8 Jun - 30 Jul

Sabrina Amrani presents Fugitive, a solo exhibition by Tunisian artist Nicène Kossentini.


Her second show at the gallery, Fugitive includes a video, “The Poem”, and marks a return to drawing and to aquarelle. Several of those pieces borrow from Islamic geometry and architectural patterns’ aesthetics as the artist spent time in Córdoba’s red and white double-arched Great Mosque, while on a residency in Casa Árabe, Andalucía. Far from exploring Islamic design legacy or from delving into Al-Andalus ornamental structures from a theoretical point of view, Kossentini uses them formally only and pursues her existential quest instead by questioning the contradictions and fluidity of life and memory.


Inspired by the liquid aspect of water, the works in Fugitive are embedded in movement and in introspection; created through a very immersive process, they speak of continual change, absence and loss. If we think some scientists assert water – as a living element – records memories thanks to vibrations, the pieces in the exhibition might well echo that idea. In them, water gathers and isolates; it keeps and rejects. As a result, both the video and the drawings are in a state of flux. They can be read alone or together as they resonate in unison as an unknown musical score. Against the tide of her usual creative process, starting from concepts, Kossentini has chosen to follow her intuition freely by drawing first, as a necessity.


The diptych “Tawq al-Hamamah” (The Ring of the Dove) is a copy of an excerpt from the eponymous treatise of love written around 1022 by great thinker Ibn Hazm of Córdoba – one of the artist’s favourite book, and an example amongst others of her passion for Arabic literature, poetry and philosophy. On soaked papers, that respect manuscripts’ format by maintaining a large margin on all sides, Kossentini lets her brick-red ink run until it slides. The gesture gets blurred, as if a whispering wind had scattered the letters and language, otherwise constrained on the fringe of the text. The dust tempest lashing the treatise copy reveals poetic landscapes of waves and hills. The two new drawings recall previous pieces investigating the limits of writing as well as the complexity of communication, like “Shakl”, “Rasaîl” or, more recently, “Infinitésimal”.

Even if the script seems alive – almost breathing, it is indecipherable and mysterious. Getting closer, one realises words stand out, but still ... their meaning is impenetrable. Can we share our intimacy through speech and writing? Is language enough? A tremendous sensitivity emanates from this diptych that requires the audience to focus and observe the text with accuracy, confronting us with the borders of communication and with the gaps between significance and interpretation.


The video “The Poem” addresses the paradox of expression, including the subtle links between orality – spoken word – and silence. Superimposed over a static shot of the sea, a mouth utters something unintelligible. The voice is lost despite the lips moving and clenching, replaced by the raw sound of ebb and flow. Somehow the regular pace of this melody lulls the viewer while a sensation of oppression arises simultaneously. The impossibility to say and articulate is complemented by the inability to listen – as was the case in the older photographic series “What the water gave me” centred on lips babbling under liquid.

However, a shift is progressively felt in “The Poem”; along with this issue, another preoccupation emerges through the motif of water: refugees’ fate. For Kossentini, turning to the sea is a means to explore the migratory experience from the perspective of homeland loss. She is drawn by the ambivalence of the ‘opposite bank’: if water saves and promises a new life, it also erases and swallows the old existence. The crossing becomes inseparable from estrangement, alienation and distance. The sea turns into an epitome of rupture, a place where memories of an individual and collective identity and culture disappear or drown, losing their voice and expression. Hence, the image of a submerged mouth: struggling to find its way, and ready to escape. The tides’ noise transmits this process of dilatation that comes with exile.


Loss and movement are a common thread and mark the drawing series “The Errant”. Avoiding the risk of imitation or arabesque, Kossentini borrows from Islamic geometry to ponder on cohesion and separation, on concentration and dispersion through patterns weaved as body cells. Complex squares, circles, stars, and polygons inhabit her organic aquarelles, from delicate blue-grey shades, to green and brick-red again, as a nod to the colours of the arches of Córdoba’s Great Mosque. A striking feature of her vibrating combinations is the preservation of the initial outlines. In this, Kossentini contemplates the acts of creating and undoing, as cycles without beginning or end, and as processes unravelling like a journey. Contrasting with the mathematical conception of Al-Andalus adornments, one tied to finiteness and rigour, the artist exposes fluid surfaces in motion, over a soft preliminary sketch. The intricate tessellations they form are shattered and boundless. Maybe these infinite possibilities mirror life movements? Whereas the divine is entrenched in Islamic architectural structures, accompanying reflections on the cosmos and unity, Kossentini does not touch on this directly. She is more interested in playing with order and disorder, with meeting and bursting, as embodied in “The Errant / Moment 3”. Her drawings revolve around ambiguity; they suggest zones of encounter and friction, like magnets attracting and repelling each other (“The Errant / Moment 1”).


If, visually, Fugitive could puzzle the connoisseurs of Kossentini’s work, a strong filiation exists with her other series. As always, she prioritises slowness and patience; concentration and seeing. The fact she resorts to repetition so often requires a real effort to read between the lines: there is what we perceive, what we decipher and, more importantly, what we surmise. Indeed, the underlying invisible fragments and the imaginary leeway she offers might precisely well be the most fundamental components of her works. She triggers our capacity to delve behind the surface, especially as most of her pieces are set out of a clear temporality, in a unique space-time continuum. Floating as if eternal – both light and intense – her minimalist creations point to the essential and try to capture what is fleeing, changing or disappearing. But can we grasp movement? The title of the exhibition hints at this, as the space installation does. In Fugitive, the aquarelle drawings “Tawq al-Hamamah” and “The Errant” are shown unframed and in suspension, maintained between nails and magnets, generating a depth reflecting Kossentini’s intimate and existentialist interrogations and concerns.

Text by Clelia Coussonnet

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Works in the exhibition