We’re delighted to host this fantastic interview with Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi, exploring his latest exhibition Les Maîtres du Temps (Masters of Time) at October Gallery, London. Taken from the exhibition catalogue, this interview was conducted by Gerard Houghton, Director of Special Projects at the Gallery.
Born in Ain Beida, Algeria, in 1947, Rachid now lives and works in Tunisia and France. He studied at the Institute of Fine Arts and École supérieure des beaux-arts in Algiers, before continuing his studies in Paris at the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs, the Institut d’urbanisme and L’École supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris.
Rachid Koraïchi’s impressive oeuvre includes large installations, ceramics, sculptures, textiles and works on canvas and paper. For Koraïchi, art represents an ancient pathway into the unknown. Signs and symbols from civilisation’s oldest languages are deconstructed and abstracted in the artist’s work to elaborate a personal visual vocabulary.
This exhibition is his third with October Gallery, which focuses entirely on international artists. Masters of Time runs until the 28th July, and is free to visit.
Gerard Houghton: Rachid, please tell us something of your background, and the things that first inspired you to become an artist?
Rachid Koraïchi: This is something of a classic question, which I’m often asked, but, of course, the truth is that I really don’t know from where the idea of becoming an artist first arrived. It will have been something to do with my early childhood surroundings, the environment where I grew up in the Aurès Mountains, in Algeria, which is a place of great, natural beauty. I was born in Aïn Beïda, a small town in the eastern part of central Algeria, situated away from the coast and yet still above the great Sahara Desert. I only know that the myriad influences of that place must have played some sort of role: the architecture, the inscriptions on the walls, the sights, sounds and smells will all have contributed. One absorbs many lessons from the world one inhabits: for me that included the history of the place, the geography of the region and the overwhelming geology of those vast, open spaces of the Sahara to the south. If becoming an artist was somehow part of my destiny, then that destiny was absorbed from the half-noticed traces of ancient humanity that shared in and left their imprints behind in that region. Here, I’m talking about everything from the pre-historic rock art in the Tassili n’Ajjer caves, through the waves of Phoenician, Roman, Vandal, Byzantine and Berber settlers who had all inhabited those parts even before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century. My mother was also of an artistic nature and had a good eye for the beautiful designs she embroidered, for the cutting of cloth to make clothes and the many other creative processes of those earlier times. My mother used her considerable skills with a needle to maintain her family of seven children when, during the Liberation war, my father was arrested and imprisoned. I then went on to a more formal training in the Colleges of the Beaux-Arts, at first in Algiers then later in Paris, where I was fortunate enough to study with several masters. There I learnt to express the things I had inside me without becoming too fixated upon the basic, technical aspects of Art.
GH: Recount for me some of the subsequent steps that were influential in shaping the way you wanted to work?
RK: Well, as I was saying, most influential of all was the frank physicality of my native region of the Aurès, the sheer abundance of her agricultural produce, which was in such sharp contrast to the desert lands to the south. I grew up during the War of Independence against the French and saw some of the violence and chaos that resulted. After that, I moved to Algiers in the coastal region. I can still vividly remember the wonder I felt at my first sight of the sea – and an equivalent amazement, dawning more gradually perhaps, as I became more conscious of the diversity of long-established cultures within that capital city. After Independence, in 1962, we lived through a period of great hope, imagining all that might be possible in the exciting present of those early years. After that came another move, this time to another great capital city, and the sheer shock of metropolitan Paris, its wealth of museums and galleries, and the marvellous spectacles constantly playing out on its lively streets. It was in that heady atmosphere that I produced my first installation, Salomé (1990), which used textiles created, thread-by-thread, on a specially-made loom, and dealt with the complex theme of love, either for another person – or indeed for God. It’s interesting to remember that first installation, which was exhibited in Paris, at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) and then the Centre Pompidou. Looking back now, I can see how many of the themes that came bubbling to the surface in Salomé were like embryonic seeds of other projects that similar themes, again and again.
GH: I like your idea of ‘seeds’ that develop and mature along mysterious timelines. Tell me more about how those seeds grew, blossomed and later bore their own fruit.
RK: Well, for the last twenty years at least, I have been working on one grand, overarching project that addresses the lives and legacies of fourteen of the great Sufi mystics, and portrays the historical development of the broad world of Islam from the western fringes of Andalucía throughout the Middle East and on to the eastern outposts of the Levant. I call this project, The Invisible Masters (Les Maîtres Invisibles). This huge undertaking draws together different threads in the lives of such great Sufi masters as Jalaluddin Al Rûmî (Rumi), Ibn ’Arabi and others, whose fame, both as poets and mystics, has even spread to the west. In essence, I want to demonstrate that despite the world of Islam often being seen as in crisis or as a source of unease, tension and violence, the reality is quite different. I wish to show another side entirely: that of the tolerant and sophisticated writings of the great Muslim poets and sages who have left such a large imprint on succeeding generations. Although no longer bodily present in this world, they have transmitted a cogent message that is as relevant to us today as it was when they first set it down many centuries ago. This entire project is a complex enterprise that encompasses whole series of previously shown works, such as the multifaceted installation, Path of Roses (1995-2005), which itself took ten years to realise, and a small-scale version of which I exhibited at October Gallery in 2003. A project of the size and breadth of The Invisible Masters can only develop over many long years, and it often produces offshoots, separate works and installations that, in one way or another, make reference to and further illustrate this unique central theme.
GH: I still remember that striking Path of Roses installation: its figurative metal sculptures, the dark blue, silken banners embroidered in gold thread and the exquisite ceramic bowls filled with scented water on which floated blood red rose petals. You followed that, in 2010, with Ecstatic Flow, works on variously coloured paper, which felt quite different, yet, once again, referred to fourteen Sufi masters. I wonder if this latest work, Masters of Time (2018), also falls within the ambit of The Invisible Masters project?
RK: Whilst I conceived of this piece as a separate work in and of itself, it certainly shares the same overall perspective as The Invisible Masters. As to whether it is different from what’s gone before, if you were to ask a monk who’d spent most of his life praying in a monastery whether one prayer was different from previous prayers he’d recited, he’d be puzzled. He’d say that even if it were different it’s still part of the same path along which he’d always been travelling. I was born into a Sufi Brotherhood and have spent my whole life, both as individual and artist, within that family. So, all my work about the Sufi Masters relates to that same existential path. This new installation for October Gallery consists of two series of work, created in two different environments, yet with each series designed to complement the other one developing in parallel alongside. At the time, I was travelling back and forth between my atelier in Paris, where I created the fourteen round textile works and the specialist atelier, in Barcelona, where the fourteen ceramic pieces were produced, decorated and then fired. With the square ceramic plates, the ground is ivory white and the surface designs are traced out in blue. The reverse is true of the round canvases, where the background is first painted in blue before application of the overlying scripts in white ivory colours. Being opposites of one another implies that each series mirrors and reflects the other. Working together as complementary pairs, they establish dialogues between their opposing poles. Thephysical contrast in the materials, between flexible tissue and fired pottery, accentuates the dimorphism of the circular
and square artworks. While in previous installations, such as Letters of Clay: Homage to Ibn ’Arabi (1999), I had decorated ceramic tiles as objects that could be fixed to the wall as is, here, I surround both series with wooden frames that serve to equalise their individual distinctions. This provides a common matrix that emphasises their relation as art objects, and despite the dissimilarities of media, form and colouring, allows them to engage in constructive dialogues.
GH: Sometimes you refer to the installation as Masters of Time, yet at other times
you call the canvases ‘blue hosts’. Did they perhaps begin as separate series that somehow merged together?
RK: Actually, the entire installation, by which I mean both ceramic and canvas artworks sequentially arranged, is called Masters of Time. Since the round works make direct reference to the unleavened sacramental bread or ‘host’ of the Christian church, when discussing particular aspects of that series, I simply refer to them as ‘blue hosts.’ The idea of mastering time attaches to the square ceramic works because surviving fragments of pottery comprise some of the most ancient things we possess. Sites dating back to prehistoric times provide countless examples: potsherds, ostraca (inscribed fragments), talismans and so on. These reveal how our earliest ancestors formed utensils, bowls, pitchers, oil lamps, even tablets with incisions and inscriptions, all made of simple clay that was shaped and then fired. This rudest of all materials comes to us from the earth, and it somehow survives over vast sweeps of time. The links between man and clay are clearly set out in the Biblical story of the creation of Adam, whose very name comes from the Hebrew word adamah, which means ‘earth.’ Similarly, in the Qur’an, Allah makes Adam after collecting and wetting coloured sands to make clay. That clay He first formed into a sounding pot, into which He then breathed life, to create the first human being. The curse of Adam stems from this original conception since he was destined to die and return back to the earth from which he came. Shaped from earthly clay ourselves, we shall all, in time, be covered by earth, returning to dust and clay in the grave. For this reason, in the Islamic faith, we are buried without coffins to facilitate this return and allow our bodies to replenish the earth in which we lie. The earth has fed and clothed us during our life. In return we give ourselves back to nourish the earth so that other creatures can also grow, to feed and clothe those who follow after us. That is the cycle into which we are born, following countless millions who have passed before, and the many who will follow in our wake. If you talk to any
potter, you will discover a profound reverence for the clay materials they handle. This derives
from the awareness that somewhere within that carefully kneaded clay may exist some molecules or remains that in other times were part and parcel of another human being. While the woven material of the round ‘hosts’ might suggest ephemerality, it must be remembered that in ancient tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs or Chinese Emperors, pieces of textile often survive intact. Furthermore, many of the same associations with earth also remain. These hosts refer to bread, made from wheat or barley, grown in the earth, which when cut and threshed to separate the grain produces the flour that is shaped and baked into the thin wafers of unleavened bread. In the Christian ceremony these roundels of altar bread are eaten by the faithful, as an act of great symbolic significance that enacts the process of assimilating the divine essence into one’s own body. Once again, earth is integral to the process, since it nourishes the plants that sustain us, who will eventually return to nourish that same earth which kept us alive.
GH: So, there’s a sense in which the hosts’ circular form suggests the idea of ongoing
life cycles, as evidenced in the way that life is transmitted from one generation to the next in plants, animals and indeed humans.
RK: Exactly. The work speaks of cycles containing other cycles within them, and over time these endless cycles continuously interact with each other. While I was working to make this series, I was thinking about a text of the Tidjaniya Brotherhood, which talks about how the time fixed for one’s own life has already begun to count down towards that inevitable moment of return. From the moment an infant is born, the chronometer of life is running. Indeed, at the instant the child separates from its mother, the new-born’s chronometer already records some nine months less time to run before the cycle completes. Thus, we humans are not the masters of our own lives nor, by extension, are we masters of time. It’s this relationship with existence itself, and the
process of passage from the beginning to the very end of the cycle that’s at the centre of the Sufi text, which is a form of dikr. By that I mean that, when on Friday, in the Islamic world, you go to the mosque for prayer, afterwards you use the rosary beads to measure out recitations of prayers, or countless cycles repeating the names of God. These are forms of spirituality measured out by things that turn and return. Think of the prayer wheels of the Tibetan Buddhists, or their vibrantly coloured prayer flags, propagating prayers on the streaming winds of high mountain passes. Another cyclical form of prayer can be seen in the turning of the Dervish in trance. These are all symbolic of things that turn infinitely, like the planets and galaxies travelling endlessly through space.
GH: Since we’re talking of vibrantly coloured prayer flags, explain to me the significance of these blue and white colours that you employ, here, like a binary pair.
RK: Actually, the original binary pairing is the contrast of black and white. I often use nothing more elaborate than this, the most minimalist of all palettes, as with the 99 embroidered banners of The
Invisible Masters (2008). Being a native of Algeria, the land of the Sahara Desert, I am aware that the
world divides into these two, contrary poles of the chromatic scale: the searing heat and glaring, white light of the sun, and its opposite, an inky blackness where everything lies hidden in the cool, dark shade. Evidently, the tension between the round and square elements in Masters of Time operates by using blue and white as the two prime colours at play. Yet the figure occupying the central axis of each blue host, where the Christian altar bread might be impressed with, say, a simple cross, is always in black, the colour of renunciation. In certain ways these anthropomorphic glyphs symbolise the masters of time. In both Christian and Islamic traditions, black garments signify the wearer’s having renounced all worldly vanity. Thus, when the Dervish initiate drops his inky, black cloak to begin his spiral dance, he reveals the white robe beneath, which signifies his rebirth to the real truth of the divine. White is also the colour of purity, and, returning to the idea of white light I just mentioned, white also represents the dawn creeping over the eastern horizon, revitalising the natural world and embellishing life. In this sense, the colour white epitomises the Supreme Being that is God. Here, the counterpoint colour is blue, which for the ancient Egyptians was the colour of truth. The colour blue is always associated with the heavens and is also the colour of transparency or invisibility. This strange notion comes about because both the sky and sea are blue, and yet if one cups a handful of seawater in one’s palm then the colour disappears! Blue is therefore the most immaterial and evasive of colours. Blue indicates the path of infinity, where reality transforms into potential. This reveals a playful paradox at the heart of the mystic’s world: the mystery of something that is everywhere and at the same time cannot be pinned down. Masters of Time plays similarly subtle games of transformations: in wrestling with the age-old imponderable of squaring the circle; by reforming inscriptions; by playing with the symbolism of colours; by varying the glyphs inscribed about the half hidden, abstracted figures. The works cycle through shifting combinations of patterns and codes, which is to say we’re in the realm of the complex. Here we unfold and examine things that can’t be translated into simple words. It’s a very particular approach, and it identifies a special way of seeing. For me personally, blue and white are the colours of life’s journey. I imagine a tiny white cloud passing across the immense face of a brilliantly blue sky. But that white cloud composed of tenuous wisps of vapour is at the mercy of the slightest gust of wind, which will dissipate it in an instant. For me this suggests how our transit through life is no more than a passage of uncertain chance.
GH: You’ve talked about there being fourteen great Sufi masters to whom you pay homage, and here again there are fourteen artworks in each series. Is there any particular significance to the number fourteen?
RK: Yes, and no! Fourteen’s significance lies in its being a multiple of Seven, which, for me, is the principal number. For more years than I can remember now, my work has been based on the number Seven, an auspicious number charged with numerological meaning, and not just for the Sufi orders alone, but for other traditions as well. It’s not just pure chance that makes ‘lucky seven’ associated with ‘perfection’ in the Christian, Judaic, Islamic, Buddhist and also Taoist traditions. I always create objects in multiples of seven, hence the fourteen (7 X 2) ceramic and textile works found in each of these series, which could be seen as 28 individual artworks, but were designed to act as two sets of (7 x 2) pieces that mirror one another. Further emphasising the notion of an underlying sacred geometry, is the fact that each individual work also exhibits this heptadic imprint, since the dimensions of the works are also themselves multiples of seven. As the square and circular objects all differ somewhat in individual size, they are framed to sit at the centre of a (7 x 6), 42 cm square. Much of the magic of 7 derives from its being divisible by nothing but one and itself. Seven can also be considered to be composed of the number 3 (also a prime) and the composite number 4, which when represented geometrically give us three and foursided figures, or triangles and squares (or rectangles). These geometric devices, figure throughout Masters of Time, where the circular host and square ceramic objects are subdivided and decorated following harmonious geometric practices familiar to most ancient cultures. In the realm of planetary symbols the square represents the earth. So, squares (and rectangles) define a demarcated terrestrial space, which could be a plot of land, a house, a room or even, by extension, the tomb. In the Islamic world, a four-sided figure can also symbolise the Kaaba in Mecca. By contrast, the triangle represents aspiration towards the heavens. Every pyramid, be it ancient Egyptian, Mayan or any simple tumulus, marks a site that aims upwards to reach the heavenly heights. If the works that comprise Masters of Time are examined with these geometric clues in mind then the overall direction of the project becomes clearer. Triangles, squares and circles take part in an ongoing metaphysical dialogue about the connections and exchanges between earth and the heavens. Circles (and related spirals) represent the universal realm, the heavens and eternity itself. They also express the cycles of existence and concentric circles illustrate cycles within cycles that propagate through time. We humans are creatures who grasp the complexity of things using the power of symbols to understand by association. When looking at the circular works I am also reminded, perhaps because of their seeming fragility, of the circular frames, or hoops, that women use for embroidery. Having spent long hours watching my mother as she sat embroidering, there exists a strong link between this round series and the fragile, complicated materials made by our mothers and sisters. Perhaps the hard, square ceramic pieces contrast with the soft, flexible, round canvas works to suggest masculine and feminine attributes. Also, I must stress that the word ‘master’ has no implicit associations of gender. Indeed, the very first of the fourteen Invisible Masters was Rabi’a al Adawiyya, an extraordinary woman, who, in the 8th century, became the first in a long line of female Sufi mystics. These mystics taught that we all worship the same God, and that there is no real separation unless we construct that rift. This is the crucial lesson that people always forget. Whether you be Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Shinto, Muslim, Jew or atheist, there is no fundamental difference between us. We all come from the same earth, which gave us all life and into which we all return.
GH: Given that your works all grapple with such grand – perhaps ultimately impossible to answer – questions, would you say that your art contains a central message?
RK: I think that it would be pretentious of me to claim that I’m trying to transmit any one, particular message. Music, a parallel artform, can have great complexity and beauty without being ‘programmatic’ or containing any specific ‘message.’ My work evidently has an aesthetic component and some of the elements I use repeatedly can be vessels for specific thoughts or ‘meanings’ that I wish to communicate. But there is nothing like an overriding position or, for example, say a political message. Indeed, even as the creator of a work, I still have to allow each viewer to receive what I have done in his or her own particular way. While each person sees the same work they might well have very different perceptions and interpretations as to its meaning. That is fine, and indeed, what I expect. This is critical since it goes to the heart of how communicative exchange is maintained between artist and audience. I suppose, ultimately, I would say that I leave, in my works, traces of my own passage through life; records of things that the viewer might also know or have experienced; proof that I have been here, lived in this way and had these various thoughts. But I have no intention of teaching anything, of saying that this is how things are. Rather it’s a dialogue, a matter of showing people that this is the kind of truth that I have found for myself, and to have them question whether the values that they have discovered are similar or indeed largely divergent from my own. If there is a difference, so much the better: we then have the possibility of engaging in a fruitful dialogue, out of which both of us might come to perceive something larger than our own personal positions.
© Gerard Houghton, October Gallery, June, 2018