23 March 2023, 3:00pm ET

Samia Henni

Contaminating the Sahara

On 13 February 1960, the French colonial authorities detonated their first atomic atmospheric bomb in Reggane in the colonized Algerian Sahara, six years after the outbreak of the Algerian Revolution, or the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962). Codenamed “Gerboise Bleue” (Blue Jerboa), the explosive had a blast capacity of 70 kilotons, about 4 times the strength of Little Boy, the atomic bomb used by the United States on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during the Second World War.

The detonation of Blue Jerboa was followed by years of other such atmospheric and underground nuclear weapons testing that continued well after Algeria’s formal independence from France. The spatial, atmospheric, and geological impacts of these bombs reveal matter coded with violence both historical and future-oriented. By tracing the lives and afterlives of radioactive debris and nuclear wastes in the Sahara, this lecture examines France’s  colonial toxicity  and the contaminants of a past that cannot be contained by the written record.


Samia Henni is a historian and an exhibition maker of the built, destroyed, and imagined environments. She is the author of the multi-award-winning Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Northern Algeria (gta Verlag, 2017, EN; Éditions B42, 2019, FR), the editor of War Zones, gta papers no. 2 (gta Verlag, 2018), and Deserts Are Not Empty (Columbia University Press, 2022). Her recent discursive and curatorial projects include Archives: Secret-Défense , SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin (2021); and Housing Pharmacology / Right to Housing, Manifesta 13, Marseille (2020). Since premiering in 2017 at gta Exhibitions, ETH Zurich, Henni’s project Discreet Violence: Architecture and the French War in Algeria, has been presented at Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam (2018); Archive Kabinett, Berlin (2018); The Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg (2018); La Colonie, Paris (2018); VI PER Gallery, Prague (2018); John Hartell Gallery, Cornell University, New York (2019); Twelve Gates Arts, Philadelphia (2019); and Bond House, University of Virginia (2022). She teaches history of architecture and urban development at the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University, New York.

About the Series

fORUM is Mercer Union’s ongoing series of talks, lectures, interviews, screenings, and performances.