On ‘Le Miroir’ by Nidhal Chamekh
Written by Hela Djobbi.
Time is elusive, it is an entity that is difficult to contain or define, yet it changes everything. It materializes in objects and leaves traces; it can be understood by the impact it has. Archaeologists and historians research and translate the traces of time. We have no choice but to believe them. Otherwise, we only see the last stratum of the earth excavated, the presnt one.
Nidhal Chamekh has a different approach. What may seem coherent and orderly in a presented object develops into the subject of consideration, reflection, and excavation. An object can be an image, a text, or an item that in the way it is formed, displayed, or contextualized inherits narratives, believes, or codes of the past.
The artist is an archaeologist who disturbs the order of things. He reviews what seems to be a perfect fit, he rearranges fragments, he re-examines what lies between the lines. He offers questions and suspicions, not answers to assert. To deconstruct what seems obvious and to dissipate what is seen as evident are key aspects of his artistic practice.
Nidhal Chamekh is interested in the doubt. He is probing conventional arrangements, common narratives, constantly asking for the overlooked or the not-yet seen. His mission – if ‘mission’ would be the word to describe his approach – is presenting artwork that functions like a microscope allowing one to see more when sustaining the effort of beholding. The exhibition ‘Nos Visages’ (en: Our Faces), hosted in September and October 2019 at SELMA FERIANI GALLERY in Sidi Bou Said (tn), was a good example to experience that.
Nidhal Chamekh experiments with the deconstruction of photographic images as well as archives. Both are known as trustworthy documentation, almost endowed with sacred power. They are supposed to be reliable resources in research and are considered to provide evidence when reconstructing past tense. The artist questions these conventions by casting doubt on imageries and archives, perceiving them children of a time, embedded in contexts that are shaped by interests, selected, and stored along with predetermined mindsets and their blind spots. He reviews the contexts they are created in, the way they were contextualized, and where, how, and why they were stored. He stresses the tension field of what is visible and what is hidden, what is shown and what is faded out, what is highlighted and what is ignored, all aspects that affect aspects of reality.
He reinvestigates the notions of imageries that have become icons, includes common narratives, and all what passes on a certain idea of the past. He reviews the way they are enveloped in sacredness to present them as precious truth, how they help to popularize a point to view and how this allows to share them widely.
Archives, which archives?
Nidhal Chamekh works with archives from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, a period coined by the two world wars that have changed the history of the world and its geography. A broad variety of archives can be found featuring this historical period. Access to these archives is fairly easy as they can be consulted on library websites like the National Library of France – ‘Bibliothèque Nationale de France’ (BNF) – or its blog ‘Gallica’. Also, the early editions of the French magazine ‘Le Miroir’ (1912-1920) can be found here.
Among the artworks by Nidhal Chamekh on display in the SELMA FERIANI GALLERY is the example of the work ‘Le Miroir’, which is an installation consisting of a slide projector installed on a metal table in front of a white wall. Fifty-one slides are presented to the viewer. They are mainly from the French magazine ‘Le Miroir’, published between 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. Three additional slides are from the Army Archive Collection.
In the first place, they are photos, press articles, and different broadcasting formats of a particular time, they were meant for communication, dissemination, and propaganda. When removing these contexts, we begin a journey into the depths of a ‘simple image’. The image thus becomes an item for analyses and questions to be explored.
The initial choices of the artists are to focus on a specific and decisive historical period, and also a subject. He refers to the omnipresent context of war and asks how that it is implied, explicitly or implicitly, in the photographic composition that animates the images it disseminates. Then comes the work of collecting, organizing, sorting, and categorizing. At the end of this phase, the selection of images, and their way of relating to each other is part of an artistic process in which the new scenario is generated almost automatically.
The carousel, a tour in time
The idea of creating a series, and consequently, a rhythm and a montage imposed itself on the artist. The number of slots in the slides is greater than the number of slides selected. This empty time was orchestrated by the artist to give rhythm to the diffusion of his fifty-one images, of which he creates nine series. Each series lets six to seven images scroll by and then this time, which the artist describes as ‘black’ but which I would describe as ‘white’ since the projection support receives direct light from an empty slide housing, sets in. This time of non-broadcasting is in movement: it continues to progress without speaking while keeping a repetitive sound that identifies its passage.
The slide carousel, operating automatically, is thus punctuated by the sound of the changing slides. This identically punctuated rhythm recalls the military spirit of the subject of the slides. It also recalls the imaginary world of military and police interrogations. Each projection is a question. The series is tempered by the silence of the empty slides, a time of pause, of questioning until the beginning of the new series. “This creates transitions from one theme to another, or the opposite, sets up a pause to support what has already been seen,” the artist himself explains.
The work is positioned in an enclosed, dark space on the fringe of the open and luminous spaces of the gallery. The word ‘documentary’ is placed in inverted commas to underline the artist’s intervention in these images. The ‘documentary’ images are shown in contrast to the other works in the exhibition. In the latter, the artist has transformed the source images by recomposing them, cutting them up, and redrawing them.
The common archive, the individual artwork
Nidhal Chamekh treats archival photographs as a tool. They are altered, isolated, or juxtaposed in new ways. Some are complete, some are cut or collaged. When used in a creative and artistic context, they are taken out of their shell and elevated from ordinary objects. The artist redefines them and transforms them into another entity. He decontextualizes them from their frozen aspect of historical documents to become a scenario that emerges through combining them in a series.
The enlargement through the projection, the reframing of the image to adapt it to the slide format, the montage of the series, the choice of the order of the series, the rotation of the carousel, the subjectivity of the silence, the solitary experience of the viewer, the darkness of the exhibition space, the face-to-face confrontation of the viewer with the images and the end of the tour, all these elements transfigure the archive to become a work, a dialogue, a questioning, a doubt shared with the viewers. The theatricality of the installation guides the viewers. The guiding idea is not to inform but to dissolve the cohesiveness of the past and its narratives. I found myself facing a ‘mirror’ that does not reflect the reality that it emerges from. I concur with the artist, there is no one reality, but rather views of reality according to our relationship to the image.
Conclusion and more questions
Nidhal Chamekh’s work challenges, questions, and rewrites history through the different views that his works employ to create new paths of reflection around what is commonly called the reality of things. Also, the question of colonial history shows up in a large part of Nidhal’s work. It emerges as questions about the present, its consequences, its terms, its names, and its ways of dissemination.
Understanding his artistic research, we can understand that we must invest time, research, and experimentation to reread and rewrite what we consider cultural heritage. With him, we can study how to lift the lawyers of conventions, traditions, and repeated patterns that block any other vision. Many of his works are part of this approach, which aims to remove these layers one by one, to reveal a path and a new way of looking at the present, a different way of resonating with the past.
Hela Djobbi: Interview with the artist. September 2021.
Morad Montazami: Nos Visages. Presentation of the exhibition at SELMA FERIANI GALLERY, 2019.
National Library of France / Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF)
Gallica: Blog on the public archive of the Digital Library of the National Library of France (BnF) and its partners
Gallica: Archive of ‘Le Miroir’ (1912-1920)
selmaferiani.com: Nidhal Chamekh: Works
lapresse.tn: Nidhal Chamekh
TASAWORAT PUBLISHING PLATFORM
On ‘Le Miroir’ by Nidhal Chamekh