Written by Achraf Remok. Published on 22 October 2022.

I grew up surrounded by flora. I was exposed to the power of nature at the Agronomic and Veterinary Institute Hassan II in Rabat, which both fascinated and frightened me. I’ve read a lot of books, and plant pictures have always piqued my interest. There were a few herbariums at the institute. Looking back on my first encounters with ecology, I believe it was these sketches of plants that ultimately drew me to the visual arts. I jumped at the chance to collaborate with curatorial teams on a variety of exhibits. “ECHOS,” a group exhibition shown at Le Cube – Independent Art Room in Rabat, that asks six artists to consider how people fit into the environment and how their influence affects it, is one of these exhibits. Aàdesokan Adedayo, Ayo Aknwándé, Younes Ben Slimane, Mohamedali Ltaief, Fatim Benhamza, and Amine Oulmakki warn the public about environmental issues in addition to other scientists. The artists use a variety of media, including installations, photography, and video, to reveal the reality experienced in Africa by addressing issues with waste management, the effects on nature and living things, and – despite everything – the desire to be saved.

After we first met in 2021, Ilias Selfati asked me to curate his most recent solo exhibition, “Dreaming in a Wonderful Forest”. I was aware of his fascination with nature in all of its complexity, but I was unaware of the depth of his work. I started to make sense of everything I had read or seen as a child in those nature books after looking at his artwork for a number of days and hours.

Photos: Ilias Selfati.

Ilias Selfati’s hypothetical language, if I were to describe it, would fall somewhere between reality and fiction. Most of Selfati’s motifs are representations of a harsh climate, a remote savannah, and a forest. His involvement in global issues of life, not just in Morocco but the cosmopolitan nature of what we share as concerns and the way we will advance on earth, mother life, is characterized by animals of all kinds and insects invisible to human eyes.

I believe that this curiosity allows him to paint and draw the colors of the invisible, the alienation of nature by humans, and the odors of infected ecology, which are transmitted and only then fade by the image that no longer exists in our days. I believe that the concept he emphasizes in his artistic demarcation is very much related to the violence that this world projects. As several visitors told me at the exhibition’s opening in Tangier in December 2021, if his creation had sound, it would be one of nostalgia, enhancing the stanza of a long-gone star and revealing the mooring of the wrapped letters. Despite humanity’s suffering, Selfati seems to be leading his animals leisurely around his canvas, gradually embracing nature’s essence and reciting the pleasant sounds of the forest. Selfati asserts that the painter’s technique creates a poetry of shards and pieces that restores what time has worn away between the paint’s shadows. He mainly uses paint on a restrained palette.

Nevertheless, the artist claimed that his artistic distinction was “the product of many years of observations.” He has been thinking a lot about the world we live in during this time. It served as “a model to produce” the art he created. Since his work is, in my opinion, situated between lights originating from a forgotten reality and an alphabet that relates to the collective soul of the land, it “emphasizes the fundamental, the intersection between simplicity and complexity.” For instance, the series “Please, bring punk back” shows the artist’s desire to consider the course of human existence; famous events are erased, slightly restored, and given a nostalgic feel, or as Selfati would say, “don’t have any nostalgia unless it’s yours.” It is clear from these opposing realities that his artwork transcends violence as a physical form and acts as a collective psychological and psychic memory.

Photos: Ilias Selfati.

His works provide a human perspective and a unique approach in order to understand what is fleeting and important to experience. He does this by using sensitive techniques, most notably vibrations between life forms and psyches. In his most recent performance, “Dreaming in a Wonderful Forest,” he addresses these issues. He shifts his attention to what needs to be expressed in this show. How does one pass away from not saying no? He depicted the entrance of wolves with the words “Behold, I send you forth like sheep among wolves”—Matthew 10:16—and painted Basquiat’s stories. He also wrote what was hidden beneath the biblical references. You need innocence and cunning.

During a curatorial interview, he emphasized the sad element that needs to be seen through a modern lens. According to him, art contributes to the goal of reconciliation by bringing the invisible into the light, painting with words, depicting what lies behind the invisible, remembering the forgotten, and fostering the healthy development of all life.

Photos: Ilias Selfati.

In his private thoughts, he said, he views every individual as a puzzle that must be solved, and he thinks that the forest language is one of the tools for cracking the code of submission, another form of slavery that destroys the dream. This common purpose serves as a tool to combat violence. It is evident from the images that a report with the gloom of reality can be seen and is completely present throughout the artwork. There is a close connection between the games of life, innocence, and death. This is why I think the lives of those people who questioned the artist but were invisible to the naked eye and who couldn’t say any are reflected in his art.

The majority of his works undoubtedly rest on logic, rhymes, words, and life allusions that convey a vision of an engaged art whose vitality is necessary and whose vivacity is unavoidable. The forest and all of its facets are present and will remain, as is the artist’s discovery of these elements and the animals that follow him in his imagination.

Selfati thus provides a composition that is uncommonly seen: the use of words to trace the history of a relationship; the unrestricted decay of light and color; the creation of shadows; and this cryptic and legendary aspect of things. He kept a mystery similar to this one hidden among his animals. Selfati’s work is twisted and knotted repeatedly, overused and underused, fiercely challenges the idea of the beyond, treats the forest as a desire rather than a subject, and translates it all through games of traces, mummifications, scrapings, or rubbings. His creation serves as both a testament to a perfect or flawed creature and a faunistic and floral metaphor for the passage of time.

Nothing in his creation is centered, so even though everything is chaotic, everything appears to be balanced. Selfati’s works provide a fresh perspective on alignments as a result. Selfati is embarking on a new journey, but I have faith that he will stay true to the poet of the forest, his deepest self. He can discover some justice through this conflict… But is life just or fair?

Selfati had to say, “Get rid of the daily routine of unhealthy repetition; chase away a submission, a status, or a rhythm; and leave room for the imaginary.” “Gather all of one’s efforts and not stick to sellable things; to a discourse that repeats and rewrites itself; and paints a new discourse, the sensitive discourse of art,” he concluded. He showed loyalty and fearlessness by having the guts to accept change and fresh viewpoints. Keeping this in mind, neither the foundation of his works nor their pursuit as aesthetic concepts. And because the majority of his concerns and artwork are typically connected to the innate existence of things, death as a reality is neither appealing nor marketable for him.