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.
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
Société générale, Casablanca
Attijariwafa Bank, fondation Actua, Casablanca
Palais royal, Maroc
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.visuelimage.com - 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.