Fella Tamzali: ARCANES

rhizome, Algiers, Algeria
25 Apr 2024 - 21 May 2024

Installation view ©Khadidja Markemal

Installation view ©Khadidja Markemal

rhizome announces ARCANES, the first solo exhibition of Fella Tamzali in Algeria, curated by Beya Othmani. Fella Tamzali presents ARCANES, her first institutional show in Algeria at rhizome, where a series of paintings she has developed between 2022 and 2024 are being presented, in addition to La Course, a painting done in 2020 which the artist considers to be at the origin of the presented series. Tamzali, who used to paint interiors in her beginnings, now places her figures in open spaces (here in the woods). The exhibition marks a decisive, creative turning point for the artist, who is resorting to the video medium for the very first time.

ARCANES starts with a video diptych titled Pistes (2024). Faithful to her eye and her painter’s approach, Tamzali designs her videos as animated paintings. A figure we only see through their naked legs and feet which mechanically trample mud; repeating at different intervals the same scene; a rock diving into water. This diptych, which is placed at the entrance of the exhibition, is part of a body of works having water as a theme, a theme that appears in a cyclical manner in Tamzali’s creations. The use of water symbolism calls to mind the purification rituals which accompany rites of passage.

In her willingness to evoke transition, the choice of gestures is not a chance arrangement. Both the fall of the rock and the trampling of liquid mud evoke the intent to get rid of a weight, to extricate oneself from something that is preventing movement.
Pistes also serves as an introduction to the exhibition in which Tamzali tackles works-tools in order to resolve or overcome her
own affects. Her intimate paintings, developed over a prolonged period, take part into a deep exploration of her emotions, while
never divulging the intimate torments of the artist. This tension between the manufactured, apparent and staged image and a
visceral and hidden frame, crosses ARCANES in a distinctive fashion.

Before the gesture, there is always for the artist a persistent and revealed image. These images are subconsciously developed,
they are fed with lived experience, emotions and memories. La Course (2020), the first painting from the forest cycle, introduces
the themes of hunting and chasing which become visible gradually with the presented paintings. The scene takes place in a clearing, at the edge of a forest. We see in it a character with feminine and juvenile appearance, caught while running, by what appears to be a man. In front of this, and held by two hands, a horse tries to join them. The woman and the animal are captured with bare hands and stopped in full swing.

The work Hide and Seek (2022-2023), which is made up of three oil on canvas paintings, is at the center of the exhibition. An
ambiguous scene is unfolding in the forest. A character illuminates another with a bright torch, the latter covering their intimate parts with their hands. Were they surprised amid an obscene gesture? At the center of the frame, another protagonist appears, concealing their gaze and wanting to run away. Are they surprised by the torch or by the gesture it just revealed? Alone and beleaguered, they are in the middle of a stoic and tense face-to-face. Their fortuitous presence adds a dramatic dimension to the scene, sparking confusion and worry. In the background, another character, shown by their lower body, comes to recalibrate the tension of the image. These four figures, placed at equal distance from each other, animate a confrontation with an unknown outcome.

Even if the artist chooses to remain secretive about the amount of lived experience that infused these images, she admits having been marked by a series of works by Botticelli and the distinctive cruelty of the represented scenes. Nastagio degli Onesti (1483) shows a hunting party whose prey is a young woman who ends up being eaten by dogs. The subject of these paintings is a story from Decameron by Boccace, in which the hero, Nastagio, informs the woman he covets and who rejects his advances of the danger she incurs. This chilling story, which warns about the dangers of upset desire, puts in scene protagonists who call to mind the figures of Tamzali in La Course (the dog, the prey, the horse, the horseman and the hunter). The two works depict the power and domination dynamics that structure human relations. Hide and Seek borrows from Botticelli’s work its monumental scale format, as well as the pine forest pattern, thus anchoring the scene on the edges of the Mediterranean.

While Hide and Seek and La Course put to scene beings that are chased by others or looking for themselves, Le Chasseur (2022-2023) and Enfant au Cheval de Bois (2022) embody the hunter universe. Note-worthy is the contrast in background landscapes: a green and abundant flora in the first two works, an obscure undergrowth behind the child with the wooden horse and then a gaunt and arid forest around the hunter. The blue and clear sky in the first ones is replaced by an ocher atmosphere of early day to envelop the deadwood forest, where the protagonist sinks confidently, a rifle resting on his shoulders. What will he find there? Is there a life left to be taken? At the foreground of the painting, and proof that there is still life, the white dog holds in its mouth a dead bird. Enfant au Cheval replays, for its part, the childhood scene of a hunter: at the edge of a forest, a child imitates a horseman on his saddle and plays about with naked feet, with their two dogs. Up close, the child is a young teenager, barely out of childhood, who is learning the perilous game of hunting. Throughout the series, the forest is a safe and worrisome place, sometimes a refuge, other times a battlefield.

Much like the protagonists in her works, Fella Tamzali takes risks, using painting as a means of introspection, and risks
revealing too much. The autobiographical aspect of her approach produces modest and daring paintings, and resorts to jamming
processes. ARCANES resonates with the words of author Assia Djebar (1936-2015), who, in an interview with Algerian Television in 1992, suggests that, for a woman of and Arab-Andalusian culture, the norm, the value, is not to talk about oneself, but to talk in platitudes, adding that one never says “I”, the more intimate it is, the more one has to take detours and suggest the confidence or the personal connection in very alluding metaphors. Should we then consider that the paintings of Tamzali are a body of work which, much like that of an entire lineage of women artists, used parables and metaphors symbolically to talk about themselves?

Let’s linger on the references to nature. Didn’t writer Taos Amrouche title her first autobiographical novel Jacinthe Noire
(Black hyacinth) (1947), attributing the color black to a flower that is usually fair and bluish, expressing her distinct life and her
experience of difference? In a similar manner, and while languishing in the prison cells of Gamal Abdel Nasser, in order to crystallize her hope of freedom, didn’t the painter and feminist activist Inji Aflatoun present in her paintings many representations of the Poinciana Regia (the Flamboyant) tree? Let’s also mention the poignant painting of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo The Wounded Deer (1946) in which she addresses the subject of her infertility and her physical suffering by representing herself in a forest of dead trees. A genealogy of feminine strategies thus emerges, beyond styles and artistic forms, which is already rich with the ancestral patterns used by women weavers, embroiderers, or potters. These strategies, put in place with the intent of opening a space of freedom and movement for the body, the imagination and the intellect, can certainly be considered as subversive and emancipatory practices.

Lastly, the exhibition closes on a series of seven small watercolor drawings on paper which the artist is presenting for the first time. This technique allows her to carry out studies, and to more quickly intercept the stealthy images revealed to her by her subconscious. This series inaugurates a new phase of creation where figures are represented alone, as duos or accompanied by an animal, and where it is no longer a matter of hunting. The artist nevertheless continues to produce exterior scenes when figures are not placed upon abstract backgrounds. In these watercolor drawings, the forest now offers itself as a sanctuary. Of these
evanescent and soothed images, the artist retains two vertical ones, showing young girls playing outside and upon which ARCANES ends.