘The Beaded Jacket (No. 117)’ in his 1984 haute couture autumn/winter collection was one such example, except when I looked at it, I noticed its symmetry with the Karakou Jacket, which was typically worn by Algerois women at weddings and still is to this day. The embroidery of the Karakou jacket takes infleunce from Amazigh patterns.

I wondered then, what does “female empowerment” mean in dress, without implying that the dress ought to embody masculinity in order to empower? Must it imply resistance then? How does “female empowerment” appear within matriarchal societies such as the one my grandmother came from, Kabyle (a sub-community of the Amazigh), and how is that replicated and appropriated in the contemporary fashion world? What is an “empowered woman”?

My research took me to historical female figures like Lalla Fadma N’Soumer, a Kabyle resistance fighter who died in prison, captured by the French for successfully defending Kabylie lands from French armies seeking to colonise these areas of northeastern countryside in Algeria after 1830. The clothing that she wore was synonymous with Amazigh identity and values, and so I began to think that perhaps empowerment comes from absorbing history and absorbing cultural values into our very attire. It manifests not just in how we speak and how we move, but how we actually appear to each other. This is particularly so if one comes from an indigenous community where culture has been displaced by the oppressor in this situation. And Algeria is no stranger to oppression, for more than 3,200 years, Algeria has never owned itself. 

I also studied platforms like @diet_prada and @hautelemode on Instagram, who often grapple with these issues in contemporary fashion, using “call-out culture” as a means holding fashion houses and celebrities accountable for their actions. They are also presenting a discourse on distinguishing between influence and plagiarism and their connection to moral values in both individual artistic and socio-political senses. 

What does it mean then, when history is lost to commodification, and ignorance becomes the currency with which people, of power, and of wealth, can choose to cherry pick the parts of the world they like and wield them as influence? When does something stop becoming influence, and instead becomes “their original work”? 

These questions are still bubbling in my head, having written what is essentially a first draft of my final work. And I wonder, had Yves Saint Laurent outrightly admitted his inspiration from Amazigh cultures, given his status as a pied-noir himself (someone who moved to France after living in French Algeria), would there have been a greater interest in crediting the native communities within North Africa? 

Of course, if that were the case, then it might have been possible to do something even braver, which is to acknowledge the pain and trauma of indigenous people, and just how much Europe owes to their artistry!

The research I undertook by personally travelling to Algeria and observing is integral to the accuracy and precision in which I write and record events. Structuring interviews and recording conversations for example, brings the audience closer to the object. Taking pictures and visually reconstructing objects in writing facilitates a greater understanding of how something is formulated, made. The methodologies I’ve used to create these works have been necessary to me in preparing for further studies on intergenerational trauma in the Amazigh and they will continue to be used as part of a larger understanding of where the Amazigh have been omitted from history. 

Launch Project

Kebouche, Béjaïa, Algeria — Kebouche is a small village in the province of Béjaïa, Algeria. It was also the birthplace of my grandmother. 120mm, expired ORWO infra-red slide film.

Kabyle-Girl-Karakou discusses cultural appropriation and post-colonial theory of Amazigh dress in Yves Saint Laurent’s artistry, specifically looking at ‘The Beaded Jacket’ from his 1984 Autumn/Winter Haute Couture Collection. The jacket is almost identical to the native Amazigh Karakou Jacket, which is and of itself an item with no one specific origin. Because literature of the Amazigh and the Karakou jacket is incredibly limited and filled with many inaccuracies, my work took me to Algeria, to sit with family, to purchase a Karakou, to watch one being made, to talk with friends and aunts about the garment in question and its history.

Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘The Beaded Jacket’ is the ground from which the discourse on Amazigh people can emerge because of his renown in popular culture and the fashion industry. Ultimately, the primary function of this work is to address the Amazigh identity with equal, if not greater, recognition, for they’re a demographic whom both historically and literary I feel have been overlooked. For many years they have been dismissively referrred to as the “Bedouins” or more widely known by their derogatory name, “Berbers”, meaning ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ in Arabic. Amazigh on the other hand, means ‘free man’. There are several sub-communities of the Amazigh, my family are Kabyle Amazighens and reside in the province of Béjaïa, northeast Algeria, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Tell Atlas Mountains.

The form and structure of the work follows the Karakou jacket making process, chapter-by-chapter, piece-by-piece, where by the end, the jacket is assembled. Some chapters imitate pattern cut-outs or texture, e.g. the ‘Fabric’ chapter is hyphenated to imitate the even distribution of woven tufts in velvet, the material used for the Karakou and YSL’s ‘The Beaded Jacket’.

After the death of my grandmother, whom I did not know well, I sought to know her better through her clothes, her values and memories of her. The jacket is in a way, another way in which I access her. By speaking with relatives and friends, it has been possible to write with precision and accuracy. Kabyle-Girl-Karakou fits no one specific genre, it is, at its most “specific”, an essay which embodies documentary, memoir, poetry and includes more visual elements such as photography and drawings.

This writing is part of a collective group of texts I am continuing with in future.
Algeria
Amazigh
Analogue photography
cultural appropriation
Interdisciplinary
Kabyle
Karakou
Object
Post-Colonial
Theory
Writing
Yves Saint Laurent
Prior to travelling to Algeria to research the Karakou jacket, I sat down to discuss with my father the logistics of getting there and how I would be carrying out my work. Instead we had an argument for 20 minutes.

At the time (February 2019), Algeria was facing demonstrations and protests across the country. Known as ‘The Revolution of Smiles’, or the ‘Hirak Movement’, more than 70,000 people all over Algeria marched, demanding constitutional change. These protests are still taking place, though they have reduced in number since the onset of Covid-19. As members of the Algerian government and army began to step down, the country’s stability once again shook. There was no longer a core government, and the people were adamant President Bouteflika immediately resign, having been in office since 1999. It was not a safe place to be in, yet I was determined I’d go there.

Algeria’s story of colonialism begins 3,200 years ago. It has been conquered by the Phoenicians, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Ottomans, the French...

The weight of historical trauma has crippled Algeria, and the entirety of Africa for millenia. It continues to do so. I underestimated how much it could endanger someone like me, navigating a mixed identity, protected by the English bubble I grew up in. I could not understand why my being there would be problematic or a threat, given that I had been to Algeria many times before, and given my Amazigh (Native Algerian) heritage.

It was only until I looked beyond the Karakou and the confines of French fashion houses, did I then feel the blood ooze from my research. In the thick of it, I felt my grandmother’s wounds, my father’s wounds, and my own, align in an intergenerational trauma. The jacket was reduced to an artefact of colonialism, rather than a powerful symbol of Amazigh resistance.

This film is a preface to Kabyle-Girl-Karakou, and it is named after my father’s exclaimation in the film, ‘I’m talking to wood, I’m talking to stone... History could bring fire!’. Our discussions dissolved the ignorant preconceptions I had over travelling to Algeria, believing it would “be simple”.

Film cuts and images from different sources, including my own archives, feature the violence and war Algeria has endured for millennia. It is clear now, and always has been, that history cannot be a study of the past when it is so inherently present.

Medium:

Film
Social
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