Christie's set to showcase modern and contemporary art from Maghreb in new Paris sale

Auction house exhibition aims to celebrate richness of the work emanating from North African region

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A new selling exhibition at Christie’s in Paris to open this week will be dedicated to works by artists from the Maghreb region and its diaspora, with modern and contemporary pieces potent with themes of belonging, migration, and cultural decolonisation.

Running from Friday to February 11 in the French capital, it will spotlight the rich artistic continuum of North African art, touching upon how its concerns are not bound by geography.

The Spectres Visibles exhibition will include 40 works by 23 artists, including luminary modern figures like Mohamed Melehi, Ahmed Cherkaoui and Hatem El Mekki, alongside prominent contemporary artists such as Nadia Ayari, Malika Agueznay and Rachid Koraichi.

Art from Maghreb is rarely given its due outside of the region itself. The oversight is an especially glaring one in France, where a significant portion of the country’s population has cultural ties to North Africa, and its history is contentiously inextricable from that of the region. This is what makes Spectres Visibles, or Visible Spectra, particularly significant.

The exhibition has been brought together in collaboration with the Selma Feriani Gallery, Loft Art gallery, Galerie, Claude Lemand and cadet capela. It also includes works from the Dalloul Art Foundation.

“Almost half of the exhibition is dedicated to artists who were leading cultural figures in North Africa,” says Ridha Moumni, the exhibition’s curator and Christie’s deputy chairman of Middle East and North Africa. “The other half presents contemporary figures who positioned themselves more on the global scene.”

What's in a name?

Moumni says finding a title for the exhibition was not straightforward. He wanted to reflect the range of concerns present within the artworks, while making sure not to enclose them within geographical confines. To title it something along the lines of Art from the Maghreb would have gone against contemporary efforts to show the fluidity and propagation of North African culture. It would defy the spectra of cultural experiences of the artists within the exhibition. While they all have roots in North Africa, some of them live and produce art elsewhere, including Europe and the US, and their works resonate on a global scale.

“I wanted a title that didn’t make any reference to the region, even though it is rooted in North Africa, and more specifically in the Maghreb,” Moumni explains.

Spectres Visibles seemed fitting. Referencing the shades observable by the human eye sounded across several metaphorical layers. It alluded to the vibrancy of North African art, to the blend of culture and identity, and brought to mind that which is not visible: perhaps touching upon the marginalisation of North African countries – culturally and geographically – by those in Europe and this part of the Middle East.

Highlights include oil on linen paintings by Ayari, which feature, on solid vivid backdrops, bell-shaped flowers blooming from undulating stems. A large tapestry by Koraichi, Le Chant de l’ardent desir, takes cues from pharaonic symbolism, with hand-embroidered designs patterned along a deep blue fabric.

A series of 1950 drawings by El Mekki, meanwhile, show the artist’s unique and playful exploration of human forms, while his 1953 gouache painting exhibits a more haunting facet of his visual scope.

Melehi has two pieces at the sale. A 2017 untitled piece contrasts rolling wavelike forms with blocked colours, a juxtaposition idiosyncratic in the artist’s oeuvre. Another untitled piece, meanwhile, is an example of the artist’s period in New York, and was painted in 1962.

Zineb Sedira’s Sugar Routes II, on the other hand, is a photograph that evokes the metaphor of human migration. Rafik El Kamel is represented with stark, taut-nerved self-portraits, while Amina Agueznay tapestry work Portal #5 is a flow of rhomboid forms naturally spun from undyed wool, cotton and palm husk.

Despite the disparity of the artworks, there are conceptual threads that tie pieces together, specifically the way they attempt to cement a decolonised visual language. Their concerns and artistic practices are different, yet there are similarities in the way several artists reflect on the crafts and heritage of North Africa, finding new ways to explore their motifs and significances.

“We are presenting artworks from 1953, which was still during the colonial period and we follow their production during the decolonisation of the arts of North Africa,” Moumni says. “In parallel, we display works by artists integrated in a global world who are living in Berlin, New York, Paris and North Africa. It’s enlightening to have artists like Amina Agueznay being displayed near Cherkaoui, M’barek Bouchichi displayed near Melehi, Hatem El Mekki displayed near Rachid Koraichi.”

A round-table discussion touching upon the trajectory and influence of North African art will be held at the venue on February 1 with artists Bouchichi, Nadia Kaabi-Linke and Masinissa Selmani.

Spectres Visibles will run from Friday to February 11 at Christie’s, 9 Avenue Matignon, 75008, Paris.

Updated: January 24, 2024, 8:22 AM