ArtSeen: Fahd El Jaoudi by Jennifer K. Dick
Split between cultures, places. It’s the tale of the modern age. To write here in Paris, in English, of art coming from elsewhere. Intersections. Or, as Fahd El Jaoudi puts it in his new show’s title: “Collision”. One of ten young artists (all between 23 and 34 years old) being represented by the relatively new, dynamic Galerie e.l Bannwarth run by Emilie Bannwarth, El Jaoudi is himself a collision. Of Moroccan ancestry though born in Mulhouse, France, El Jaoudi studied in the East of France at the École Supérieur des Arts Décoratifs de Strasbourg before moving to Paris in 2006. From heritage to nationality, Alsace to Ile de France, design and decorative art to photography and engaged installation works, El Jaoudi is exploring the many ways location and dislocation meet when his works confront his roots and the place he now lives. This is immediately visible when we enter the show and find ourselves standing at face level with a French flag deftly embroidered by Moroccan seamstresses. It hangs like a banner before us, at about our height—not above. Jutting out into the first main room of the show, this flag is French yet carries on it visual signs of Moroccan culture. Blemishes or beauty marks? “It is my flag”, says El Jaoudi. It is also what the viewer must walk around to get at the next part of the exhibition, hiding just behind it.
Since urban environments, violence, and cultural, racial, and religious schisms are some of the themes at play in “Collision”, it comes as perhaps no surprise that when El Jaoudi entered into the world of artmaking—as a painter before moving onto photography and other mediums—he was influenced by Jean-Michel Basquiat. The element that still links these two artists is their engagement with the “cultural question”, as El Jaoudi says, “I’ve lost this affiliation with one single culture, one single identity. Instead, I explore, (as did Basquiat,) how one loses and re-finds or relocates oneself.” For El Jaoudi, however, this has meant a shift away from painting, which he finds has a strong psychological dimension, above all on the painter as he works, but which did not allow him to capture the moments of tension he sought.
That tension is most visible in the engaged yet posed political photographs, such as “France 05” where a boy’s arm is on fire. In this photo, it is the title that immediately creates the tension, locating the precise, mesmerizing and surprisingly beautiful image within the messy, undetermined historical moment of the riots and uprisings that took place in and around Paris in 2005. “These were about problems of assimilation,” explains El Jaoudi, “and when I came across the photo while preparing the show I saw that it was still topical today.” In this work, the pain is not visible in the photo—the skin is not burnt, not disfigured. The body appears unable to be harmed. Flame licks over its surface, dances into the shadowy air around. Yet the viewer knows that fire destroys, pains, kills. In this way the piece explores various kinds of erasure. It asks what can we not tolerate? What do we burn away so as to not see it? What must we do for the pleasure of another? For violence is being done to the body, a body that the viewer takes pleasure in seeing: arm outstretched, finely formed, aesthetically pleasing. The arm also seems like the skeletal structure of a wing. The potential allegorical allusions begin to multiply. Or at least this is what comes to mind for this viewer, and is peculiarly echoed by what El Jaoudi said when contrasting his impressions of New York and Paris—where in New York “one takes people as they are”, he said, for example allowing a waiter to wear a turban, or where different languages are able to be spoken by people in, for example, their workplace, speaking many languages openly with customers. In contrast, El Jaoudi notes, “integration here (in France) means erasing the attributes of another culture.” Otherness burns (or is burnt) away.
El Jaoudi takes his highly stylized technique, his attention to precise beauty as contrasted with violence from an artist he admires—Matthew Barney, mixing this with elements taken from David La Chapelle and various subversive performance artists. In the untitled 2009 photo in the main room, one notes the echoes of Barney’s work in El Jaoudi’s careful positioning of an overpretty, pale, perfect-skinned model. The body is photographed from the thighs up, though the lower part is not visible since it is placed, almost like a still-life object, or a hung painting, behind the odd elements of allegory, death, and the grotesque which stand before him: four white doves taking flight and a pile of skulls under them. The body/man is a looming phantom, at once desirable and terrifyingly inhuman; at once perhaps coming out at us, or ignoring us completely, engrossed with some work we do not really want to be witness to. The photo is silent, but I feel it incanting.
Similarly, the exhibition’s key publicity picture shows a young man photographed from the torso up (top photo), naked but for the drape he holds carefully over his head, hands in perfect parallel just below his chin, pulling the fabric which covers him tightly into place. It is as if he’s just putting it on, or defying some onlooker to steal it away. The drape alludes to a darker, shadowed side of the body, a force in what cannot be seen. It at once evokes and mixes images of various religious covers: scarves women wear for Muslim prayer, and Christian icons of Mary or Jesus. Like the other photos in this show, the body is diaphanous and yet seems solid as marble. In the middle of the figure’s chest there is what looks like an injury bleeding, however the liquid is black instead of red—it’s oil, we learn. At the gallery, when we move up closer to this piece, entitled “Le diable n’apparait qu’à celui qui le craint” (the devil only appears to he who fears him”, we realize the photo is not alone. It is paired with a dark other half, a black extension to the frame in which the almost unnoticed insignia for American Airlines is hiding.
El Jaoudi’s show title, “Collision”, could be pluralized, for he is never confronting the spectator head-on with a single, or simple, collision. Take for example the video piece, in which again the pale torso of a young man is visible standing bare, exposed at the left side of the screen. A bullet is shot in slow motion onto screen from an unseen gun at the right. The bullet spins in super-slo-mo towards the chest, recalling pop culture films like the Matrix, or comic books. When the bullet strikes the chest, it merely falls down, more quickly now, falling away from the impenetrable body. Are we disappointed? The shot happens again. Do we watch over and over hoping for a different result? A destruction? A piercing? “Is this an animated photo or a video?” asks El Jaoudi, adding that, “it is an extension of my photography work. A way to explore it a little differently.” The movement is so subtle as to hardly be video, and yet he has also added a sound element. The chest goes on and on unpierced while music plays, a woman’s voice sings in Arabic. “This is symbolic in a way of my work,” explains El Jaoudi, “It’s a Lebanese nun who is singing Christian songs in Arabic. There is a sort of ambiguity in this. Arabic being of one ethnicity, evoking one ethnicity, and the religion another.” It is true that one might easily believe she is singing part of the Koran, or a traditional song that has nothing at all to do with Christianity and everything to do with some place she comes from. What we see, hear, know and do not know is also part of the collision in place, in play here. We, the spectator, stumble against our own ignorance. As such, the show is evocative as well as provocative.
*All photos by Fahd El Jaoudi
Show by Fahd El Jaoudi entitled “Collision” until 18 October 2009.
Galerie e.l Bannwarth / 68 rue Julien Lacroix, 20th arr.
Metro: Belleville or Couronnes
(Ring the bell to be let in through the red gate).
Open Tues-Saturday, 14h-19h or by appointment
Tel: +33 (0)1 40 33 60 17
Jennifer K Dick is an
author (of Fluorescence, Retina, & Enclosures) and teacher
(currently at EHESS and Ecole Polytechnique). She co-organizes the
bilingual IVY reading series with Michelle Noteboom in Paris which
began in a gallery thanks to curator Susie Hollands. Jennifer is now
completing her PhD at Paris III on visual uses of the page in poetry:
text and image in works by Anne marie Albiach, Myung Mi Kim and Susan
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