Daydreaming of Carthage - Visiting the Malek Gnaoui Exhibition From Quarantine

© Copyright, 2020, Wera Morawiec,

In 2019 I spent almost 7 months in Tunisia working on several projects with my partner as NOKS collective. We arrived there in March 2019, invited by one of the art directors of Interference (a light art project set in the public space of Medina in Tunis). Thanks to several collaborations with local artists and cultural institutions I had the chance to get a glimpse of the current contemporary art scene in Tunisia. Our intense activity was noticed and many great artists, curators and cultural activists collaborated with us, some of them are now friends and we are still in touch, working on new projects. That is how I was invited by Selma Feriani Gallery’s current manager – Petra Swais – to write a text on Malek Gnaoui’s works. It has been a symbolic piece for me, as Malek was one of the first artists from Tunisia that I was introduced to during my residency there.

Poland was in the middle of lockdown when I was approached to write about Essaïda-Carthage a solo exhibition by artist Malek Gnaoui at the Selma Feriani Gallery, Tunis. Time was flowing differently, each activity outside the house was flexed with a series of preventive procedures and we had no idea when this period would be over or at least eased out. When I started to actually read the dense curatorial text and exchange emails with the gallery manager – Petra Swaisand and the exhibition’s curator – Matthieu Lelièvre, there was no certainty about when and how this exhibition would be opened.

Further challenges were presented, as Tunis also introduced severe restrictions in moving around the city – even to get the documentation of the exhibition was quite difficult as it required the staff to gain necessary permissions in order to gain access to photograph the artworks and the show. In order to access the exhibition from afar, I began to imagine how I would walk around Sidi Bou Said, and happen upon the gallery door. I would walk up its stairs and into its clean spacious rooms up to the roof terrace, to seek some shade and to watch beautiful Tunis Bay waters embracing the shores of Tunisia. I decided to start my story about the Essaïda-Carthage exhibition with an imaginary wander around the two neighbourhoods and the gallery space – as a way to demonstrate what is lately retracted from all encounters with art: the physical dimension, the experiential element, the ability to gain a sense of objects and artworks according to scale, the sensual perception of oneself towards the time and space presented. Of course, the aspects of time and historical exploration of the territory are also important in Malek Gnaoui’s works and I will explore that later on.

Until recently Carthage was for me mostly a mythical point from the ancient wars and a background for Punic, Greek and Roman conquering history. However from the time I spent in Tunis last year it is also a Carthage which translates as a part of the Tunisian capitol, a symbol of a calm and wealthy suburb that gives shelter to tourists, expats and is filled with wall-fenced embassies, government villas in abundance with green gardens and private mansions of the nouveau-riches.

Essaïda on the other hand is a historically new district that is far from all that glamour, tourists and the sea breeze. I know because I’ve checked the map: located inland almost straight across from Carthage separating it are the strong lines of the four-lane highway, Ariana’s hills and vast suburbs built in the 80’s and 90’s. That geographical opposition is incidental but meaningful as we can read in the Essaïda-Carthage curatorial text about clashing the parvenu fantasies on beauty with layers of historical references and social injustices emerging on every step.

The outcomes of those fantasies take the form of decorations and self-made architectural techniques: concrete lions, dolphins, fake dated reliefs, patterns and colors mimicking gold or brass and immortal columns, balustrades and quasi-hellenic motives. They are equally well known here in Poland but in the context of a space where the Arab and European cultures met, clashed and merged for hundreds of years, they take on very special meaning.

Let’s go back for a while to that geographical juxtaposition: that almost straight line between locations of Carthage and Essaïda (or another way around) on a map that reminds me of a genius yet simple idea of Gnaoui: combining monumental noble marble with concrete decors of the poor.

In this case: just before we inhale the sea breeze, enjoy a coffee, Sidi Bou Said notoriously known for the most expensive beverages in Tunis, and walk around great ruins of Acropolium and the Punic Port, we need to finish an imaginary drive around Essaïda. Among its chaotic stalls, dust from rubble lying on the pavements, unfinished yet inhabited houses where hungry cats and livestock roam around. Where the locals do not greet the wandering flaneurs with a big smile. Only then, with those very different experiences of spatial organizations, I am able to enter the exhibition. Bearing in mind that the inhabitants of each mentioned neighbourhood will probably never share neither those routes nor their stories.

Now, once I am inside, it is good to get to know the artist first: born in 1983 in Gabes, Malek Gnaoui still lives and works in Tunisia. Although for the past few years he travelled a lot, being exhibited in London, Paris and Marrakech. He studied in L’Ecole d’Art et de Décoration in Tunis and mastered his practical skills in Centre National de Céramique d’Art, in Sidi Kacem Jellizi.

His experience as an audio-visual artist, as he was involved in cinematic production for a while, and using ceramics in a very distant from traditional way allowed him to develop his own form of artistic practice. The practice that is strictly connected to the place where he shows his artworks, both in literal and metaphorical meanings. Between video art, ceramic, installation, performance and sound Gnaoui invites the viewer to discuss modern society and human condition, especially the various dimensions of the „sacrifice” notion.

With the Essaïda-Carthage exhibition the artist’s experience in working with an object is especially visible; his ability to create and use all kinds of sculpting materials along with construction supplies and decoration elements outside their usual context is outstanding. Equally important, although maybe not so obvious, is how the narration is built: as an extremely sensitive and careful observer Gnaoui has the talent to comment on a phenomenon or a situation without any extensive description or explanation. That talent I was able to see (in person, not online) during Dream City 2019 in Tunis. An exhibition was set up in the city centre and was occupied with testimonies and collected materials from former prisoners of the “9th of April” prison. In just a few gestures – or rather precisely located objects, relics and video materials – Malek Gnaoui brought out the suffocating aura of hierarchy and distorted system of inner-inmates solidarity cynically used by the supervisors.

The most remarkable for me was the clean and minimal exposition, that conveyed an idea not through emotional reconstructions but rather through space arrangement that led viewers into the maze of meticulously placed items and archeologically documented testimonies. I strongly believe that the visitors of Essaïda-Carthage will have a chance to discover its spatial arrangement as an important layer of the entire installation. To feel the multifaceted and complex stories from the streets that Gnaoui and Lelièvre are referring to in the exhibition’s concept. Here, let me just add one thing: Gnaoui’s body of art is most fascinating for me because of his subtle attention to life itself, in its diverse forms, in every condition: behind bars, during the ritual killing of animals or investigating the dolphins made of concrete on Essaida’s streets.

Aphrodite looks at the Mediterranean Sea and the Boukornine mountain: calm, majestic, surrounded by wealth and classical beauty. Gold is glistening in the background, fragments of David’s beautiful body are also present, as the only man’s representation that could compare to the goddess. In my mind, I breathe with her, peacefully. Until I give the scene a second glance – this is when I gasp. Reinforcing bars are pinning her head, and behind her is nothing but a frame holding crooked corrugated sheets that happen to be dipped in brass, and pieces of bricks that during all those historical disruptions lost their own original shapes and noble proportions. I further examine the spray-tagged back of that tired goddess that will never feel the delicate sea foam again.

More antique heads – inspired by a sculpture of the Venus of Bardo, also known as the Aphrodite of Knidos or Venus Pudica – are placed on iron construction props in the next room. That installation fills a space or rather supports it as a formwork – the timeline of Earth’s existence and of our civilizations. The artist has extracted from the chronological order the period that most interests him.

As I have mentioned before: time and historical meanings, the pin-points in cultural and sociological records are important here, they inhabit a place in all of Malek Gnaoui’s creations. The use of certain materials (like brick and dust scratched from walls, used studs or corrugated sheets collected from the rubble laying on Essaida’s street) turns the viewers’ attention to paradoxical notions as old and new or beautiful and ugly. It also concentrates one’s consciousness around respectful observation of mundane life and how it can be recognized and transformed.

This is represented mostly by prints and objects made with construction tools covered with gold-like brass that are exhibited in Selma Feriani Gallery. They are used and damaged as if they were lacking the identity: body parts are broken or blurred, tools are shabby. But they are also reinterpreted, shifted to a new quality and re-identified with those artistic processes. They even create for me a new public space, similar to the Third Landscape (Tiers-Paysage) that should be noticed and protected, same as historical or natural monuments.

 Now I can start circulating around the gallery, as this exhibition is also designed in a particular spatial pace. The punch-hole in the wall reminds me of those unfinished or sloppy building sites. It is like I was reading Katarzyna Kobro’s credo on spatial composition “(…)Rhythm is compositional unity. The energy of subsequent shapes in a space produces a spatiotemporal rhythm” This particular procedure invites us to dig deeper, to discover archeological layers of history buried under the ground, invisible everyday but present in the formation of society. Even the office on the second floor of the Gallery is transformed into a study-room, where visitors can go through presented archives, to broaden their experience of the exploration process.

All those imagined experiences have reminded me of Faulkner’s quote – “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”. This is very true when I watch how the artist built a serene entity with clashing old and new, acclaimed and forgotten and all that is beyond that simplistic symmetrical division. How he bowed down before each tired screw and each handful of dirt to respectfully mount them on the scene. In that way we can observe a past that never left the present, it is here in the most obscure places, in concrete dolphins, in crushed monuments that are now serving as the soil minerals. What I mean here is the past as multi linear narrations that are present in the collective subconscious, ready to use in every present act – even if sometimes those acts are naive or puerile. 

I would like to close my immaterial meeting with the Essaïda-Carthage exhibition with another cartographic reflection by looking at another map of the Mediterranean region. This time I am looking at the one created by artist Sabine Réthoré: Méditerranée sansfrontières from 2013. Thanks to a simple method we can look at this well-known area with a fresh perspective: first there are no national borders around the sea. Secondly, against the traditional imperialistic rules it is placed in a 90-degree turn, so the North is no longer over the South.

Now, let’s feel these sensations: of being new in a familiar set, of being surprised how close the otherwise divided nations are. We can even drift off to being terrified with the deepness of this metaphorical abyss when we remind ourselves about the migrant movements across those waters and the politics used towards them on its shores. Personally, when I put that map alongside Malek Gnaoui’s works I get the bitter sweet vibe. Where we are now is only possible because of what was before – but at the same time: what was before makes it often impossible to be where we want to be. Lifeless waste becomes a precious piece of art, thousands of lives are sent into oblivion and forgotten. What will remain? Grains carefully picked up from the ground or roughly carved concrete castles?

My predictions and observations are now intensified with recent pandemic perception of time and social crises. With that I suggest that what remains is what combines the past and present, the intention of an artist with the interpretation of a public; this is what unites marble with cement. The imagination.

Biography: Wera Morawiec, 1985, M.A. in clinical psychology, has been involved with art projects since 2018: first as a coordinator of Light as A Creative Tool Conference and Workshop, later as an independent coordinator and sometimes curator of various projects in public spaces (One Night Public Gallery) and other (NOKS collective).

Essaïda-Carthage: Malek Gnaoui exhibition curated by Matthieu Lelièvre at Selma Feriani Gallery, Sidi Bou Said, Tunis

All photographs from Essaida-Carthage exhibition: courtesy of Selma Feriani Gallery and the artist

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3 June 2020
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