Nicène Kossentini: Evoking Imaginary Spaces (Interview with ContemporaryAnd)

21 March 2014 - 27 July 2014

© Copyright 2014 ContemporaryAnd

ContemporaryAnd is media partner of the major show “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory revisited by Contemporary African Artists” at the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst. As part of the show, ContemporaryAnd will feature a series of exclusive conversations with the participating artists.

MMK/ContemporaryAnd: The exhibition’s point of departure is Dante‘s “Divine Comedy”. In the run-up to the exhibition, how relevant was it for you to actually engage with Dante’s work? 

Nicène Kossentini: When Simon Njami invited me to create an artwork on the theme of Dante’s Divine Comedy and more specifically on the  theme  of purgatory, the first thing I did, was to reread Dante’s work.  At this stage, the objective was to delve deep into this work, but without attachment. In other words, I didn’t try to interpret the Divine Comedy of Dante and now I cannot confirm if Dante’s work was the starting point of my  creative process  or if its influence emerged halfway towards completing the project.  Because, when I started working on the project during an artist-in-residence programme in Algiers in 2012, this idea was not originally conceived for the exhibition of the Divine Comedy, and for me,  the concept of the project  was not directly connected to  the exhibition. But when I re-listened to the first story that I  got from Algiers, I said  (to myself), “here is the sense of purgatory”, and I subsequently decided to develop this project and recommend  it for the  exhibition. I believe that my commitment to the work of Dante consists in trying to create a dialogue and an encounter between  this  medieval work and my  contemporary work, which is created in a very different spatio-temporal context.

MMK/ContemporaryAnd: In its merging of Christian beliefs and moral values as well as classical pagan topics, the “Divine Comedy” represents a deeply-rooted Eurocentric concept of society, values and culture. The exhibition aims at dismantling the European prerogative of interpretation and looking at it from a new angle. To what extent do you think this approach can lead to the Eurocentric interpretational sovereignty being generally put into question?

NK: Expanding our horizons and broadening our outlook serve to put one-sided views into question and to subsequently  improve our understanding of each other’s culture. I’m a Tunisian citizen with an essentially Arab-Muslim culture, and it is from this perspective – which is a different angle – that  I perceive the Divine Comedy. And I should here say that the perception of the Divine Comedy from this different angle could possibly create a new horizon. Actually, the fact that there are multiple and diversified views, sets the stage for multiple and different perspectives and interpretations. A unique one-sided point of view would therefore be a delusion. Building on the theology of the Middle Ages, the Divine Comedy narrates a journey through the three realms of the afterlife that lead up to the vision of the Trinity. Its imaginary and allegorical representation of the Christian underworld is the pinnacle of the medieval view of the world as developed by the Roman Catholic Church.  Dante’s fictitious journey exists in Islamic popular literature, and this is one of the themes in which the  imaginary Islamic and Christian traditions converge.  The journey is  illustrated in “The Book of the Night Journey” (Kitab al isra) written in 1198 by Ibn Arabi, the Andalusian mystic and philosopher. It is also portrayed in “The Epistle of Forgiveness” (Risalat al Ghofran) by Al Maarri, the famous Syrian writer (d. 1057). The journey to the underworld or the Night Journey, called “isra” in Islamic tradition, is intended to show the Prophet some divine signs. The ascension to the heavens “Miraj” started from Jerusalem, with the Prophet being accompanied and guided by the Archangel Gabriel. In fantasy and popular Islamic culture, the Prophet travelled on the back of a winged bridled steed named “Buraq” which was a woman-faced, peacock-tailed beast,  smaller than a  mule  and bigger than a donkey.

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