On a Rock, a Brief Circle of Sun: Massinissa Selmani

23 September - 13 November 2022
In Massinissa Selmani’s abbreviated aesthetic, weighty ideas are carried by the barest of means and always with a light touch. A section of a miniature barrier embedded in a rock, a few cursory lines in chalk denoting a cloud, the outline of a man bearing a blank flag, a portion of a monumental sculpture held aloft by a fluttering bird: whether in sculptures, drawings or animated films, the significance of simple motifs hangs suspended. An understated atmosphere of quiet uncertainty is characteristic of his practice. The small scale of the sculptures, which could easily be imagined much larger, is exactly judged for their effect as thoughts made manifest in material form. The finely measured pencil drawn images float unanchored on an empty expanse of white paper, usually with no hint of a setting in a particular location; they exist outside of historical time and geographical space - yet those constraining conditions of human life are precisely their subject.
In his new exhibition in the Selma Feriani gallery in Tunis, Selmani meditates on interrelated themes of control and exclusion, territorial borders and crossings, closeness and distance, flight and freedom. The exhibition’s title, ‘On a rock, a brief circle of sun’, conveys the elemental basis of his project, in which shadows play a defining role: ephemeral and immaterial in themselves, they give substance to depicted phenomena and mark the passage of time. In the animations, they accompany the principal action – or may, as in a flag, a tree, an empty shadow, become the main event. In the drawings, where spare delineation is the means of representing people and things, a lightly drawn shadow is often deployed to underpin an object, conjuring three-dimensional space without superfluous elaboration. In a very recent drawing, Une profondeur de ciel et de chemins #3, the shadows are distinctly present under the bridge and the flag – and there is the rock: insubstantial, in fact, a mere outline, transparent against the grass yet grounded by a solid shadow.
Selmani’s delight in the brevity of these illusionistic games can perhaps be traced to his early love of the political cartoons in the Algerian press and to The New Yorker’s humorous illustrator Saul Steinberg, whose graphic inventions make ingenious play with the paradoxes of pictorial space. That Selmani remains committed to the modest media of graphite and coloured pencil on paper and tracing paper could be evidence of his allegiance to those traditions, whose succinctness he takes to new levels of philosophical and political subtlety. He can say everything he needs to say with these basic tools, just as a writer does not require a new pen for new thoughts. The empty expanse of a blank sheet of paper is the firm ground on which any edifice can be built. The precision with which Selmani constructs his images, his careful paring down of each motif to the minimum, gives them a clarity and resonance that exceed their modest scale and seeming reticence. A drawing of a target, half concealed by the rolled-up paper on which it is painted, is titled Horizon, immediately suggesting the sun going down. That same motif occurs drawn on a piece of lined notepaper in a collage containing a striding figure outlined on tracing paper, traversing a section of coastline drawn on graph paper, the imposition of regulated order on nature. It is placed alongside a collage containing a torn fragment of a photograph of hands reaching up into the sky, a bird soaring to the left, palm leaves to the right; below, an indeterminate mound of earth. In another drawing a ruler is laid over a sheet of paper, casting a drawn shadow on a curve suggesting a globe. The delicate manipulation of materials like the layers of graph and tracing paper lightly affixed with masking tape, imply that compositions might be provisional, the process as yet incomplete. But this could be a deliberate ploy to unsettle the assumption of a fixed and stable meaning.
That Selmani takes many of his images from documentary sources situates them decisively in the realm of fact, of everyday reality. Figures traced in outline from newspaper photos, extracted from their context and without a caption that would explain the actions, nevertheless retain something of their potency as evocations of human effort, struggle or resistance. Yet they remain ambiguous and elusive. Selmani’s absurdist humour is most apparent in his animations, where a single flickering action is gently repeated in a cycle of quiet futility. The artist cites as an inspiration the Belgian surrealist poet Paul Nougé, who in a series of enigmatic photographs taken in 1930, first published posthumously in 1968 in a book titled ‘The Subversion of Images’, represented mysterious actions, ‘actions carried out on an object’ by the ‘suppression’ or ‘modification’ of that object – for example two men seeming to clink glasses but with their hands empty, a group of people gathered in a room staring transfixed at a blank wall.
Selmani’s suppression of the object or surrounding context similarly renders the familiar strange, mundane actions inexplicable.
Recently the artist has introduced text into his collages and sculptures, fragments from newspaper headlines or captions - or a single word, ‘WITH’, standing upright, its final letter stepping aside in three dimensions. Such ironies may serve to deflect a too literal reading of the imagery of walls and fences and observation towers. There is a strong political dimension, clearly, to the artist’s intentions: the rise of nationalism and the dehumanisation of the outsider or stranger are overriding concerns. But there is also, as he puts it ‘a metaphysical or oneiric dimension’. That is the subversive power of the image.
Massinissa Selmani has collaborated with the internationally renowned Cuban musician Yovsany Terry, who has produced a composition that will play in one of the galleries.
The exhibition in Tunis is the first instalment of a project in two parts. The second will be shown in Cromwell Place in London in 2023.


Roger Malbert, August 2022, London