From 4 March to 13 April 2013 - Espace Claude Lemand

  • Mehadji, Fleur de grenade.

    Fleur de grenade, 2003. Oil on canvas, 170 x 195 cm. Donation Claude & France Lemand. Museum, Institut du monde arabe, Paris. © Najia Mehadji. Courtesy Galerie Claude Lemand, Paris.

  • Mehadji, Eros and Thanatos.

    Eros and Thanatos, 2009. Oil on canvas, 190 x 200 cm. Monograph page 85. Donation Claude & France Lemand. Museum, Institut du monde arabe, Paris. © Najia Mehadji. Courtesy Galerie Claude Lemand, Paris.

Espace Claude Lemand is holding for the first time a solo exhi­bi­tion ded­i­cated to the Moroccan-French artist Najia Mehadji. She is well known and her works are in public and pri­vate insti­tu­tions and col­lec­tions in France (Centre Pompidou, …) and Morocco (Société Générale, …). She began exhibiting in the Middle East in 2012 (Beirut, Doha, Sanaa, Abu Dhabi, …).

Najia Mehadji was born in Paris in 1950. She lives and works in Paris and Essaouira (Morocco). 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 since 1995 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. 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 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 his recent series Pivoines, Eros and Thanatos, Volutes and Spring Dance.

Pascal Amel. Najia Mehadji, or the con­tem­po­rary sub­lime.

The in-between
If we wanted to ran­domly pick one con­tem­po­rary artist among others who, by her biog­raphy and works, sym­bol­ises the union between the East and the West, it would be Najia Mehadji. This Franco-Moroccan or Moroccan-French artist who was born in 1950, spent her child­hood and teenage years in Paris, with reg­ular trips to Fès where her family comes from, was a grad­uate of the Université Paris VIII where she defended her thesis on Paul Cézanne in 1973 and a stu­dent of the Ecole des Beaux-arts de Paris. She has been exhibiting in Paris gal­leries since the 80s and, in 1985, she decided to divide her time between her studio in Paris and her studio in Morocco, near Essaouira, in the Haha region, in a douar she con­verted into a tra­di­tional open-air ryad..

Since then, this in-between exis­tence has become her way of life. Besides par­tic­i­pating in many inter­na­tional joint exhi­bi­tions, as far as her two coun­tries of choice are con­cerned – “I need them both”, she says -, dif­ferent periods of her work have been shown at the Bab Rouah in Rabat, in the Attijariwafa Bank’s Actua gallery and at the Société Générale in Casablanca; at the Poitiers and Caen museums where a per­sonal exhi­bi­tion was organ­ised for her at the end of the 80s; at the elles@­cen­tre­pom­pidou exhi­bi­tion ded­i­cated by Beaubourg to con­tem­po­rary female artists from all over the world in 2009.

In France, she joined the artistic tur­bu­lence of the mid-70s, exper­i­menting with con­tem­po­rary extreme. In visual arts, Simon Hantaï, Judit Reigl, Jean Degottex, Martin Barré and the Supports/sur­faces group were ques­tioning painting from the point of view of its ele­men­tary com­po­nents (canvas, frame, sur­face, plane, etc.); all of these artists were engaged in a delib­erate pro­cess – the rules of the game being optional yet rad­ical – by which they were able to bring to the sur­face some­thing which could never have been brought to the sur­face without them.

Najia worked for a while with Peter Brook and the Living Theatre, avant-garde the­atre groups open to cul­tures that were called “extra-European” at the time. This was fol­lowed by lessons with Jerzy Grotowski who, breaking with Western con­ven­tions of the­atrical per­for­mance (the sep­a­ra­tion between stage and audi­ence, the pre­dom­i­nance of the text, the psy­cho­log­ical play of the actors, etc.), took inspi­ra­tion from the eth­no­log­ical rituals and the tra­di­tional the­atre of ori­ental civil­i­sa­tions to create the pos­si­bility of a “sa­cred the­atrical expe­ri­ence” shared by the actors and spec­ta­tors where the “human uni­versal” is given con­crete form. Whether this is in con­tem­po­rary the­atre or painting, the chal­lenge is less about the inven­tion of form for form’s sake than expe­ri­ence, self-explo­ration, the ordeal of the work, the trans­for­ma­tion of the artist and the desired trans­for­ma­tion of the viewer. In short, it is about opening up the indi­vidual’s field of per­cep­tion so he or she can achieve a higher level of con­scious­ness. This under­taking, in which the trans­for­ma­tion of self and society is the objec­tive, is based on a lib­er­ating vision of being.

Also during these years, Najia was par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in the ges­tures and move­ments of Japanese Noh the­atre and the Sufi rituals of whirling dervishes, which she ren­dered in char­coal or black ink. She cre­ated per­for­mances, with con­tem­po­rary music stu­dents, by drawing on big sheets of paper in which sound-recording micro-con­tacts had pre­vi­ously been inserted. This was also the period when she fre­quented the Femmes arts group and con­tributed to the Sorcières magazine which pub­lished her first draw­ings, sort of black and white dia­grams that could be described as an “ab­strac­tion of the senses”.

Later, she read Bergson, Deleuze, Djalal el Din Rumi, Platon and Ibn Arabi and enjoyed the films of Dreyer, Bergman and Bresson, film-makers who made great use of lighting and close-ups, the emo­tions and the face. She felt an affinity to Lucio Fontana and the artists of the Arte povera who, emerging from the anti-estab­lish­ment utopia of the late 60s, revived the Nature/Culture dichotomy; and to Robert Ryman and Richard Serra, American min­i­mal­ists who man­aged to retain rad­ical thought and sen­si­tivity of hand. She saw the Anthropométries of Yves Klein, the sculp­tures of Anish Kappor, the videos of Bill Viola and the paint­ings of Lee Ufan, all artistic tech­niques uniting con­cept and per­cep­tion, the mate­rial and the imma­te­rial. She favoured lumi­nous works cre­ating a feeling of plen­i­tude, cel­e­brating the union between body and mind, cap­turing the “time­less power of life”. The painting of the tombs of the kings and queens of Egypt at the time of the pharaohs, the Japanese Zen monks of the 12th cen­tury, Chu Ta, the 17th cen­tury Chinese painter who invented freedom of line, Beyzad, the Master of Persian illu­mi­na­tions, the great Russian icons, Giotto, Greco, Malevitch, Matisse, the arts of Islam and Arab-Andalusian archi­tec­ture, (which she saw as a teenager during visits to the Alhambra, med­ersas or walks through the white archi­tec­ture of the med­inas), are some of her ref­er­ences.

Passing through the doors of per­cep­tion
“To cap­ture the flow, you have to get to the essence” says Najia. She has her own way; it’s like a form of asceti­cism. She works every day, whether in Paris, or Lamsassa, near Essaouira. She cre­ates. She paints. She draws. She care­fully chooses her tools which are both more rudi­men­tary and more tac­tile than the tools of tra­di­tional Western painting. She uses balsa sticks, big sticks of char­coal, Korean brushes, her hands, ink, gesso, oil bars for colour, ochre linen canvas as a reserve, black and white for the inten­sity of her con­trasts, just one or two monochrome colours for each work, sunny, lumi­nous colours like red, yellow and orange. She fas­tens her blank canvas or sketch paper straight onto the wall to better feel the resis­tance of the sup­port, the opposing force of the body and its recoil. She opts mostly for optimal cen­tred forms, like cir­cles, squares and octagons; allows the thinking hand to act, tracing a dynamic net­work of lines or touches spreading out to form vibrating struc­tures oscil­lating between the two dimen­sional and three dimen­sional. The rhythmic line that delin­eates the form is what defines its coloured exten­sion. As if depth was bursting to the sur­face.

She is equally on the side of acting and non-acting, of action and con­tem­pla­tion, of the truth of sen­sa­tion and the cel­e­bra­tion of the sacred as if there were two opposing but com­ple­men­tary sides of the same seal. As if the fer­tility of speed and the sen­sa­tion of the enduring were one and the same tem­po­rality; the Dark and the Light, the same spa­tiality. The body, the arm, the hand, the tool, the imprint, the inner and outer eye, the idea and the form are one and the same thing – the same “rev­e­la­tion”. There can’t be any repenting. Najia dis­cards, tears up, keeps what has promise in terms of what she con­siders to “work”, art being, for her, the means of a real meta­mor­phosis of being, not just an aes­thetic or sym­bolic chal­lenge.
She mostly cre­ates in series where each work has its own autonomy – its own intrinsic value. Icares. Tem. Ma. Coupoles. Chaosmos. Végétal. Gradient. Floral. Arborescence. Volutes. Spring Dance. Drapés.

Her art is a med­i­ta­tion on the vul­ner­a­bility of faced with what is ver­tig­i­nous and inti­mate in nature. The work – which is the recep­tacle of this – becomes a sanc­tuary. It is not gov­erned by the realm of the reli­gious, does not depend on it or illus­trate it, but the work itself has a spir­i­tual func­tion. During a recent studio visit, the artist told me: “For me, like in the art of Chu Ta, strip­ping down and sim­plicity are not devoid of sub­jec­tivity. On the con­trary! In his work, whether it’s a rock or birds coming into land, it’s all about pathos: joy, sad­ness, life and death... A simple flower can sug­gest philo­soph­ical or meta­phys­ical thoughts… It’s like Cézanne’s Montagne Sainte Victoire or his sim­plest water­colours: each touch is essen­tial – nec­es­sary – the land­scape is looking at us, the moun­tain is living like a painter’s self-por­trait... It is a metaphor­ical way of cap­turing what is more intense and more enduring than any indi­vidual life, without grandil­o­quence. How do you paint the wind in the branches? Fleeting beauty? This is the whole chal­lenge of Zen art which, in the real dynamic of an ink line or a wash, man­ages to por­tray the sen­sa­tion of the wind and bring about a time out of time. How do you paint the state of mind of the monk walking in the coun­tryside or gazing upon it? By the com­po­si­tion of the empty and the full, of sub­jec­tive lines and touches with the brush which, through the depic­tion of the trees and folds of the monk’s clothes, manage to create a metaphor of the euphoria or nos­talgia, the plen­i­tude or empti­ness the monk is feeling.”

An “en­gaged” art
Najia thinks that each artist can react – in his or her way – to the tragedy of his­tory and cur­rent events. In 1993-94, dis­tressed by the destruc­tion of Sarajevo – symbol of the coex­is­tence of three monotheisms –, “ethnic cleansing” and war crimes com­mitted against Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia, she cre­ated the Coupoles series demon­strating her interest in cross-cul­tural forms in archi­tec­ture (notably the octagon), by making explicit ref­er­ence to the cos­mology of the arts of Islam. Later, in 2005, to exor­cise the vio­lence of the wars in the Middle East, she cre­ated some dig­ital works inte­grating enlarged details of Goya’s engrav­ings (including les Désastres de la guerre) within draw­ings of flu­o­res­cent flowers – like a ten­sion between Eros and Thanatos.

She is engaged but doesn’t despair of humankind. Conscious that art – the order of the sym­bolic – cannot fight on equal terms with the extreme vio­lence of bar­barism, she refuses to reduce the work to a mes­sage, how­ever just and alarmist it is. For her, the role of the artist is not always to add noise to noise, still less to create enter­tain­ment or point­less spec­tacle, but to resist dis­en­chant­ment and dehu­man­i­sa­tion by cre­ating works in which, although ques­tioned, the plen­i­tude of being finally pre­vails over chaos. For her, it is about exor­cising evil and per­ni­cious forces by fol­lowing the flow of the life-giving energy that lights up many works revealing the daz­zling beauty of the invis­ible. She often men­tions Monet who offered his Water Lilies series to France in November 1918, at the end of the First World War, so they could be “a mon­u­ment to peace and restore a bit of life to a dev­as­tated time that needs it so much”.

The new cli­mate
By the force of cul­tural glob­al­i­sa­tion, we have been wit­nessing an unprece­dented event since the begin­ning of the 21st cen­tury: in the same way as for lit­er­a­ture, cinema or music, the widening of our vision to encom­pass the whole planet is the major aes­thetic rev­o­lu­tion for the con­tem­po­rary art of this decade. Following on from China, Korea, India, Iran, Turkey, Mexico and Brazil, it is now the turn of works by Arab artists – including migrants – to emerge onto the inter­na­tional stage. Reacting – quite rightly – to the 9/11 dis­aster which, over the years, has reduced the media por­trayal of the “Muslim” to clichés of ter­rorism and the burqa, some clear-thinking polit­ical per­son­al­i­ties and many men and women of society aspiring to more jus­tice and freedom have entered the cul­tural field in order to change the image of the Arab world. The expo­nen­tial opening of public and pri­vate gal­leries, museums and foun­da­tions ded­i­cated to modern and con­tem­po­rary art in the Gulf, the Middle East and Maghreb; the cre­ation of magazines and web­sites spe­cialised in art; the syn­ergy of big exhi­bi­tions, bien­nales or inter­na­tional fairs allowing greater cir­cu­la­tion of artists and better vis­i­bility of their works, is a major factor. From a host of Arab cities, like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Beirut, Damas, Aman, Ramallah, Cairo, Tunis, Algiers and Casablanca, to global cities, par­tic­u­larly Paris, London, Berlin and New York, where sev­eral of them reg­u­larly live or stay, painters, sculp­tors, pho­tog­ra­phers, video-makers and installers of the Arab world – or natives of the Arab world – are borne by an excep­tional dynamic.

Contemporary art has become transna­tional, cross-cul­tural; the impact of geo­graph­ical and his­tor­ical areas jux­ta­posing or inter­pen­e­trating is an increas­ingly deci­sive factor in cre­ation. “Un­like the ori­en­talisms of the imag­i­nary, where the Other was a Western con­struct made of clichés, stereo­types and colo­nial exoti­cism, the East is now in the West, and vice versa. Hence the birth of in-between aes­thetics, signs of a new work of the imag­i­na­tion that is increas­ingly inter­bred” writes Christine Buci-Glucksmann in the book for the Traits d’union – Paris et l’art con­tem­po­rain arabe exhi­bi­tion of which I am the curator. After its suc­cess at Villa Emerige in autumn 2011, this exhi­bi­tion – in which Najia Mehadji par­tic­i­pates – will be mounted in Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Lisbon and London, amongst other places.

Art of the 21st cen­tury
Najia goes her own way. She is part of a group of the most inter­esting Arab artists or artists with roots in the Arab world who use the inter­na­tional grammar of con­tem­po­rary art but with a specific vocab­u­lary. Asserting her fem­i­nine side to the extent of using floral as a theme (pejo­ra­tively asso­ci­ated with the most fem­i­nine con­no­ta­tions), she paints “fleurs de volupté” that dilate and vibrate; invents a fem­i­nine cal­lig­raphy where the con­tinual line of one ges­ture cre­ates folds and coils in an inner/outer move­ment that is both sen­sual and sub­lime. She suc­ceeds in cap­turing what is pri­mary, nascent, a time before time, so as to over­come the duality that forms the hard core of being and sub­sti­tute it with “unid­u­ality”; right there where there is the max­imum inten­sity; where oppo­si­tions can come together; where every­thing is ten­sion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

She cre­ates con­tem­po­rary icons that bring together drawing and painting, con­tent and form, struc­ture and flow, the sen­sible sub­jec­tivity of being and the ele­men­tary archi­tec­ture of the cosmos, the direct and the deferred and the aes­thetics of the East and the West. It’s con­trac­tion and dila­tion. Her paint­ings and draw­ings are both reflec­tive and spon­ta­neous, at the heart of the ele­men­tary – hap­tical – and yet refined – visual. Her works form a dividing line between the testing of limits and the lim­it­less­ness of the invis­ible. Her evi­dent and radi­ating images, a hymn to life where every­thing is “face” – flows, fer­tility, blos­soming, beauty, the fleeting grace of the real, the pre­car­ious grace of being… A cosmic humanism.

Pascal Amel, Najia Mehadji, or the con­tem­po­rary sub­lime, 2012.

Tranlated from French by Wally Thomas-Hermes.

Copyright © Galerie Claude Lemand 2012.

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