The RE Project

Malek Gnaoui: The Elastic Mind

On the Exhibition ‘Essaida Carthage’ (2020) by Malek Gnaoui

Written by Salma Kossemtini and Syrine Siala. Published on …

In the framework of TASAWAR CURATORIAL STUDIOS, we conducted an interview with the Tunisian artist Malek Gnaoui following his activities during the COVID-19 lockdown. The interview was dedicated to discussing his artistic approach as well as his outlook on the cultural scene in Tunisia. The interview was conducted in two phases, the first, during the confinement, was done remotely. The second phase took place during a guided tour, made by the artist, of the ‘Essaida Carthage’ exhibition at SELMA FERIANI GALLERY in Sidi Bou Said (tn).

Working Through Confinement

During the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, Gnaoui remained committed to his work. He continued to prepare his exhibition and commuted daily between his home and his studio despite the lack of resources and the limited time. He was eager to be in time for the exhibition ‘Essaida Carthage’ that was to open on May 18, and was accessible until July 7, 2020.

Finding Materials

In conversation with Malek, we learned that ‘Essaida El Manoubia’ is a marginalized neighborhood of Tunis, separated by an invisible border of prejudices and stereotypes from the capital. Despite being only a 30-minute walk from downtown Tunis,  it is unlikely that one would venture to this part of town. To refer to this kind of area corresponds with the artistic radar of Gnaoui. He seeks what is excluded and marginalized, what is overlooked, inhibited, or unwanted. He seeks to understand socio-cultural shapes by their outlines. He has a predilection for peripheries and his research is dedicated, what he calls “the tissue of the present.” The atmosphere, the mindset, and the esthetics merge in his artistic approach reflecting on the state of the space, its narratives, and the way we perceive it.

While preparing for ‘Essaida Carthage’, he became friends with some of the young crowd of the ‘Essaida El Manoubia’ neighborhood. They acted as mediators between the artist and the local community, helping him to access, and to understand the socio-cultural tissue of the district. Through this, Gnaoui also gained an understanding of how materials are handled. Due to the overall lack of building materials, leftover materials, construction, and demolition rubble are in constant recycling. In the first place, the artist mimicked local habits. He collected, sorted, and worked on what could be found in the streets. Bricks, concrete and plaster, iron bars, and sheet metal became his artistic materials. “For one work, I collected a chicken coop roof from one of the inhabitants … The development process was very intriguing and it led me to reflect on the journey of the work from the neighborhood to the studio, and from the studio to the gallery.”

During our conversation with Gnaoui, we discussed how the transition from an impromptu material to an intentional element alters the perspective, and how the process of taking material off a site and turning it into artistic material in a studio adds value. We also spoke about how this process is developed further when positioning a work in a gallery. “Can locals feel this, its value, even in its primary environment? … I guess they will never see it in the way I see it … I grew up in a working-class neighborhood, and I’ve learned to value and appreciate it, my experience comes from all this.”

Witnessing the Present

Gnaoui views everyday materials as the carrier of the communal heritage of the present day: “This idea manifested itself after reading ‘Al Muqaddima’ by Ibn Khaldun. This was the starting point for my reflection, especially the part where he shows that every civilization is reflected in its architecture. In going back and forth between the past and the present, I started with a simple comparison,” Gnaoui told us. “While in the era of Carthage and Rome, locals were working with valuable materials, now we use brick and concrete.” The outstretched awareness of the artistic mind led to the starting point of the project: “For me, the pervasive presence of columns in the Essaida district was striking. Often, we can see columns that are open towards the sky. To me, they are like a metaphor for the hope of the inhabitants who keep building despite the lack of means. When we look at them from below, they are a direct link to the sky.” Gnaoui decided to work on a series of sculptures made from the collected material. Most of the paragons of the ‘Essaida Carthage’ exhibition can be found in the BARDO Museum, for the exhibition they were rebuilt with materials from the ‘Essaida El Manoubia’ neighborhood.

Working with Ceramics

As an experienced ceramist, Gnaoui is acquainted with working with earth, modeling with clay, and firing it. “My relationship with the earth is undeniable. I decided to work with the brick as a material for its domination and excessive presence in construction sites in the popular districts …” he said. “I went to get the bricks directly from the factory. I used this material in its primary state when it was still malleable before firing,” he continued, “these buildings attract my attention with their unique esthetics, and I find that they have a sense of beauty …” Walking through the exhibition, we started with one of the Aphrodite statues, about which he commented that “the sculpture has one front view and one back view, like the walls of marginalized neighborhoods.” Furthermore, he explained how the material appearance gave rise to metaphorical aspects: “The present Aphrodite is fragile. This goddess has deteriorated. This is visible in the material she is made of …” In his artistic research, Gnaoui is in a constant flow: working on material, discovering properties and implementations, and cross-checking on associated values and the way they mirror present mindsets.

Recording on paper

Gnaoui is not only building with the materials from the ‘houma’ (en: the neighborhood), he was also recording them. An ongoing strand of his artistic research is surfaces and structures of walls. Together with Bilel and Ghazi – his friends from the neighborhood that accompanied him as local mediators – they used the craft techniques of paper embossing to record all kinds of wall surfaces on paper. In the artist’s own words, “this is a work that will be done over the long term and will become part of the documentation and historical heritage. I like this relationship between the rigidity of the wall and the fragility of the paper, and it will depend on how we preserve these papers and documents to keep this heritage.”

Working with Photography and Screen Prints

The artist treats photography in the same way as he does sculpture. Speaking of his photography at the exhibition, Gnaoui remarked: “The capitals are a series of photos I took at the archaeological site of Carthage. I took them again in screen prints. However, instead of using ashes as I have done before, this time I used brick powder that I collected on site. The result you can see is the result of the squeegee passing over a mixture of transparent glue and brick powder, hence the element of surprise; The result is not visible until it is finished.”

@Selma Feriani Gallery - Gnaoui - SC20/current red, 2020
SC20/current red (2020). PHOTO SELMA FERIANI GALLERY

“The screenprints of the broken genitals are, in my opinion, the major work of this exhibition. […] In sculpture, the fragile parts are broken or mutilated first, [and] the nose and the genitals are the most fragile parts …“ And again, Gnaoui reads it as a metaphor: “Looking at the socio-political state of the country and the course of our civilization, it seems that we are losing our most sensitive parts.” Step by step, we understood the unique mix of personal sensitivity and meaningfulness, boundless curiosity, and a surprising discipline. Whether it is documenting structures or exploring featured materials, the working, beholding, and storing feeds a process of continuous artistic research and reflection. It lays the groundwork for further artwork. Speaking of his process of creating artworks, Gnaoui says that: “Each subject is treated in a phase, a chapter that I begin, and that I continue to develop, until I reach the moment of accomplishment.”

Malek Gnaoui. SC20/broken. SELMA FERIANI Sidi Bou Said 2020. Photo SELMA FERIANI.

Shaping Memory

Gnaoui treats memory as a medium that needs to be discussed and developed, that needs to respond to current processes and new findings. He reflects on habitual narratives, cross-checks their imageries, and investigates the void of collective memories. From 2011 to 2015, the artist focused on a series titled ‘Black Sheep’, referring to the sacrifice – whether for religious or profane reasons – as an anchor in the Tunisian mindset. In 2015, the ‘Black Sheep’ series was exhibited during the international art festival DREAM CITY in the Medina of Tunis. The discovery of public space as a place of display, debate, and interaction influenced his outlook, and he underlined how important art festivals like DREAM CITY are for a country where contemporary art activities are few.

In 2017, again in the framework of DREAM CITY, he worked with ‘Dar Dey’, a complex built in 1903 by the French and demolished by Ben Ali’s regime in 2009. The complex included the infamous ‘9 Avril Prison’ in Tunis; a place where torture, rape and sexual violence, humiliation, deprivation, and killing were practiced. Today, it is a public garden with no reference to those who suffered there. Gnaoui collected documentation, read testimonials, and talked to former prisoners to find the material for his artistic intervention. Looking back on the project, he said: “Our memory will have to come a long way until it can be considered to be shaped.”

Memory as a Medium

We are triggered by the way he treats memory as something responsive, rendering itself differently depending on the circumstances. In our academic training in architecture and design, cultural heritage was something static rather than fluid, the narratives of the past were single rather than poly-voiced. Gnaoui treats memory as a medium with its own distortions. His reflection and research processes circle around the many ways memories can be recollected, reshaped, redesigned. We understand that the past is not going anywhere, it stays with us, and if we don’t shape it, it shapes us.

Not only are his ideas convincing and touching, but his artistic research and expression also impact us as future curators, cultural actors, and Tunisians. We heard from Joseph Beuys that ‘art is the only power to free humankind from all repression’, and with Gnaoui we can feel that power. He is a transformer linking human qualities to the artistic sensitivity and esthetic analysis to socio-cultural implications. With intellectual and emotional preciseness, he provides us with new lenses through to read the world we are living in. We can only surmise the amount of time and care for detail, awareness, and mindful creativity that he dedicates to navigate this and the next project. 

Rooted in Artistic Discipline

Gnaoui said that “an artist is not the one who contemplates his notebook with a cigarette and a coffee in his hand, but the one who is in perpetual evolution and finds inspiration everywhere, even on his way to the studio.” And even when we tried to bring up the precarious living conditions of artists in Tunisia, he underlined that working space is essential. And like always, he links the individual need to the collective being. He refers to win-win settings to advocate for: “In Europe, the government has converted closed spaces into studios for artists, to be rented on a monthly basis to allow the artist to move forward … In Tunisia, the state owns so many spaces often in a bad state or even in ruins, but as artists, we can find ways to make them work.” As curators and cultural actors, we agree that this would be a good model to adopt.

REFERENCE Malek Gnaoui: Works


C& Installation View #museumshutdown: Malek Gnaoui, Essaida Carthage: Between the Past and the Future. 18 May 2020.