Eight contemporary artists from the Maghreb and its diaspora

For much of the world beyond its borders, the Maghreb region of North Africa remains somewhat mysterious. A private selling exhibition in Paris, Spectres Visibles, aims to redress this, exploring the physical and cultural impact of the Maghreb on its artists

Spectres Visibles, contemporary art and artists from the Maghreb and its diaspora at Christie's Paris

The northwestern region of Africa known as the Maghreb has been a port of call for many writers and artists over the years. Its geographical boundaries are wide, stretching from Libya’s rocky coastline to the vast horizons of Western Sahara, while its communities are diverse. The Greeks described the Maghreb as the ‘Land of Atlas’, a reference to the majestic mountain range that traverses Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

In 1981, the Algerian poet Habib Tengour wrote ‘Maghrebian Surrealism’, an essay in which he argued that Surrealism originated not in France, but in the much older Islamic tradition of Sufism, which had long been practised in the Maghreb. Here, in this ancient form of mystical worship, could be found the Surrealist precepts of ‘mad love’, ‘revolt’ and ‘pure psychic automatism’.

M’barek Bouhchichi has said of his practice, ‘I’m simply asking: what does it mean to be a Black Moroccan in today’s society?’. Photo: Tifenn Giron

Currently on show at Christie’s in Paris is Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition that explores the physical and cultural impact of the Maghreb on artists from the region and its diaspora. Curated by Dr Ridha Moumni, Christie’s deputy chairman, Middle East and North Africa, the show charts the artistic heritage of the Maghreb from the early 20th century to the present day. Including the rise of Algerian Modernism in the 1950s and the hard-edge abstractions of the Casablanca Art School in the 1960s, it also introduces eight contemporary artists, outlined below, who are reinventing the concept of the Maghreb to imagine fantastic possibilities for its future.

Nadia Ayari

Born in Tunis in 1981, Tunisian-American painter Nadia Ayari studied art history at the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University. ‘I think of each piece as a poem,’ says Ayari of her paintings, many of which explore her cultural heritage through cartoonish renderings of stereotypes.

Nadia Ayari (b. 1981), Waves II, 2023. Oil on linen. 42 x 50½ in (106.7 x 128.4 cm). Price on request. Offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 (and online until 29 February) at Christie’s in Paris

Using a relatively limited but nonetheless vibrant palette, Ayari confronts issues around religion, women’s rights and the refugee crisis through a number of recurring objects such as the hijab, a giant eyeball and pink, fleshy flowers. Executed in paint as thick as paving slabs, her surreal works bring to mind the post-war American artist Philip Guston who, in a similar graphic style, articulated the concerns of his age with a tragicomic detachment.

Amina Agueznay

Amina Agueznay is a sculptor with a collaborative spirit, which derives partly from her training as an architect and as a jewellery designer. Born in Morocco in 1963, she grew up in an artistic environment — she is the daughter of Malika Agueznay, one of the founders of the Casablanca Art School, the post-independence movement of the 1960s.

‘All the stories are more important than the finished piece’ — artist Amina Agueznay. Photo: Hazem Treasure, courtesy of Loft Art Gallery

Open link https://www.christies.com/private-sales/privateitems/Portal-5-variation-2-2-SN00669811-005

Amina Agueznay (b. 1963), Portal 5, variation 2/2, 2022. Wool and palm husk mounted on frame. 73⅝ x 57⅝ x 2⅜ in (187 x 146.5 x 6 cm). Price on request. Offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 (and online until 29 February) at Christie’s in Paris

After completing a degree in architecture in Washington, D.C., Agueznay returned to her native country and worked with traditional craftspeople to create large-scale assemblages that draw on North Africa’s cultural history. ‘All the stories are more important than the finished piece itself,’ she says, and the results are works of marvellous matter, ranging from wool, paper, silver and plastic to organic materials and embroidery.

M’barek Bouhchichi

Like Agueznay, the Morocco-based artist M’barek Bouhchichi finds inspiration in the traditional crafts and oral culture of his native country. Born in Akka, a desert town near the Algerian border, in 1975, Bouhchichi has said of his practice, ‘I’m simply asking: what does it mean to be a Black Moroccan in today’s society? And this inevitably brings in many other questions related to history, presence/absence, and visibility/invisibility within the Moroccan social landscape.’

M’barek Bouhchichi, (b. 1975), La Société de Métayage (The Metayage Society), 2021-22. Heat-treated metal and yellow brass, in 54 parts. Overall: 57⅞ x 58½ x ½ in (147 x 148.7 x 1.3 cm). Price on request. Offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 (and online until 29 February) at Christie’s in Paris

Much of his art seeks to reflect the Maghreb’s social and cultural history, such as his recent artwork for the 35th São Paulo Biennial, a lyrical meditation on the oral poet M’barek Ben Zida, and Kolona min Torab (‘Everyone is from Earth’), an installation using clay and natural pigments for the 2023 Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Nidhal Chamekh

Formerly a fellow at the French Academy in Rome (2021-22), the Tunisian-born artist Nidhal Chamekh has confronted the experience of migration and trauma through a politcally engaged practice encompassing drawings, photography and video. ‘I think that the artist’s role is above all to create forms of uncertainty, gestures that break with a certain methodological assurance and that are open to wandering,’ he says.

Nidhal Chamekh, Sans Titre (La Mer) (Untitled (The Sea)), 2016, offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 at Christie's in Paris

Nidhal Chamekh (b. 1985), Sans Titre (La Mer) (Untitled (The Sea)), 2016. Graphite, pastel and ink on canvas. 71¾ x 98⅜ in (182.5 x 249.8 cm). Price on request. Offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 (and online until 29 February) at Christie’s in Paris

Born in Dahmani in Tunisia in 1985, Chamekh today works between Paris and Tunis. In an exhibition currently running at the Selma Feriani gallery in Tunis, And What If Carthage?, the artist takes inspiration from the poems of the Martinique-born theorist Edouard Glissant, who wrote powerfully about the legacies of French colonialism, racism and slavery in North Africa and its diaspora.

Nadia Kaabi-Linke

Of Ukrainian and Tunisian heritage, Nadia Kaabi-Linke was born in Tunis in 1978 and now lives in Berlin. She moved to Paris in 2000 to study the philosophy of art at the Sorbonne and had her first solo exhibition, in Tunis, in 2009.

Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Couleur des temps (Colour of Times), 2019, offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 at Christie's in Paris

Nadia Kaabi-Linke (b. 1978), Couleur des temps (Colour of Times), 2019. Custom made pigments on canvas, in six parts. Each: 20¼ x 19⅝ in (51.5 x 50 cm). Price on request. Offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 (and online until 29 February) at Christie’s in Paris

Her poetic genius is characterised by a forensic desire to document the lives of people who have been marginalised or dispossessed, particularly in the light of the Russia-Ukraine war. It has been said of her multimedia practice that she considers the traces of trauma left on the surface of objects. Recently she has been investigating the history of paintings suppressed by the Soviets in Ukraine. In 2021 she was awarded Saudi Arabia’s highly coveted international Ithra Art Prize.

Rachid Koraïchi

One of the Maghreb’s foremost artists, Rachid Koraïchi was born in 1947 in Aïn Beïda in eastern Algeria. He was educated in Algeria and France and has taught at universities in both countries. As his art amply shows, the visual traditions of the Maghreb are central to his practice, which reflects his larger interest in Sufism, its signs and symbols. He subtly makes the point that art is a universal language, open and available to all.

Rachid Koraichi, Le Chant de l'ardent desir (The Song of Burning Desire), 2021, offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 at Christie's in Paris

Rachid Koraïchi (b. 1947), Le Chant de l’ardent désir (The Song of Burning Desire), 2021. Hand-embroidered linen and cotton tapestry. 113¾ x 113¾ in (289 x 289 cm). Price on request. Offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 (and online until 29 February) at Christie’s in Paris

This idea grew out of his unusual upbringing: as a child of a resistance fighter during the Algerian War of Independence, he was expelled from his school in Constantine and eventually sent to a Catholic school. His work relates to the Sufi ideas of tolerance and respect for all. In 2021 he created The Garden of Africa, a memorial for irregular migrants who had died crossing the Mediterranean, in the coastal town of Zarzis, southern Tunisia.

‘We cannot sit still and work in a bubble without thinking about our environment and what surrounds us,’ he says of his political works. ‘We artists are questioned. We are obliged by our conscience to take a stand. It is impossible to remain inactive and do nothing.’

Zineb Sedira

Zineb Sedira was born in France in 1963 to Algerian parents and now lives in London. Her art powerfully dissects the legacies of colonialism through the medium of cinema. Her films, performances and installations have ranged from poetic explorations of the migrant crisis through the rusty ships beached on the coastline of Mauritania in the 2009 film Floating Coffins, to deeply personal accounts of the Algerian War, such as a documentary in which her mother describes hiding from the French army in the 1950s. Sedira says it is important that her artwork, however poetic, ‘is anchored in some kind of reality’.

Zineb Sedira, who has said that her work must be ‘anchored in some kind of reality’. Photo: Thierry Bal

Open link https://www.christies.com/private-sales/privateitems/Sugar-Routes-II-SN00670084-003

Zineb Sedira (b. 1963), Sugar Routes II, 2013. Digital C-type. 70⅜ x 56¼ in (178.6 x 142.5 cm). This work is number one from an edition of five plus two artist’s proofs. Price on request. Offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 (and online until 29 February) at Christie’s in Paris

In 2022, she represented France at the Venice Biennale and was given a special mention for her complex and life-affirming exhibition, Dreams Have No Titles (the installation moves to London’s Whitechapel Gallery in February 2024), which wove her autobiography into the story of Algerian independence.

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Massinissa Selmani

Massinissa Selmani was born in the city of Algiers in 1980 and now divides his time between Algeria and France. After acquiring a degree in computer science, Selmani studied at the Ecole Supérieure d’Art et de Design in Tours.

Massinissa Selmani, Boussoles, Eclat, Echappees (Compasses, Glow, Escape Routes) (Triptych), 2020, offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 at Christie's in Paris

Massinissa Selmani (b. 1980), Boussoles, Eclat, Echappées (Compasses, Glow, Escape Routes) (Triptych), 2020. Graphite and coloured pencil on paper, in three parts. Each: 19⅝ x 25⅝ in (50 x 65.2 cm). Price on request. Offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

His finely measured, enigmatic pencil drawings of quirky architectural environments, often situated in a barren no man’s land, reveal a surreal sense of humour and playfulness which nonetheless reflects a larger seriousness about the constraints of power on the human psyche. ‘The Surrealists talked about isolating images to make them timeless. I really like that idea,’ he says. His 2020 work Boussoles, Eclat, Echappées (Compasses, Glow, Escape Routes) (Triptych), featuring a series of barriers, raises issues around contested spaces in the wake of colonial and post-colonial territorial policies. In 2023, Selmani was nominated for the prestigious Prix Marcel Duchamp.

Spectres Visibles is on show at Christie’s in Paris until 11 February 2024, and online until 29 February

Main image, clockwise from top left: Nadia Ayari, Amplified I, 2023; Amina Agueznay, Portal 5, variation 2/2, 2022; artist Massinissa Selmani photographed by Julie Ansiau; Rachid Koraïchi, Le Chant de l’ardent désir (The Song of Burning Desire), 2021; M’barek Bouhchichi, La Société de Métayage (The Metayage Society), 2021-22; artist Nidhal Chamekh. All artworks offered in Spectres Visibles, a selling exhibition, until 11 February 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

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