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The New Arab | The sublime is an experience looking for context': Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi's Le Chant de l’Ardent Désir

Farah Abdessamad

10 March, 2022

It’s difficult to describe the phenomenological experience of coming across Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi’s language.

A gateway towards the invisible and divine, his art is as aesthetically breath-taking as it is spiritually moving, and there are notions that Koraïchi’s third US show at New York City’s Aicon Gallery, Le Chant de l’Ardent Désir, perfectly embodies in its presentation of four bodies of work threading on the function of calligraphy and symbolic philology.

The title of the show is also the name of an eponymous series of six large-scale alabaster tablets that shimmer under a subtle light. Their pristine hue is reminiscent of Tunisia’s desert salt lakes or the solemnity of tombstones.

Alabaster was widely used in ancient Egypt – where it was associated with Bast (or Bastet), a divinity of protection – and Mesopotamian cultures. While at first heavy and majestic, upon a closer inspection, artworks under Le Chant de l’Ardent Désir (2021) exude softness and sophistication.

On these 43x43 inches tablets, we see detailed, lace-like inscriptions which convey symmetry and the optical illusion of a portal to other realms. In these works, we recognise Koraïchi’s passion for attentive and respectful craftsmanship.

Intricate carvings, such as the nine circles of Le Chant de l’Ardent Désir II (2021) evoke a mystical map, guiding imagery towards self-exploration echoing the presence of numerological cues and cosmological composition.

In the series Les Vigilants, la Nuit (2021), the shapes of 14 steel sculptures of black-painted corten steel remind of vanishing human silhouettes. They project long shadows to the ground, casting a reminder of residue and loss, an effect the artist had previously explored in La prière des absents (2013-2015).

Koraïchi captures the flimsiness of human life and individuality. Each sculpture incorporates unique strokes and symbols in skeleton-like, totemic structures.

We feel haunted by their undefined absence and presence, an ambiguity that embraces an abstract form of existence, forcing our gaze to transcend the confines of what’s visible, corporeal and palpable.

Les Vigilants, la Nuit…XIV (2021) shows a wide-legged figure as if the character seeks to anchor each of its legs in opposing shores or borders, with details framing an upper-body area that channels a sense of movement and readiness to act.

Koraïchi further investigates remanence and enchantment in 14, stunning canvases under the series La Montagne aux Etoiles (2021) — a name which reminds of Jabal an-Nour near Mecca, or the Mountain of Light, where Prophet Muhammed first received revelation.

The La Montagne aux Etoiles artworks, where golden-white acrylic paint contrasts against a rich indigo background, explore form fluidity, luminosity, vibrancy and an attempt at capturing a polyphony that speaks to the universal.

Their multidimensionality sometimes grants the appearance of traditional ceramic tiles or textiles. In La Montagne aux Etoiles III (2021) Koraïchi outlines an unconscious atlas, sacred geography and an altar to celestial magnificence.  

Koraïchi’s paintings and sculptures are precise, geometric and hypnotically meditative.

In apposing calligraphy, glyphs, ephemerides and semiotic characters, the artist pays homage to Arab, Amazigh and other heritages while reinterpreting a personal cosmology and a Sufi-inspired expression of the divine.

Koraïchi’s close engagement with the Quran underpins his understanding of scripture as a conveyor of faith, heritage and culture.

Language, as an art, a verb, humanity and a possibility of togetherness, imprints the show and in doing so, reminds of Arab art-historical modern experiments, such as the Hurufiyyah movement (itself reviving the Hurufi movement of the 14th-15th century which elevated letters and calligraphy as objects of spirituality and mysticism). Koraïchi qualifies his work as “an alphabet of memory” which suggests composing a genealogy of becoming. 

The show follows the recent opening of a UNESCO-awarded site, Jardin d’Afrique. Values of a shared humanity are not anecdotal to Koraïchi's life as Jardin d’Afrique is a graveyard and shelter that the artist designed in southern Tunisia, on land he bought in 2018, for migrants and asylum-seekers who hope to find a better future north of the Mediterranean Sea.

“I wanted to help them go to heaven after the hell they went through,” he said in an interview, influenced by the words of his late grandfather who had told him: "He who dies very rich has missed his life because he did not know how to share.”

The site was inaugurated in June 2021 and, conceived as a space of dignity and resistance to violence, includes a cemetery holding 200 white graves and a non-denominational praying hall among olive trees and traditional motifs.

“His cemetery is not only a consolation for the souls lost to the Mediterranean and the people close to them, but it is also a work that expresses — better than a hundred speeches could — a grief that must be shared between north and south,” wrote award-winning author David Diop.

Now based in Paris, France, the Algerian-born multimedia artist (b.1947) won the Jameel Prize (2011) and has exhibited his recent works at the Marrakech Biennale (2016), two editions of the Venice Biennale, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (2015) in addition to the British Museum, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and other institutions.

In his work, Koraïchi has often paid homage to Sufi masters such as Ibn Arabi and Rumi, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and Algerian author Mohammed Dib.

Knowing the artist’s commitment to freedom, solidarity, and upholding human rights, the impressive woven tapestry, Jardin d’Afrique (2021), depicts an imaginary arrival site as much as the desired horizon. Jardin d’Afrique represents a circle floating in a body of water, framed by a square and a multitude of codes and scriptures which appear like epitaphs, an ancient whisper and elegiac poetry to awaken a lost sense of empathy.

Koraïchi turned the gallery into a shrine and spiritual journey. We reach the tapestry after walking past the alabaster tablets and the hollow statuesque ghosts from the series Les Vigilants, la Nuit. 

Koraïchi symbolically reconstituted a map of his southern Tunisian garden where brave, often anonymous souls can finally rest and he’s asking us not to look away.

“The sublime is an experience looking for context,” wrote Simon Morley. What survives inside and outside the works are the illegible and indelible traces of shared destinies.

Through a visual lexicon bearing witness to human suffering and dignity, Rachid Koraïchi invents a new performative grammar to challenge the limits of representation and indifference.

Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia.

Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis