At a time when various states of emergency are becoming widespread, when the migrant crisis as well as the crisis of political representation are in full swing – on both sides of the Mediterranean, Nidhal Chamekh is back with a series of works, some more recent than others, brought together in the exhibition nos visages (our faces) like so many counter-fires – one fights against fire with fire.
The at once mental and cinematic montage technique illustrated in his drawings of the series Le Battement des ailes – on view here – seems to develop within a twofold movement. One, first and foremost, of focusing: where gestures like identifying oneself, registering oneself and protecting oneself literally take over the space of the drawing. Then of radicalizing: where these gestures are no longer part of a dream fragment and its ecstatic, incomplete beauty. On the contrary, these gestures act like returns to reality (flashbacks and traumas) in which lacuna, wrench and conflagration definitely no longer offer the stuff of ecstasy. From now on they are content to call out to us with their counter-fires. These form an analytical repertory of the violence practiced on “migrant” and “displaced” subjects (the word refugee, for its part, becomes almost taboo) by the colonial Empire and the liberal State.
It was in 2016 and 2017 that Nidhal Chamekh carried out several field observations, in Calais, amid much tumult and brisk tension, which led to the dismantlement and repeated ransacking of the “jungle” (a watchword promoted by the media and the political class, the better to underpin the animalization and subjugation of the “migrant”). Based on reports, photographs and sketches made on the spot, a visual analysis of dwelling and survival techniques finally took shape, as developed by people reduced here to their bare lives. Several recent works in the show focus on these aspects, including the blue protective tarpaulin (a contemporary symbol of emergency situations, but also one of control and discrimination), awaiting the viewer like a stateless, futureless flag.
The bare lives documented by Nidhal Chamekh, totally expelled from the community of men and women who are guaranteed basic rights of dignity and safety, reveal a particular and uncompromising urgency (the bareness of a finger-print as much as the bareness of a makeshift shelter made of wooden slats and corrugated iron).
These emergencies are political and post-colonial, but also irrevocably mythological at heart. If the fire, which re-appears in several drawings on view, traditionally refers to the symbol of modernity and progress, this Promethean fire – promising ever greater speed and distance – is here clearly diverted in favor of a destructive and coercive fire. More than any symbol, this fire is rather the reminiscence of the warning already given by Walter Benjamin, according to whom the state of emergency had become the rule, the supreme instrument of control. Yet it stands apart – thanks to the already mentioned effects of focalization and radicalization – as the immemorial and visceral force of the gesture which consists in creating shelter with next-to-nothing and identifying oneself for the benefit of a system that registers us, while at the same time refusing the right to exist. The survival instinct, the organization of resistance, and the capacity to underscore one’s own existence in the face of all-comers (by means of shelters, graffiti, makeshift tools…) re-charge the Promethean myth of the fire stolen from the gods, to benefit human beings – a fire which ends up turning against them.
He who masters fire governs the instruments of war and control; but he who masters counter-fires opens up a breach to welcome the new Promethean emergencies and the defence of human rights in all the world’s detention camps, watchtowered borders, and lawless no-go areas. All so many dishonourable reasons besetting the neo-liberal “democracies”, which, from now on, by disavowing their own history, are giving rise to autocratic and authoritarian governments which, for their part, no longer bother with quotas and “controlled intake policies”; nor do they hesitate any more to literally drive out people seeking refuge, and criminalize humanitarian aid and, in a nutshell, the survival instinct itself.
Nidhal Chamekh’s Promethean counter-fires draw their genealogy between the lines of anti-imperial struggles and acts of resistance against territorial aggression and police humiliation. So, it is with this view of Calais, where “builders” are laconically starting work on a construction made any old how, as if to ward off the no-man’s-land surrounding them, where they are kept in a state of tension created by permanent danger. Other sketches by the artist note the varied forms of dwelling and everyday tools developed by the voiceless people of Calais, demonstrating a whole art of do-it-yourself which is as instinctive as it is subversive.
By having two other fires twinkling beside the builders of Calais – the fire of the German bombing of Algiers (First World War) on the one hand, and the fire that pushed back the 1983 bread riot insurgents in Tunis, on the other, Nidhal Chamekh ignites his own counter-fires dating from different periods and addressing different generations. In this respect, the unification of the lot of the Colonized and the Migrant is an essential condition for any trans-historical understanding of the control system represented by the state of emergency. This latter is being repeated in Calais for the contemporary period, but it resonated from Algiers and Tunis in the period of anti- and post-colonial struggles.
Here, the counter-fires are like setbacks and slip-ups of History in which the State’s legitimate violence suggests the sound of past and future popular uprisings.
The day on which I wrote this essay was also the grand commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Provence landings (15th August 1944), often eclipsed by the Normandy landings in the canonical history of high school textbooks and TV documentaries. Some will see the reflection of this delay in the throng’s tardy recognition of “soldiers from the Empire” – a challenge announced by the said commemoration. Hailing from all the countries of the Maghreb, and from Africa, Indochina and the Caribbean, they shed their blood for the French fatherland where they had often not even set foot, before defending its borders to the death. France thanked them, burying them in the most total oblivion, by a twofold sentence of anonymity: from the time of the war when they were rarely entitled to be named, as during the ensuing 75 years, and, beyond their days on earth, when the French State has only barely started to make amends for the wrong done.
For his latest series of drawings, nos visages (our faces), Nidhal Chamekh has drawn from articles of French colonial propaganda (the magazine Le Miroir, founded in 1910). Precisely where Senegalese and Berber “infantrymen” were presented somewhere between the ethnographical survey and the hackneyed colonial and orientalist image. We know the importance of the “portrait” in the colonial imagination. Otherwise put, its photographic apparatus for capturing an individual’s features, reduced to an identikit portrait of the Colonized, the Foreigner, and the Slave (a system shared with the developments of anthropometric and criminological photography, in the late 19th century). Unable to pin a name to all the faces re-drawn by Nidhal Chamekh (“transferred” from the pages of Le Miroir), the artist has once again radicalized the denial of their existence by overlaying contradictory half-faces among each other. This has involved not so much blurring identities as taking the risk of laceration and tatters in order to get as close as possible to the mute wounds of a history told by the official winners. Duplicating these faces, and tearing them out of a system of coercive representation, in order to incorporate them in another time-frame: the one consisting in linking back up – beneath layers of sacrificed fates – with the “losers of the victory”. These faces which contributed to the liberation of France, but remained forever on the sidelines of its official narrative and a war calling itself a “world” war, when the real theatre had to do with the European colonial empires. As if to better demythologize these photographs, which “delete” individuals by displaying them as propaganda objects, nos visages seem to be seeking their place, defying anatomical rationality, and struggling in a sky filled with orphaned stars.
Morad Montazami, 15 August 2019
Translated by Simon Pleasance