Najia Mehadji

Najia Mehadji was born in Paris in 1950. She lives and works in Paris (France) and Essaouira (Morocco). By the 1970s, Mehadji’s oeuvre was already marked by a “tan­gible abstrac­tion” that derived simul­ta­ne­ously from con­tem­po­rary music and from her work on the body in the exper­i­mental envi­ron­ment of the Université de Paris VIII. During this period she pre­sented sev­eral per­for­mances that incor­po­rated drawing and sound; she also con­tributed to the fem­i­nist review Sorcières, which pub­lished her early draw­ings.

In 1974 she earned a master’s degree in visual arts and art his­tory from the Université de Paris I, and also attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
In the 1980s, Mehadji began to inves­ti­gateter­ro­gate the mate­rials of pic­to­rial prac­tice. She decided to employ unusual media such as gesso and trans­parent paper on large pieces of raw canvas in order to gen­erate sym­bolic, highly archi­tec­tured, geo­metric forms.

In 1985 she spent a year in Essaouira, Morocco, on an extra-mural schol­ar­ship from the Villa Medicis. Mehadji would later return there with increas­ingly fre­quency, pro­ducing her Icare series in Essaouira. This cycle came to a close in 1994 with the Coupole series, which explic­itly referred to Islam and sig­naled her interest in tran­scul­tural archi­tec­tural forms.

In 1996, Mehadji changed tech­nique and hence style, adopting large oil pas­tels that enabled her to draw long, con­tin­uous lines on raw canvas, gen­er­ating spheres of pure reds or yel­lows, which yielded three series known as Gradients, Chaosmos, and Souira.

In 1997 she taught drawing for a year as a guest artist at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Paris. Her recent works dis­play a sym­bolism related to nature, notably to the cosmos and the plant kingdom, estab­lishing a log­ical coun­ter­point to the geo­metric forms of her early career. Hence the “struc­tures of flux” as exem­pli­fied by the Fleur-flux series, in which Mehadji revisits the uni­versal symbol of the pomegranate, whose styl­ized flower runs throughout her can­vases, draw­ings, and water­colors.

Her interest in floral and cosmic themes can also be seen in three series titled Pivoines, Vanités, and Volutes. Since 2005, Mehadji has been pro­ducing dig­ital works that incor­po­rate details from engraved plates by Goya.

Public col­lec­tions

Fonds national d’art con­tem­po­rain, Paris
Fondation Camille, Paris
FRAC de Basse-Normandie
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen
Collection BCM, Casablanca
Collection IBM France, tour Descartes, La Défense
Fondation Mercedes-Benz France, Rocquencourt
Collection de la Ville de Paris
Collection de la Ville de Caen
Fondation Colas, Boulogne-Billancourt
Institut du monde arabe, Paris
Collection de l’Assistance publique, Paris
Compagnie africaine d’assur­ance, Casablanca
Fondation ONA, Casablanca
Bibliothèque nationale, Paris
Fondation Shoman, Amman
Musée national des beaux-arts, Amman
Musée du château des ducs de Wurtemberg, Montbéliard
Centre Pompidou, musée d’Art mod­erne, cab­inet des dessins, Paris
Artgestion, Casablanca
Société générale, Casablanca
Attijariwafa Bank, fon­da­tion Actua, Casablanca
Palais royal, Maroc

Artist’s texts

My early works, in the 1970s, were draw­ings that evoked dia­grams of sound, the tone of a voice, for example. And on sev­eral occa­sions it led me to do per­for­mances where I ampli­fied the sound of the marks I was making while I drew on paper - it was like breathing, a per­sonal rhythm or inner voice, that was guiding me.

My work on canvas, at first, was a long quest for color, as well as a reflec­tion on lines and traces, which is still the case today. I didn’t use painting’s con­ven­tional mate­rials and sup­ports, but rather newsprint, silkscreen inks, raw canvas, size, and gesso. These lim­ited and very modest resources gave me greater freedom.

All the archi­tec­ture con­structs walls in space and plays on form and con­tent, as when I draw a line that simul­ta­ne­ously reveals spaces on both sides, or a cir­cular line that gen­er­ates volume. This explains the impor­tance of the areas left “in reserve” in my work, which play a major role between the lines drawn in chalk, whether on paper or canvas.

Light plays an essen­tial role in archi­tec­ture because it has the capacity to trans­form vol­umes and relief (as seen in bas-reliefs on Egyptian tem­ples or cathe­dral doors). The cupola (or dome) and cap­ital are the main archi­tec­tural fea­tures I work from; the former because it rep­re­sents the celes­tial sphere, hence aspires to the spir­i­tual, and the latter because of its many vari­a­tions and meta­mor­phoses of veg­e­ta­tion. I’ve always been drawn to designs of lines in space, to the rela­tion­ship between vol­umes, struc­ture and forms in nature and archi­tec­ture, espe­cially those that sym­bolize ele­ments of the uni­verse, such as pyra­mids, domes, cap­i­tals.

Drawing lines is an expres­sion of time (dura­tion), a little like the growth rings on a tree; hand and mind are caught up in the rhythm required by the exe­cu­tion of the drawing; this rhythm reveals the stages of the drawing’s ges­ta­tion in a move­ment toward expan­sion, dis­ten­sion, volume. It is cru­cial to my work, both on paper and canvas. My paint­ings are, in fact, large chalk draw­ings done in phys­i­cally and men­tally expres­sive ges­tures; they are fluid con­struc­tions that create a link between the cosmic and the human, the spir­i­tual and the tan­gible.

The theme of the dome or cupola appeared in my work in 1993, at a time when I was par­tic­u­larly indig­nant over the crimes com­mitted in the former Yugoslavia by the strategy of “ethnic cleansing” aimed at Bosnians who were Muslims, and the destruc­tion of their cul­tural her­itage. In my mind, Sarajevo was like the city of Grenada in Andalusia during its golden period in the middle ages, open and mul­ti­cul­tural. So I wanted to work from cer­tain domes, like the one on Alhambra, then on the uni­versal nature of the domes where you often find an octagon that makes the tran­si­tion from square to circle, from ter­res­trial to celes­tial. The dome is a kind of inter­me­diary between humanity and the cosmos.

For the past twenty years I’ve divided my time between Paris and Essaouira, Morocco. Going back and forth from one country to another, one cul­ture to another cre­ates a dis­tance that allows me to put things in per­spec­tive and to get to the essence of things faster, unin­hib­ited by habits.

This nomadic period began with the works titled Icare (Icarus), done during a six-month stay in Morocco in 1985. They refer to the Greek myth of Icarus and the moment he flies up toward the light, with the sky as his ter­ri­tory. It con­tinued with the Coupoles (Cupolas), metaphors for the tran­si­tion from the earth­bound to the heav­enly, and with Ma–, which are like “sec­tions of wall” that dangle in the void. Then came Arborescences and Grenades (Pomegranates), motifs that have crossed numerous civ­i­liza­tions from China to Andalusia, and more recently, the Suites Goyesques, dig­ital works based on Goya’s engrav­ings that were done in Madrid.

All these series hover some­where between drawing and painting, abstrac­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, color and light, inner and outer, move­ment and stasis, tan­gible and sym­bolic, ges­ture and idea, geo­metric and organic, form and flux, con­straint and freedom, intu­ition and reflec­tion, per­cep­tion and memory-East and West.

www.visue­ - Verso n°100 - L’artiste du mois : Najia Mehadji.

News from infinity
by Rémi Labrusse

Imagine divers, rising up from the depths, bursting onto the sur­face and leaving traces in the glis­tening foam of the other, under­water, world they have come from. Their bodies, still bathed with the inde­fin­able cohe­sion of the deep, man­i­fest, by their breathing, move­ments and upward momentum, a power and har­mony born of this deep that stays with them even as they erase the memory of it, by a single ges­ture, in the air of the out­side world. In these move­ments, in the spurting water momen­tarily forming light-filled con­stel­la­tions, an inti­mate expe­ri­ence of the depths occurs and simul­ta­ne­ously dis­si­pates; blind, mute, com­pletely inex­press­ible other than through this leap to the out­side it makes pos­sible and yet is can­celled by. The big breath sud­denly pro­duced on the sur­face comes from the depth of the depths, its somehow streaming energy draws on the unfath­omable but also con­sumes it and trans­forms the rhythm of the inner essence of the sea into the joy of emerging into the world: pure con­sump­tion, this sudden tearing of the sur­face, where, in one breath, their bodies sub­merged but their faces turned sky­wards, the swim­mers weave together the inner and the outer like two key facets of the being.
Imagine Najia Mehadji’s works like these divers: come from a place that is out of sight and tes­ti­fying to the pre­dom­i­nance of the inner essence, which pushes them to the sur­face of the world but which, in its infinite depth, con­sti­tutes their orig­inal con­di­tion. What is this inner essence - this unfath­omable sea? It is the inner essence of move­ment, of the body acting and feeling obscurely, by the very effect of its action, that some­thing inde­fin­able, mea­sure­less and lim­it­less, con­sti­tutes it as a living body. The fact that the artist has had a strong aware­ness of this primal and invis­ible force is evi­denced in the per­for­mances with which she started her life as an artist, in the late 1970s, when she drew in the dark­ness, with big sticks of char­coal, let­ting her hand, her arm, her whole body react blindly to the sounds she heard. And what sounds? Sometimes the sounds of per­cus­sion­ists, but some­times also (and above all) her own sounds, those pro­duced by the char­coal squeaking on big rolls of paper recorded by an electro-acoustic pro­cess (so the sound pro­duced by the move­ment of the char­coal on the paper was ampli­fied and pro­jected into the dark space). By doing this, the drawing, in the most lit­eral sense of the word, self-gen­er­ated – not as an ideal form, detached from external appear­ances, leading to a world of essences but, con­versely, because it reduced down to the autonomous and dizzying power of indi­vidual sub­jec­tivity : move­ment gen­er­ates a sound that gen­er­ates a move­ment that gen­er­ates a sound, and so on; by the tran­si­tion of the sound, the action of the body drawing pro­duces nothing but itself, in other words nothing but an infinite expres­sive energy, per­petual move­ment brought forth by the move­ment itself, finding its source in itself. Nothing for­malist in this, no fetishism of the form itself or of what it might rep­re­sent: more­over, after the per­for­mance, the results drawn – or rather imprinted – were scrapped, quickly aban­doned relics of a living action, like a snake skin after being shed. Such an approach is strongly phe­nomeno­log­ical: com­pletely led by the desire to stick as closely as pos­sible to a pro­cess of man­i­fes­ta­tion of the sub­jec­tive life, that of the sen­sible body affected first and fore­most by itself – a prin­ciple that makes it supremely hetero­ge­neous with this other kingdom that sur­rounds it, the kingdom of objects and the outer essence.
This founding impor­tance of move­ment, born of the living body’s won­drous dive into its own inner essence, upstream of any inten­tional con­scious­ness, unre­lated to the external world, has never been denied by the artist. You would even be tempted to think this is the supreme reason for her love of painting, in the prac­tice of which Najia imposes phys­i­cally demanding con­di­tions on her­self. By the effort they require, they give the body the pri­mary role: like these oil pig­ment sticks she used in her large paint­ings of the late 1990s and early 2000s – the Chaosmos, Gradients, Arborescences, etc. –, which she had to crush onto the unpre­pared canvas to leave traces, but without breaking the fluid momentum and har­mony of the inter­woven curves; also, like the large, unwieldy brushes she cur­rently uses to trace her Drapés or her Fleurs, with deep pic­to­rial breaths. And always reap­pearing is her pas­sion for a plane other than the vis­ible, for a dimen­sion other than form, for this phys­ical embrace l, ahead of any thought and any vision of the world; it is in this embrace that there is access to the infinite, in the most lit­eral, affec­tive and con­crete sense of the word. From this undoubt­edly stems the artist’s deep under­standing, her feeling of com­mu­nion with the cir­cular almost on-the-spot steps of the Ottoman whirling dervishes, which she trans­posed into her 2002 series of Danses des der­viches. In the same way, and for the same rea­sons, music appears as a con­stant in her daily prac­tice, acting in her like an orig­inal prin­ciple that dis­man­tles the autonomy of the vis­ible: shut in bright white stu­dios to aid her con­cen­tra­tion, while in Paris, she lets her­self be trans­ported by the music of Bach or other musi­cians of the abso­lute, and, while in Essaouira, by the music of the flocks passing by and the wind in the olives.
A mys­tery remains: the fact that this living body that feels itself in its rad­ical inner essence also feels the need to break the inner circle and, like the diver, surge to the sur­face, cre­ating vis­ible forms, while all forms, all objects are orig­i­nally alien to it, in the dark night of the self. Why, at a given moment, does the inner life of the body, instead of remaining not of this world, in the depths of sub­jec­tivity, come to the sur­face, objec­tivising itself in visual con­fig­u­ra­tions, lumi­nously inscribing itself in the fabric of appear­ances? And more: why does move­ment dis­em­body itself – in forms that are inten­tion­ally geo­met­ri­cally stan­dard and in a way de-sub­jec­tivised: squares, cir­cles, octagons, geo­metric stars, rhom­boids or even flower petals – so many great uni­ver­sals of all visual cul­tures, in which the idea of a geo­met­rical struc­ture of being is expressed? Why, in other words, does the dizzy power of the unformed, the blind, the space­less, the undi­men­sioned, the rad­i­cally sin­gular, in the spon­taneity of embodied move­ment, rub itself so pas­sion­ately up against its oppo­site, the stan­dard per­fec­tion of the vis­ible, the har­mony of fun­da­mental orna­ments, the pre­cise ele­gance of mea­sure­able inter­vals?
Najia Mehadji’s work, rather than claiming to give a dog­matic answer to this ques­tion, is driven by the desire to simply dig deeper and deeper into it, or more exactly to res­onate the mys­tery of it. There is no doubt that nothing expresses better this recog­ni­tion of the mys­tery of the pro­cess of exter­nal­i­sa­tion, the unearthing of the image, than her most recent works, gouaches cre­ated by a single move­ment of the hand with a large brush coated with white or black – the Volutes, Touches, Arabesques or the Danses mys­tiques. Here, the viewer is tempted to track the move­ment by iden­ti­fying its start point and end point but the start – the point where the brush was laid on the sur­face of the paper – is often invis­ible and only the end of its move­ment is spec­tac­u­larly asserted like a real explo­sion. As if the image wanted to sig­nify that it is unaware of its own origin – also, in other words, that it is rooted in the non-image, in the invis­ible. Another recent symptom of this intro­spec­tive approach is to be found in the artist’s dig­ital works where she explores the con­fronta­tion between an orig­inal pic­to­rial imprint and mechan­ical pro­cesses of repro­duc­tion – the Suites goyesques in 2007, the Danses mys­tiques in 2011 –, as if, this time, it was a matter of putting to work the fric­tion between embod­i­ment and dis­em­bod­i­ment, between the body and the machine, between living motion and dead image.
Beyond any specific work, Najia’s attach­ment to the dec­o­ra­tive expresses the con­stant fric­tion between crit­ical inter­ro­ga­tion of the fact of becoming an image and sen­sible expe­ri­ence of the inner sub­jec­tive life. Who’s afraid of dec­o­ra­tion? Everyone who thinks that the vis­ible image is in itself endowed with an onto­log­ical legit­i­macy, that it rep­re­sents, as an object, the truth of being. But this is what is denied by orna­ment, the para­dox­ical sub­stance of decor. Although all dec­o­ra­tion makes shapes and, by these shapes, sug­gests a vision of the world, equally, all dec­o­ra­tion rel­a­tivises this vision, and ulti­mately dis­solves it in a per­petual move­ment of curves, counter-curves and arabesque inter­twining over which the eye dances rather than stops. So what becomes lighter and lighter to the point of evanes­cence is objec­tivity as such, the claim by appear­ances to be the legit­i­mate mes­sen­gers of reality. And what grows, on the other hand, is an infinite free will, enchanted with itself, con­tam­i­nating the reign of the vis­ible by an inner tonality: that of the human act as such, the pure praxis which, in the cre­ative exer­cise of the motion, dis­covers its infinite and autonomous glory. Decoration is about nothing other than this: the irri­ga­tion and desta­bil­i­sa­tion of the world of objects by the expres­sive power of the orna­mental ges­ture – so that, under the order it some­times seems to impose, a bursting and per­pet­u­ally expanding dis­order rises up. In the ascen­sion from the inner essence to the outer brought about by dec­o­ra­tion, we see the con­tam­i­na­tion of the second by the first; lightly, obsti­nately, joy­ously, the unsayable surges into the sayable, loses itself and dis­ap­pears there but is con­stantly reborn there. This is what cre­ates the power of seduc­tion of any dec­o­ra­tive pro­ject, its uncanny strangeness: deep down, despite all attempts to burden it with the order of dis­course – reli­gious, polit­ical, worldly –, dec­o­ra­tion is a mes­senger of an uncon­trol­lable invis­ible, it blows where it wants, when it wants, and con­stantly renews itself so its aber­rant and mar­vel­lous traces can mys­te­ri­ously inner­vate and sap the self-impor­tance of the prac­tical world.
The uncon­trol­lable joy that results, this is what is man­i­fested by Najia Mehadji’s big paint­ings: born some­times of a vio­lent reac­tion to the world – revolt in the face of the civil mas­sacres in Bosnia or Palestine, the grief of per­sonal loss –, they dis­solve this ini­tial reac­tion in the acid of an inner, unpre­dictable neces­sity. Suddenly, she throws her­self obses­sively into a given form (or rather into a cer­tain type of tech­nique) – domes, flowers, palms, drapes, etc. – then, no less sud­denly, she pulls out and goes else­where, marking the end of a series and the start of another one. There can be no cal­cu­la­tion directing the path of this dec­o­ra­tive life that winds through colours and shapes; like any dec­o­ra­tive art, what gov­erns it does not belong to the objec­tive world but to the world of sub­jec­tive inte­ri­ority; inde­fati­gable, without reason, it brings up the infinite depth that is in us all as living bodies and dis­perses it on the sur­face of things.

Copyright © Galerie Claude Lemand 2012.

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