Nicène Kossentini, Sign(s) of the Time(s)
Originally published on Another Africa
What is left when our landmarks and our memories disappear? Moreover, in an ever-changing world, whose metamorphic pace is verging towards the frenetic, how is our ability to think and dream being influenced?
Reflecting on our identity, and asking Who am I? escapes none of us. It means being situated in relation to our collective pasts, and that is made up by a myriad of histories: national, familial, genealogical, and personal.
Those narratives may cross, influence or a contrario confront each other. Not exclusively tied to a territory or a culture, identity is moving and flexible. As memory, it changes over time and feeds on an imaginary linked to the perception of events now rather than to the way they were lived then. Histories, identities and memories are steeped in continuities and ruptures.
With delicacy, Nicène Kossentini’s artistic practice reflects this existential quest to know how to continuously position oneself in the present through the past. Implicitly, her artworks are marked with signs whispering of the passing of time and its impact on memory, transmission and society. She tries to capture and make visible the imperceptible and transient instant when things have already disappeared.
In Tunisia, her place of birth and residence, the French colonial presence left both intangible and tangible violent traces that decades later, still permeate society. Importing Western ‘modern’ practices, colonisation denied local knowledge systems, traditions and customs, displacing and rendering them outdated. This usurpation induced many syncretisms as it did profound tensions. Its schism also leaked into Tunisia’s art scene where contemporary art remains largely unrecognised and misunderstood.
Though her artistic life and voice first took form through photography, Kossentini is an adamant experimentalist; she remains acutely committed to finding the most meaningful ways to articulate pressing questions, and does so by operating through various media: video, photography or even sculpture and sound.
Kossentini’s practice is deeply informed by the local. In particular by orality, more specifically the intimate and inter-generational tradition of tale-sharing by women within the home, and draws from language and the deep libraries of Arabic and Islamic poetry, literature and philosophy. She feels the necessity to reinvent her artistic universe, and in so doing reinvent herself. Through her work Kossentini invites participants to enter into contemplative spaces; she elicits our concentration and capacity in order to really open up our seeing.
Clelia Coussonnet | As a video artist and founder of the first Experimental Cinema programme at the Higher Institute of Multimedia Arts of Manouba (ISAMM), how has your interest for the ‘image’ evolved in your practice?
Nicène Kossentini | I began with photography even if very quickly it took me to video art; I wanted to experiment with the moving image. My practice constantly oscillates between these two media: in my videos, I can use static shots like in ‘La Disparition’ and ‘Myopia’ or I can animate an old photograph as in ‘Revenir’.
Currently, I am trying to call into question the image, and its meaning in my practice through new artistic forms that I find more intriguing and attracting. This repositioning occurred at a time when there was an explosion of the ‘visual’ in our daily lives. Faced with this invasion, nothing spoke to me. I still am not able to cross the opaque threshold of images. Lately, my interest in sound has also grown strong; it is enigmatic and impalpable, therefore invisible.
CC | This exploration appears to manifest in your work ‘Spawn & Wrack’ where you broadcast the recorded testimonies of several Algiers inhabitants.
NK | It is a video installation primarily based on sound, and in it the recordings manifest orally and are transcribed in the video as scrolling text. The voices invariably have a strong presence, yet any associated images have disappeared. This installation was realised in Algiers during an artist residency. I collected the stories of six Algerians. In these accounts, I recovered an emotion that I associate with photography’s attempts to capture a transient moment.
CC | I feel a strong emotional charge in your work. There is a delicacy that emerges, as we are pulled towards an intimate contemplation. Reading the literal sense in your photographs is futile – with texts often without beginnings or ends … The use of tashkils [tonic accents in Arabic language] roots your practice in musicality.
NK | This emotion I spoke about and that you point out exists in the exact same way both in language and in sound. Words have always been present in my work – even in photographic series such as ‘Boujmal’, for example. Sometimes I am more challenged by the absence of language. ‘Shakl’ is an invisible, silent text where I kept the accents. The movement persists despite the missing letters.
As a Tunisian artist, I live in a cultural context where representation through images is not deeply entrenched in society. We grow up with the invisible figure of the abstract reproductions of Islamic art. I acquired my artistic sensibility through poetry and literature. Even during my studies at the Sorbonne (Paris), I was immersed in Arabic poetry rather than in specific references to contemporary art or imagery.
CC | You often revisit traditional techniques. Such as painting under glass, and mirror engraving in ‘Extinction within Contemplation’ for instance, and geometric patterns from ceramic in ‘Heaven or Hell’. Are you paying tribute to Tunisian arts and crafts?
NK | I am interested in memory and heritage. My contemporary creations depart from ancient techniques that simultaneously inscribe links to the present, and to a distant past which is disappearing. In my works, I am not bringing back to life what no longer is. I try to express what is disappearing, becoming absent. I evidence this evanescence.
CC | You grasp the movement of loss more than documenting it . . .
NK | Documentation does not attract me; I probe loss and the emotions associated with it. I feel a vast sense of frustration caused by this confrontation of ‘the present’, which is the legacy that built me and one that I am losing without really knowing why, or how. We are subject to high-speed changes, and are struggling to catch up. Powerless as we are, we record this distortion … It is a global phenomenon and everyone experiences it in his own way.
Pace and movement are at the core of my existential quest – far more than memory – as they are signs of time. What is disappearing does so in duration, and it spans into the present. This movement of time is what I seek to epitomise and capture through the image or sound.
CC | For some thinkers, when the past becomes an excessive reference, the future is difficult to envisage. And others want to unearth neglected memories and rewrite a fairest History. Do you see any tensions between memory and oblivion?
NK | I believe that humanity now lives in discomfort and disquiet. What sets us apart is our ability to deal with these major changes. There are those who do not resist, falling back on themselves trying to return to a past that they can identify with. There are those who examine the present, learn to live in it and strain to reinvent our time.
As an artist, I am distressed by understanding how I can reconstruct the landmarks I am losing if I am cut off from my past. The past is a pointer but it only makes sense for the present in which I live. I study the past to have a clear vision of the future.
CC | You offer a genuine poetry of seizing the moment, the ephemeral that vanishes. The questioning of temporality binds your quest to that of the space where this transience manifests.
NK | My problem with the image today is this: I want to dig precisely into this space that I do not see – what sneaks between things. We are between the real and the imaginary.
CC | The border is fine.
NK | I love being in this in-between, between earth and sky. I love all that floats outside the literal.
In 2014, I made a sculpture of a white butterfly, ‘Untitled (Butterfly)’, the human-scale piece sat crouched near the ground. I had wanted to show an invisible and fleeting being summarising the fragility of our ephemeral lives. So the sculpture appears to be both living and dead, between reviving and disappearing: there is an ambiguity in it that evokes this ‘in-between-two-worlds’.
CC | In contrast to darkness, you work a lot with transparency and light. I would also like you to dig into the sky motif – common to your photographic series ‘I Saw the Sky’, ‘Envol’ or ‘The City in the Sky’.
NK | It is not a universe I designed consciously. This is the transparency, and the in-between that we spoke of earlier where I am able to examine my surroundings. I want to overcome obstacles that prevent us from seeing differently. I do not escape from reality beyond that border. On the contrary, I disclose it is hard to distinguish the ‘truth’ of a situation when you are near. We are able to understand better with distance, because the more our minds are open the further we see. It is dangerous and grave when we lose the ability to reason.
CC | To perceive what is beyond the visible, you have turned to the ordinary – almost anonymous – voices of six Algerians. Did those stories resonate personally, in light of your familial history, and Constantine lineage?
NK | In Algiers, my residency was a challenge. The city and its walls seemed insurmountable, and I was not able to interpret it through images. So I decided to tackle this difficulty by going in search of intimate stories; by creating complicity with these people, they opened this door to hidden spaces.
My ancestors migrated to Tunisia three centuries ago. Although we have lost all traces of this origin in my family, my grandfather proudly used to say we were Algerians. I was deeply marked and I probably tried to find these links during my residency. For that reason I chose to meet ordinary voices. I identified with all those lives. These accounts are fragments of History. We are all connected as individuals. What was said between sentences struck me most: from small insignificant words emerged the entire meaning.
CC | It is touching that you mention our common humanity, and these magical interstices where the meaning of our existence appears.
NK | Yes, these are not narratives related to current or immediate political events. The meaning of human existence itself shines in these sounds: giggles, accents particular to a city or a village, sighs . . . The History of Algeria can be read in books. I wanted to escape these historical, political facts, which are undoubtedly moving. The real History for me is in these gaps.
CC | Speaking of those little stories that make the great one, are you interested in the concept of transmission? Be it of fictional accounts, like those of your grandfather, or testimonies about the way history is passed through individuals.
NK | What is crucial in transmission is the question of landmarks. In the Tunisian context, historical events specific to its colonisation led to the birth of a dual culture: on the one hand a local culture considered ‘traditional’, and on the other hand a ‘modern’ culture said to be Western. Consequently, the references have shifted, have split, and this has created a mental confusion. I believe that today, at both a national and regional level, there is this problem of disorientation.
My paternal grandmother was a storyteller; she had learned everything from her own mother. In ‘Stories’ I had the idea to film her reciting tales at the end of her life. She was losing her memory, remembering only fragments. After my grandmother there were no more transmissions. That chain was broken. The world is changing, in its temporal dimension as well. Faced with an ever-increasing speed we do not have time to tell stories, nor to listen to them.
CC | The border between intimate/public space is also shattering, given the impact of new technologies and the circulation of ‘information’.
NK | The relationship between us has changed with the development of the Internet and social networks. I do not speak solely about our intimate relationships with our families or ourselves, but also about our relationship with the world. The passage of time, in the present moment, has changed. My great frustration with respect to current developments is that they prevent us from pausing for a moment to contemplate, imagine, and dream. Robot-like, we access quickly and gorge on images and therefore ideas. In reality, we are simply becoming desensitised, and losing our ability to discern, to ‘taste’.
© Clelia Coussonnet
 Photographic series: ‘Boujmal’, ‘What the Water Gave Me’
 Artworks: ‘Shakl’, ‘Rasaîl I’ and ‘Rasaîl II’