ALGIERS (Reuters Life!) - A new modern art museum in Algiers aims to spearhead cultural renewal in a city where only 10 years ago artists were targets for assassins.
A state of emergency shoved artistic life to the margins in the 1990s as Islamic insurgents battled government forces and massacres, bombings and murders traumatized the population.
"People went to work then barricaded themselves indoors," said Mohammed Djehiche, director of Algeria's National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMA).
The violence has mostly subsided but the north African country is still marred by widespread unemployment and insecurity. Many young people say they lack money for artistic pursuits after feeding and clothing themselves.
On a busy street lined with decaying colonial-era tenements, the museum's fresh white walls and intricate Moorish-style architecture draw the eyes of passers-by.
The museum, once a luxury department store for colonists when Algeria was a French province, was inaugurated in late 2007 but opened fully late last year.
On a week-day afternoon, about a dozen visitors strolled through the brightly lit museum showing abstract paintings by Peruvian artist Sergio Silva Cajahuaringa. Staff said hundreds visited the museum at weekends.
"To be honest, I cannot really identify with these paintings, but it is art and it is here," said IT sales manager Ghomrassane Bouayed. "Art and war cannot co-exist."
Djehiche said early shows such as International Painters and the Algerian Revolution, contemporary artist Malek Salah and Maghreb Design had drawn hundreds.
"I'm happy to notice that people are increasingly curious toward cultural events," said Djehiche. "The press also plays a role in telling people what's on."
For Djehiche, the museum's very existence shows how far the bustling Mediterranean port city has come in a short time.
In the 1990s, exhibitions were rare and were often held in the lobbies of luxury hotels ringed by tight security. Foreign artists occasionally passed through but the art scene lived on thanks to the determination of Algerian enthusiasts.
"It's what allowed us to keep going," said Djehiche. "If you let the emptiness take hold, it leads to annihilation."
Artists, actors, playwrights and musicians were targeted by Islamic radicals.
The director of Algiers fine art school, Ahmed Asselah, was shot dead inside the school building in 1994, along with his son Rabah, by two Islamic militants posing as art students.
That year, playwright Abdelkader Aloula was killed and Rai musician Chab Hasni, the idol of an entire generation of Algerian teenagers, was gunned down outside his home in Oran.
"Culture was targeted because it represented, in a way, the hope of life and therefore had to be destroyed," said Djehiche. "Luckily they did not achieve their goal."
But hundreds of artists, journalists and writers left the country. Most have stayed away and some, like comic Mohamed Fellag in France, have achieved fame far from home.
After 17 years, Algeria's state of emergency still holds.
Algiers ranked bottom in an Economist Intelligence Unit quality of life survey in 2005, below cities such as Tripoli and Dhaka, due partly to frail infrastructure and poor services.
The past returned to haunt the capital in 2007 when suicide bombings of U.N. offices and a court building killed 41 people.
Tourism to Algeria, at around half a million people a year, is tiny compared to neighbors Morocco and Tunisia. Many visitors ignore the big northern cities and head to the desert.
Algiers city officials are hoping for a new start after the city of 3.5 million was made Arab Capital of Culture in 2007. That year saw around 40 art exhibitions, 60 films and 30 plays.
Algerian artists are no longer the target of gunmen but some see a new threat from an upsurge in traditionalism and religious conservatism across the Arab world.
Djehiche said such fears were exaggerated.
"If some people find serenity in reliving history, then why not?" he said. "As long as the state maintains its support, then I've no reason to be afraid."
Additional reporting by Lamine Chikhi, editing by Paul Casciato