The rich history of North African creativity in focus at Abu Dhabi Art 2022

Curated by historian and philosophy professor Rachida Triki, the section celebrates the daring spirit of Maghrebi art

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Despite numerous obstacles, North African masterpieces are out in force at this year's Abu Dhabi Art — the capital's flagship annual arts event, which runs until Sunday.

Curated by Rachida Triki, an art historian and professor of philosophy at the University of Tunis, the art fair’s Focus section brings together galleries from across the Maghreb, under the theme of New Tomorrow.

Triki says there is a dynamic art scene throughout North Africa, with a steady flow of new art centres and new galleries. However, she says they face several challenges.

"First, there is no real organised art market and there is no real financial support from the state, especially for young galleries. Most galleries also don't have the means to support and assist artists," she says. Compounding the issue are legislative issues, and a lack of media coverage, she adds.

This makes Abu Dhabi Art’s decision to build a programme focused on North Africa all the more important, says Triki.

“This is the first time in many years that we’ve seen a focus, joining Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It’s a good thing for our countries because we have many problems, especially in politics," she adds. The sector also includes galleries from Paris and Switzerland, focused on North African artists.

Art historian Rachida Triki, second right, curated Abu Dhabi Art's Focus section, highlighting art from North Africa. Photo: Abu Dhabi Art

While galleries from Libya and Mauritania were unable to take part, Triki says for the other North African galleries, travelling to Abu Dhabi was “very courageous” given the costs involved.

Those who made it 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 near to each other. Now we have to create new contexts with them — that’s very important to me because I think artists are the ambassadors of creation, and of the rich culture of the Maghreb.”

Triki explains that painting was introduced to North Africa in the late 19th century, through colonialism, and its development went hand-in-hand with the subsequent socio-political transformation and revolutions.

Works by Moroccan artist, El Medhi Largo, at 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 construct 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 an array of modern and contemporary creatives, whose work outlines the history of art in their countries.

Among the galleries present is Le Violon Blue, from Tunis, which features a sweeping selection of abstract modern art from across North Africa. The gallery founder’s daughter Selma Feriani tells The National: “Most of these artists left North Africa, and travelled to the US or Europe, where they were influenced by the different art movements there. 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 works by Hedi Turki, who she calls “one of Tunisia’s most important abstract artists”. Born to a family of Turkish origin, Turki studied at Lycee Carnot in Paris, before returning home on the death of his father — where he worked a variety of odd jobs. Having studied in France, Italy and the US, he went on to develop a distinct abstract style, working on grid-like colour fields and lines — which is represented through acrylic works such as Souffleé de Printemps.

There is also a huge burlap work by Abderrazak Sahli hanging from one of the walls. Feriani says: “This is a specific fabric, he used to collect from factories and create these canvases from, and to which he applied his painting and shapes from his daily life. So you can find images of palm trees, eyes and some of his personage within.”

From the figurative School of Tunis movement, Feriani then moves on to a focus section on Algerian-born French painter and designer Mahjoub Ben Bella, whose sprawling tapestry Jerusalem, is mounted to one of the walls.

Elsewhere are works by Farid Belkahia, one of Morocco’s most celebrated modern artists, who worked with 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, her own Selma Feriani Gallery features the works of Amina Saoudi, a Moroccan artist living in Tunisia, who is translating traditional Berber tapestry into a form of contemporary fine art. “She’s important,” says Feriani. “The only female tapestry artist in Tunisia.

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

She produces two abstract tapestries each year, which are surprisingly diverse in form. Feriani points to one tapestry, Ait Khay, which comprises a geometric intersection of shapes. “This tapestry mixes cotton and wool and part of her experimentation here is using geometry and modern colours, with symbols of the sun and sky.” In some works, she also draws on the colours of the cities that inspire the pieces.

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

“We brought her 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 over 3,000 years of history, and have a lot of artisans and know-how.”

Slimen Elkamel's pieces span an 11-metre-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-metre wall. Chief among them is a work by Tunisian artist, Slimen Elkamel, whose work was the subject of a major retrospective at Arab World Institute in Paris this year.

Presented by La La Lande Gallery, Elkamel’s work at Abu Dhabi Art represents his striking painting style, 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-metre acrylic on canvas, priced at $120,000.

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

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

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

Messaoudi's own art is equally political in nature and is also on show — with the Swiss gallery, Foreign Agent. Through painting, collage and embroidery, he pairs tradition with modernity to dissect social issues and stereotypes in the Middle East.

He walks up to one of his pieces titled Help, which was included in an exhibition by the Middle East Institute in Washington. The brightly coloured, satirical work depicts a cross-section of society during the pandemic, along with the global inequalities the pandemic drew 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 bit of humour. It’s figurative and we see different levels of society: the poor people and then the rich people who have private jets, and don’t have to wear masks.”

Alongside this is a more cheerful depiction of the first party Messaoudi attended in Paris as France emerged from lockdowns. The gallery also features some of his other works, where panes of glass are mounted to walls, with different images painted on each side.

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

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Updated: November 17, 2022, 1:12 PM