Et Si Carthage? A conversation with Nidhal Chamekh

Nidhal Chamekh’s Et Si Carthage?, curated by Kathryn Weir with the assistance of Salma Kossemtini, stormed onto the scene on 25th January 2024 and will run until 24th March 2024 at Selma Feriani Gallery’s spanking-new venue in La Goulette, Tunisia. Inspired by Chamekh’s residency at the Villa Medici in Rome (2021-2022) and cooked up right in the heart of Tunis, this exhibition is not your grandma’s art show.
Now picture this: a mishmash of large and small-format drawings, sculptures, scaffolding and transfers on fabric. It’s like Chamekh raided an artistic candy store and decided, “Why not have it all?” But what’s the big question echoing through this creative storm? “What might Carthage represent today?” A city born from the Phoenicians, obliterated by the Romans—all to flex their dominance in North Africa. Who asks this? Chamekh does, inspired by Glissant’s dream of an untamed Carthage, a force to reckon with in the Mediterranean, flipping the bird to Rome’s monopoly. Chamekh’s Montage Madness™ unfolds like a cosmic ballet, exposing the secret dance of modernity with antiquity, twirling through the colonial ideologies that once thought they were the real MVPs. And hold onto your curiosity hats because, in our exclusive interview, we’re diving into Chamekh’s world – his motivations, artistic choices and the spicy politics that flavour his body of work.

Nidhal, your work is a powerful exploration of history and identity, specifically focused on Carthage and its intersection with Roman dominance. What sparked your interest in revisiting this historical narrative?

This dates back, I believe, to a long time ago – a fascination with the history of Carthage, the journey of Hannibal, and this civilization that stood against Rome, the first Western empire. However, my interest in ancient history solidified through encounters with anticolonial perspectives and recognizing history as a key to understanding our conditions, especially for those of us from the global South – migrants, Africans, the “subalterns.”

The drawings from the series "Si Carthage?" reveal a nuanced exploration of cultural influences. Can you elaborate on how your perspective has evolved to reveal the ancient influences of North Africa on Roman antiquity? What discoveries or realizations have impacted your artistic approach in this regard?

I feel that this journey, as is often the case, emerged from impossibilities. In 2005, Edouard Glissant gave a speech in Tunis where he pondered, “What if Carthage had not been destroyed?”. The impossibility of obtaining the transcript led me to explore the potential African influences on Roman culture during Africa Romana. I found myself at a standstill again as this inquiry scarcely interested historians and archaeologists of that time, except for a few (Marcel Bénabou and Yvon Thébert, both ‘organically’ linked to North Africa and influenced by Marxist theses). These “impractical” explorations made me understand ancient history’s political and ideological importance, its modern usage driven by colonial ideology, and its effects on contemporary geopolitical relations. Beyond the ancient question, my entire perspective on history has evolved through this ongoing research.

Courtesy of Selma Feriani Gallery

The merging of African and Greco-Roman cultures is a central concept in your work. How do you highlight the cultural and iconographic continuities between the two civilizations? What messages do you intend to convey through these connections?

I have always proceeded in the same way; it’s a task that has obsessed me for a long time – to seek analogies and correspondences. Georges Didi Huberman speaks of “knowledge through montage,” where associations and juxtapositions of images can provide alternative keys to interpreting historical events. Instead of revealing continuities, my interest lies in ‘provoking tensions within the gaps and zones between images’, thereby creating an openness to multiple interpretations.

"Calchi Facciale" delves into colonial justifications, connecting historical narratives with artistic expression. Can you walk us through your production processes, especially when addressing complex historical themes? How do you choose the materials and forms that best convey your intended messages?

Calchi facciale consists of two elements taken from different contexts during my residency at the Villa Medici. The bust lying on the ground belongs to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, one of the principal ministers of Louis XIV and a key proponent of slavery and colonialism. His “thinking”, Colbertism, is still celebrated in French state circles. Colbert is also, something I was unaware of, the founder of the French Academy in Rome and its residents (of which I was a part). His bust still adorns the entrance of the administration. During my residency, I had the opportunity to create a mould of this bust, which served as an initial piece I exhibited during the Villa Medici’s fellows’ exhibition. The second part of the piece features a cast of a friend’s face inspired by the ethnographic masks I discovered in Italian museums, particularly those in Florence. Beyond its racist, pseudo-scientific and colonial aspects, this act of casting is immensely violent, as it involves plaster casting the faces of indigenous people, suffocating them, and restricting their breathing in a claustrophobic situation. The juxtaposition of these two elements, these two stories, seemed crucial to me in revealing the colonial continuity of both countries, in both science and art, and in raising questions about the presence of these figures in today’s cultural milieu.

Calchi facciale, 2023, plaster sculpture with steel and wood, courtesy of Selma Feriani Gallery

Your exhibition comprises diverse elements such as plaster fragments, drawings and sculptures. Could you share insights into your methodology of juxtaposing and reassembling these fragments? How do you navigate the dissonances, discontinuities and hybridizations to convey a cohesive narrative?

The time I spent in Rome was a great source of inspiration, especially concerning materials. In my sense, sculpture became an obvious choice if I wanted to engage with antiquity. The metal scaffolding structures also emerged from my observations in Rome; the Italians excel in using “tubi innocenti” structures, which are ubiquitous in the city, supporting walls, during the restoration of archaeological sites, in museums, on construction sites, etc. They ingeniously repurpose them into walls, doors, pedestals and more. At the end of my year, I discovered it was an Italian invention. I combined these elements with objects and an old passion for assembling and tinkering. I approached installations the same way as drawing, meaning without any prior sketches, guided simply by the objects, sculptures and elements I had gathered in the studio during months of collecting, molding and casting.

Your work draws attention to the theme of exile and the displacement of African communities. Could you elaborate on how this theme intersects with your reflections on Carthage and Rome? What message do you aim to convey about the experiences of contemporary exiles through your artistic expressions?

The myth of Carthage, the foreigner, the rival and its tragic yet inevitable demise is a well-known one. The “clandestine” departures from Africa with their share of tragedies are not breaking news either. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist connecting these two events. The temptation to see one’s radiance in the other was simply too strong for me. Did there need to be a Carthage for numerous perilous journeys to persist? Did there need to be a Rome – an empire and the center of the world – for borders to rise? How can one not think of the “Harragas,” those women and men leaving the North African coasts, heading towards the North with their gaze turned one last time towards Carthage? Another image instantly comes to mind: that of other survivors of the razed and violated Carthage, fleeing the city in flames, taking the same open waters and casting the same last gaze.

Courtesy of Selma Feriani Gallery

"X," featuring an ancient Punic mask-like funerary object in a 'hoodie,' makes a powerful statement on structural racism. What cultural commentary do you aim to initiate with this piece? How do you see your art sparking broader conversations on race, identity and societal structures?

The Punic mask has always fascinated me with the power of its expression and the elegance of its traits. It’s unclear whether these masks were exclusively funerary, as the presence of holes on the sides suggests a more domestic and decorative use. Even today, in some rural homes, people hang pottery at the entrance. I like to believe that these masks represent Punic Africans (probably slaves). The hoodie directly brings them into the present, transforming this punic mask into the face of a contemporary African. The hoodie alludes to exile and its journeys, where one covers oneself against the cold, gazes and spotlights (photographers and police). Yet the face remains charged with expression and strength, smirking at the present and history. This mocking smile recalls that seen on the bust of Hannibal a few years ago. This work also pays homage to David Hammons and his powerful piece “In the Hood.” Thus, destinies are intertwined – the fate of Black Americans who left centuries ago as slaves from the West African coasts and that of African exiles in Europe who departed recently from the North African coasts.

As you reflect on your artistic journey, are there specific themes or subjects you aspire to explore in the future? How do you see your work evolving, and what new dimensions or concepts are you excited to delve into in your upcoming projects?

The exhibition Et Si Carthage is a first step in an exploration that I hope to continue. While much of it delves into antiquity, the theme of exile is also present, and I would like to deepen and unfold its potentialities. It has been more than ten years since I left Tunisia, and migration and exile now constitute me; it is my condition. Besides, this initial return to three-dimensional work excites me a lot. In terms of form, I’m very excited by this first return to volume, and I’d like to expand my work with installations and sculpture while retaining the practice of drawing as the backbone of my work. Looking ahead, I am eager to explore new dimensions and concepts that arise from the intersection of antiquity and contemporary experiences, continuing to unravel the complexities of themes such as exile and migration.

Tribute to David Hammons, 2023, clay and fabric. Produced in collaboration with Atef Maatallah, courtesy of Selma Feriani Gallery

Nidhal Chamekh, born in 1985 in Dahmani, Tunisia, and currently residing between Paris and Tunis, explores the intersection of biography and politics in his multidisciplinary artwork. Using drawing, installations, photography and video, his pieces deconstruct contemporary identity, challenging historical and political narratives. A graduate of the School of Fine Arts in Tunis and the University of Sorbonne in Paris, Chamekh was a fellow at the Villa Medici French Academy in Rome. His current project at Villa Medici introduces Rome’s archaeological heritage and the cultural production of exiles, merging present and past. Featured in Osei Bonsou’s African Art Now, Chamekh has exhibited globally and is part of prestigious art collections, including the British Museum, FRAC Centre in Orléans, France, Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth in the U.S.A. and Barjeel Foundation in Sharjah, UAE.

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