by Anne Wallace-Thompson
for Canvas Guide, November 25th 2011
© Copyright Canvas Guide
ONE TO WATCH
What Lies Beneath
The changing face of water in the works of Nicene Kossentini.
Water is a fundamental part of our existence, both life-giving and treacherous, and for Tunisian artist Nicene Kossentini, it has long played an integral part in her oeuvre, an overriding presence that ripples, blurs and washes away. In her 2007 video La Disparation, for example, a piano player dissolves into wavelets that blur and distort his image. In What The Water Gave Me (2009), faces are indistinct, submerged in “a matrix in which the body is dissolved”. For Kossentini, water – whether through its presence or absence – is an element that plays as much a part in her tableaux as the characters she depicts. “[Water] dominates the picture, yet I do not consider it to be a character, per se, but rather an environment or container,” she explains, and in the lead-up to the Arab Spring, Kossentini’s works increasingly came to represent her feelings of helplessness. “The repression around me was so hard and wild, yet I wasn’t able to protest in a loud voice,” she says. “When we can no longer speak, it is like drowning and choking.”
This sense of drowning is particularly evident in her latest, and perhaps most visually arresting, photographic series. Boujmal, after the desiccated Tunisian lake of the same name, marks a new visual and thematic complexity. Unlike Kossentini’s previous series, here the faces (those of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother) are anything but blurred, showing in stark monochrome, cut across by tight, black Arabic script, their faces sunk into the overwhelming greyness of the cracked lake bed. The text, tight and neat, marking the division between the land and horizon, uses
the poems of the likes of Omro Al-Kais and Antara Ibn Rabia. “When I discovered the extent of the dry pond Boujmal, I immediately felt that I had found the desert of the Arab poets,” Kossentini explains. Layering and linking different lines from poems, the text creates a wire, “as if an imaginary boundary separates us from the original text and the meaning that remains hidden from us.”
Using portraits from a family album, Kossentini witnessed an interesting progression in her work. “The original photographs dated back to the 1950s and 60s and were really small and in bad condition,” she explains. “I wanted the restoration process to make visible what is disappearing and what was absent. In What The Water Gave Me, the faces are disappearing; in Boujmal, they are appearing.” And therein lies the crux of Kossentini’s new direction – despite water’s ominous presence, here it is giving, rather than taking away.