Walking Targets: Thameur Mejri

29 November 2020 - 23 January 2021

Known for his complex but balanced compositions and for the destructuring of human bodies, Thameur Mejri, a painter from Nabeul, born in 1982 and professor at the School of Fine Arts in Tunis, through Walking Targets, his first exhibition at the Selma Feriani gallery, he explores a political and critical vision of Tunisian society, while engaging the responsibility of the artist with regard to contemporary issues. The title evokes a moving target and immediately places the works in the violence register - or rather the denunciation of violence - but also of survival.

We find in these new series certain constants of Mejri's work, and in particular his attention to the human body, which he charges with a powerful political interpretation and which he has until now largely developed, especially in his large-format paintings. A change is nevertheless noticeable in the expression of this political body. It is no longer so much a matter of existential and metaphysical questions that occupy him. He seems here to be refining his reflection by working to deconstruct the relations of power and domination that structure contemporary societies, identifying in particular capitalism and the traditional ideologies that make them their instruments of control.  

It is in particular through line drawing, an incisive technical process already very frequent in his painting, that the artist deconstructs the human body, which he exposes, blurs and confronts, by exhibiting it, multiplying points of view, and testifying to the power relationships it can generate or undergo. In this way, the body is no longer a coherent and sacred entity because of its own complexity or the rejection it undergoes because of cultural taboos. Through this metaphor of the decomposed, reified body, he invites our gaze to confront the coexistence of the other and analyzes the relationships of domination and enslavement between genders, social strata, and the holders of spiritual and temporal power that structure societies in general, and Tunisia in particular.

One way to desacralize symbols is to repeat and express them. To this end, Mejri confronts iconographies. In his work as a painter there is a construction of composition based on stratification and superimposition. Elements emerge, hide, revealing possible interpretations through association, addition and accumulation. The critique of society, which he has been practicing for more than ten years, is based on a system of legibility, which is consciously or subliminally activated or not, depending on the viewer.

While the spectator will rediscover the characteristics that have made the artist's reputation, the Walking Targets exhibition nevertheless attests to a certain renewal in his work. Evolution of techniques, formats, and certain iconographic sources accompany the highlighting of a drawing that is more incisive than ever. Instead of hiding it behind colours that divert the attention of the eye that they seduce, he embodies his drawing here in colourful strokes that materialize his messages without artifice or concealment. Mejri certainly does not turn away from his painting practice, but the story/History that seems to accelerate has led him to look for other temporalities, other ways to create juxtapositions, superimpositions, and to build a new narrative flow. These series of drawings have the peculiarity that the system of construction of the image, so essential in his narrative, is literally laid flat. There is no trickery or trompe-l'oeil use of color or skillful compositions to conceal the squeaky juxtapositions. By reconnecting directly with iconography, the painter becomes a chronicler. He tightens his practice on the analysis of signs and symbols while he confronts styles and codes of representation to deconstruct the very functioning of images.

Walking Targets is also a special opportunity for the artist to explore different techniques and deployments in space as he will create for the first time a mural composition, measuring himself directly against the architecture and thus taking advantage of the spontaneity and scale, dexterity, skill and high quality of drawing, which are essential marks of his work.

Often made with charcoal, the drawing in his paintings seem fragile, like a form of appearance that comes to seize the moment and risks disappearing. But in reality, this technique is part of an artistic strategy. When Mejri resorts to children's drawing, it is because he gives shape to a conception of time, which translates into a spiral. In this way, the artist wishes to dissolve the linearity of time in order to reconnect with the past and extend it into the future. Through this process, he confronts the problems he develops with a new and constantly renewing look. He thus creates a form of discrepancy that is not devoid of humor, by dealing with deep and sometimes painful questions such as the exercise of authority, the omnipresence of violence or collective neurosis, with a naivety that may or may not be feigned.

Thameur Mejri's drawings confront through the representation of usual, traditional and everyday elements (including the contiguity of the pictogram of urban communication and children’s drawing) with other forms of civilizations that have partly participated in the construction of an identity that composes him as Tunisian and overall Tunisian culture, both high and popular. By constructing iconographic stratigraphies, he gathers the clues of an investigation and seems to question the chronologies and narratives extracted from them. He summons iconographies and literary sources to denounce a short form of memory that triumphs in cultural regionalism and identity affirmation. For example, he borrows decorative elements that accompany ancient manuscripts such as the illustrations of the story of Kalīla wa-Dimna, fables from a founding epic of Indian civilization - the Pantchatantra - which was translated into Persian and then, in the sixth century, into Syriac. These animal fables were adapted from Persian into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa' around 750, translating the conception of power and social relations of this man of administration and power. The links that Mejri draws between these erudite elements, children's drawings and visual computer or highway traffic codes, or even contemporary popular culture (such as sports or toys) tend to demonstrate the composite character of any culture and fight against an essentialist understanding of Arab-Muslim identity and contemporary Tunisian culture.   

The doxa, power and authorities of many contemporary cultures around the world are currently seeking to freeze their own ideas of what constitutes an identity, particularly in a dynamic of identity closure. One of the key issues in Thameur Mejri's work is an intuitive and experimental reflection of certain blockages in society that summon essential and, in a way, universal issues. In this sense, he explores the concepts of tradition and identity, whose articulation he analyzes and which he puts in tension through the juxtaposition of drawing and composition.

In principle, the word "tradition" (from the Latin traditio of tradere, to hand down, to transmit), designates both the transmission of a teaching, which exists through a set of rites, knowledge or institutions, but by extension, the word can designate a perpetuation of customs whose meaning could be forgotten and which is reflected in certain social, cultural and folkloric behaviors. In both cases, the tradition lies on a spectrum between the orthodoxy of the original interpretation and a progressive evolution, like a living organism. The concept of identity that is often associated with it, on the other hand, is the character of what is one. However, the cultural references that Mejri gathers in his works seem to celebrate the evolutionary character of identity and even question a certain uniqueness of it, starting from the premise that all beings are composite and complex. It is precisely this attachment to making this concept immutable that gives it a reactionary meaning. This comes down to editing rules that end up losing their meaning in the end and that cannot accompany any evolution of identity. Mejri deconstructs these traditions and puts contemporary cultures into perspective with iconographies from secular, pre-Islamic, Punic, Persian, etc. cultures. He creates links, connections between very diverse elements in order to deconstruct these traditions and to show some of their limits and paradoxes. He evokes, based in particular on the reading of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), how his own conceptions of Tunisian society, of women, of the family, of himself and of his relationship to others were constructed; constructed, therefore, in the hollow of Western orientalism, both by rejection and identification. By superimposing and making narrative registers and cultures co-exist, by mixing chronologies, styles and sources, he tries, on the canvas as on paper, to create a dialogue between ages and civilizations and thus, to open horizons and draw new perspectives for a contemporary Tunisian society that he considers in crisis.

This political dimension of Thameur Mejri's art is, we have understood it, a fundamental element of an approach that is both aesthetic and postured. He raises in particular the question of the subject, "as a subject" and the role of the artist in contemporary societies, by exercising a particularly critical view of Tunisian modernity.

The artistic subject as a subject, first of all, is a complementary way for the artist to question the principle of tradition, but this time in the context of art history. Mejri believes that the School of Tunis, this great painting movement that flourished in the aftermath of independence will have been the good pupil of this orientalism mentioned above that perpetuates an image of Epinal of the artist that nourishes a folkloric vision of Tunisian society. While many political, social and societal issues were then brought at that time, he believes that art has not accompanied these challenges but that this generation of artists has instead maintained this folkloric vision in the service of an external desire, eager to illustrate its orientalist fantasies. Beyond the questioning of artistic genres, art would not then have been able to accompany these developments, which would explain the break of contemporary Tunisian art with its own traditions.

Thameur Mejri thus questions the role of the artist in society, as a witness if not an actor of social transformations, which explains in particular the feeling of revolt which reigns in his painting and which now dominates his drawings.  


Matthieu Lelièvre

Selma Feriani Gallery, Sidi Bou Saïd, Tunis

Translated by Narjes Torchani