Rich history of North African creativity showcased at Abu Dhabi Art 2022

Despite many obstacles, North African masterpieces are present this year at Abu Dhabi Art, the capital’s flagship annual art event, which runs until Sunday.

Organized by Rachida Triki, art historian and professor of philosophy at the University of Tunis, the Focus section of the art fair brings together galleries from all over the Maghreb, under the theme of New Tomorrow.

Triki says there is a vibrant art scene across North Africa, with a steady stream of new art centers and galleries. However, she says they face several challenges.

“First, there is no real organized art market and there is no real financial support from the state, especially for young galleries. Most galleries do not have either plus the means to support and accompany the artists”, she laments. Legislative problems and lack of media coverage compound the problem, she adds.

This makes Abu Dhabi Art’s decision to build a North African-focused program all the more significant, says Triki.

“This is the first time in many years that we have seen a focus, joining Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It’s a good thing for our countries because we have a lot of problems, especially in politics”, she adds. The sector also includes Parisian and Swiss galleries, oriented towards Maghreb artists.

While Libyan and Mauritanian galleries were unable to participate, Triki says that for other North African galleries, traveling to Abu Dhabi was “very brave” given the costs involved.

Those who have come to Abu Dhabi Art, she says, share a common creative heritage. “In the history of the region, in the 16th and 17th centuries, artists were very close to each other. Now, we have to create new contexts with them, it’s very important for me because I think that artists are the ambassadors of creation and the cultural richness of the Maghreb.

Triki explains that painting was introduced to North Africa at the end of the 19th century, through colonialism, and that its development went hand in hand with the socio-political transformations and revolutions that followed.

Works by Moroccan artist El Medhi Largo at the La La Lande gallery.  Khushnum Bhandari / The National

“I chose the concept of New Tomorrow because when the three countries became independent, their local artists chose to create new ways to distinguish themselves from orientalism or exoticism, and to build new things for their countries.”

This trend continues to this day, she adds – with contemporary artists using new mediums to respond to social upheaval in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. With this in mind, Triki has worked with the galleries to select a range of modern and contemporary creatives, whose work describes the history of art in their country.

Among the galleries present is Le Violon Blue, from Tunis, which showcases a wide selection of abstract modern art from across North Africa. The daughter of the gallery’s founder, Selma Feriani, tells The National“Most of these artists left North Africa and went to the United States or Europe, where they were influenced by the different artistic movements. Then, back home, they started working through abstraction.

Artworks at Le Violon Blue Gallery at the Abu Dhabi Art Festival held in Manarat, Al Saadiyat.  Khushnum Bhandari / The National

She points to the works of Hedi Turki, whom she calls “one of Tunisia’s most important abstract artists”. Coming from a family of Turkish origin, Turki studied at the Lycée Carnot in Paris, before returning home on the death of his father, where he did various odd jobs. After studying in France, Italy and the United States, he developed a distinct abstract style, working in grid-like fields and lines of color – which is represented by acrylic works such as Spring Soufflé.

There is also a huge burlap by Abderrazak Sahli hanging on one of the walls. Feriani says: “It is a specific fabric, which he recovered in the factories and from which he created these canvases, and to which he applied his paint and the forms of his daily life. So you can find images of palm trees, eyes and some of his characters inside.

From the figurative movement of the School of Tunis, Feriani then moves on to a section devoted to the French painter and draftsman of Algerian origin Mahjoub Ben Bella, whose sprawling tapestry Jerusalemis mounted on one of the walls.

Elsewhere are works by Farid Belkahia, one of Morocco’s most famous modern artists, who worked in metal, paint and leather, treated with traditional techniques and natural dyes, such as henna. Egypt is represented through a bird statue by sculptor Adam Henein – a classic example of his work recreating ancient Egyptian iconography in modern forms using bronze, wood, clay and granite.

Selma Feriani with a tapestry by Amina Saoudi.  Khushnum Bhandari / The National

Next door, its own Selma Feriani gallery showcases the works of Amina Saoudi, a Moroccan artist living in Tunisia, who translates traditional Berber tapestry into a contemporary art form. “She’s important,” says Feriani. “The only female upholsterer artist in Tunisia.

“She works as a painter — she creates her own colors using natural pigments that she finds in her garden, at the market or when she goes out. She uses cumin, plants and things like that.

Each year, she produces two abstract tapestries in surprisingly diverse shapes. Feriani shows a tapestry, Ait Khay, which includes a geometric intersection of shapes. “This tapestry mixes cotton and wool and part of his experimentation here uses modern geometry and colors, with symbols of the sun and the sky.” In some works, she is also inspired by the colors of the cities that inspire the rooms.

Others are more detailed, exploring Berber stories, and the lives of her parents and grandparents through abstract representations, which she weaves freehand. “Some elements, such as the faces, are figurative, but overall the presentation and composition is abstract,” says Feriani.

“We brought his work because I think it’s important to show that there is no contemporary art without this reference to modern art, or to our tradition and culture, especially when you come from a country like Morocco or Tunisia. We have more than 3,000 years of history, and a lot of craftsmen and know-how.

Slimen Elkamel's pieces cover an 11 meter long wall at Abu Dhabi Art.  Khushnum Bhandari / The National

At the back of the Focus section is a striking series of works, straddling an 11-meter wall. Chief among these is a work by Tunisian artist Slimen Elkamel, whose work was the subject of a major retrospective at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris this year.

Presented by La La Lande Gallery, Elkamel’s work at Abu Dhabi Art represents his striking style of painting, which depicts overlapping figures, symbols and patterns, inspired by the folklore and poetry of his rural hometown of Sidi Bouzid. His largest piece at the fair is a seven-meter acrylic on canvas, priced at $120,000.

Elkamel tells The National: “I am happy to be here because there is such a level of modern and contemporary artists on display.” His Tunisian translator and director of La La Lande, Ilyes Messaoudi, is equally delighted to be in the capital.

Tunisian artist Slimen Elkamel draws on the poetry, politics and folklore of his rural hometown.  Photo: Gallery La La Lande

Explaining Elkamel’s work, Messaoudi says, “It’s inspired by his childhood because Slimen comes from where the Tunisian revolution started. So in addition to translating the stories of his grandparents and his family, his painting then sometimes becomes political and social, with other deeper dimensions.

Messaoudi’s art is also political in nature and is also exhibited – with the Swiss gallery Foreign Agent. Through painting, collage and embroidery, he combines tradition and modernity to dissect social issues and stereotypes in the Middle East.

He walks towards one of his pieces called To help, which was included in an exhibit at the Middle East Institute in Washington. The brightly colored satirical artwork depicts a cross section of society during the pandemic, as well as the global inequalities the pandemic has brought to the surface.

Ilyes Messaoudi with his painted glass pieces, represented at Abu Dhabi Art by Foreign Agent.  Khushnum Bhandari / The National

“This piece is about the pandemic, with a little humor. It’s figurative and we see different layers of society: the poor and then the rich who have private jets, and who don’t have to wear masks .

Along with that came a happier depiction of the first party Messaoudi attended in Paris as France emerged from lockdowns. The gallery also features some of his other works, where glass panes are mounted on the walls, with different images painted on each side.

Pointing to one of the works, he says “it’s the mirror”, before revealing the other side and adding “it’s the other side of the mirror”. Massaoudi’s desire to go “beyond” is a tribute to the audacious creative spirit. of North Africa and a testament to Abu Dhabi Art’s commitment to connecting global art scenes through the cultural hub of Manarat Al Saadiyat.

Scroll through the images of the winning installation of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Prize in Abu Dhabi Art below

Updated: November 17, 2022, 1:12 p.m.

About Wesley V. Finley

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