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Safâa Erruas, The (Un)Bearable Lightness of Being

In/Visible Voices of Women series. Read more about it here
Originally published on Another Africa

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How do we grasp life in all its paradoxes and conciliate opposites, especially when we are perpetually at the crossroads of rational and emotional realities?

Safâa Erruas, <em>Untitled</em>, 2012
Safâa Erruas, Untitled, 2012. Installation with piano strings on wall, 130 cm height Courtesy the artist and Dominique Fiat, Paris

Life is full of both contradictions and synergies. What we perceive as antagonistic is probably only two sides of the same coin… opposites repelling, attracting, and complementing each other, just as magnetic poles do. We need light and darkness, presence and absence, or softness and severity.

Stimulated by the desire to detect the immaterial—the intangible—artist Safâa Erruas reproduces the same motion thousands of times and, in so doing, enters into a resonance with the slow pace induced by the repetition of those natural cycles: birth and destruction. In this gesture, she indirectly questions the insatiable societal impulse to keep going faster and the thinking that time can be controlled and subjected. Conversely, her artworks are filled with waiting, downtime, pauses, and silences.

Safâa Erruas, <em>Les Oreillers</em>, 2005
Safâa Erruas, Les Oreillers, 2005. Pillows and more material on wall. Variable dimensions. Courtesy the artist

Against the tide of the predominating ‘active mind’, Erruas is absolutely attentive to her intuition and to the alchemy that occurs in the creative impulse and process. Thanks to this, she welcomes paradoxes; she opens up a poetic space for us to contemplate life’s intricacies and the (un)bearable lightness of being. Playing with our perceptions, she invites us to abandon our narrow views and to look at life, emotions, death, and even suffering with the heart. While we think we are all so different, don’t we share the same desires and fears in the end? Erruas deeply emphasises our common humanity, our shared experiences, and the universal pain that shapes us.

Clelia Coussonnet | Safâa, admiring your works, I am immediately struck by the light they emit and by their whiteness. What compelled you to work in monochrome? Did you choose white vis-à-vis the absence of colour?

Safâa Erruas | It is the most pervasive element in my work. You are right to distinguish between white and the absence of colour. At the beginning of my artistic practice, I opted for non-colour, as a way to articulate my voice. But, gradually, I became more and more fascinated, in quite a natural and powerful way, with white. Culturally, white has many connotations. In Tetouan, where I live, in the Arab world, and even across the globe, it is linked to purity, as is reflected in newborns’ and brides’ clothing. For us, it is also linked to the sacred—this is what touched me intensely. Whiteness evokes joy and happiness, as well as death and mourning.

Only white allows me to reveal this dimension that is beyond the material. The additional elements that I use, like needles or glass, get their intangible value thanks to the characteristics of white. Over the years, even if I have limited myself to working with only one colour, the possibilities have been infinite. I am learning there are numerous whites and sometimes there are oxymorons: very red whites, a dark white, or a transparent one.

Safâa Erruas, <em>Restos</em>, 2015
Safâa Erruas, Restos, 2015. Shattered glass slides on canvas, 150 x 150 cm Courtesy the artist and L’atelier 21, Casablanca

CC | French pilot and writer Saint Exupéry said, ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye’. Texture in your works are imperceptible from a distance, their luminosity entices the viewer to approach. It is disruptive to the eye, as to the emotions. Shapes, shadows, and folds can only be discerned by moving closer.

SE | One of my last solo exhibitions was entitled Apparent Things. Why? Precisely because what you could see in the artworks and what was actually there were two different things. The viewer is primarily drawn in by the aesthetics of the pieces—depending on their sensitivity, of course. Yet, the encounter becomes compelling for those who want to delve into the details and engage in a second or third level of possible readings to witness what is happening inside. Seen from a distance, these little and translucent items repeated thousands of times have a beautiful and airy feeling. Approaching, suddenly, they are revealed as sharp and enthralling. There is what we see, and what is.

Through my work, I communicate a palpable emotional reality. I believe I trigger the viewer’s emotion first, before appealing to their logic or to their reason to decipher the piece.

Safâa Erruas, <em>Hommage à Ipazia</em>, 2010 (detail)
Safâa Erruas, Hommage à Ipazia, 2010 (detail). Gypsophila, white thread and needles on wall, 280 cm height Courtesy the artist and L’Officine dell’Immagine, Milan

CC | This ‘neutral’ aesthetic allows us to escape reality. You throw your intimate emotions into the work, and each viewer might add their own.

SE | In white, there is also an idea of erasure. We are assailed daily with all kinds of images that we can hardly avoid—be it concrete information we receive or thoughts we automatically mentally generate. So, somehow, I have this desire to create visuals that do not look like what we can see and that do not remind us of anything concrete. I prefer to avoid direct representation but rather to spur a strong emotion. Every component that I employ, through its plastic [modelling] and physical features, conveys a message. Broken pieces of glass say a lot.

CC | Your work process is so meticulous and accurate. It is literally painful given that you place every element—even hazardous ones—by hand or with tweezers, and repeat this thousands of times.

You are absolutely right. I live my creative process intensely and physically under my skin. Physically, my body is like a crossing point between the idea and the realisation.

CC | Your body is the intermediary, a hyphen.

Safâa Erruas, still from <em>Le Sang qui Coule Dans Mes Veines</em>, 2011
Safâa Erruas, still from Le Sang qui Coule Dans Mes Veines, 2011. Video 3’. Courtesy the artist

Often. When one has mastered a technique, it can become easy, by repeating the gesture until it becomes a skill. What is more exciting is when you are unsure. When you embark on a path that you cannot control, there are setbacks along the way, but when you achieve a result that resembles the initial idea and emotion, it is wonderful. Along this route, the act of creation leads to the artwork.
More concretely, glass shards puncture or remain under my skin. I physically live this pain. The risk of hurting myself does not stop me from working with razor blades or syringes.… I do not place an emphasis on this, but it gets transcribed in the work itself.

CC | Reading between the lines, there is a great deal of solemnity in your works, even if you use soft and lightweight materials like cotton or gauze. Can you tell me more about this aspect, and the acute pain that is manifest?

SE | It is present everywhere, latent and invisible. Pain is not always expressed, but we bear its visible and invisible scars. I am also speaking about the scars of History: individual, collective, wars, famines… that have created universal pain.

Safâa Erruas, <em>Inaccessible</em>, 2014 (detail)
Safâa Erruas, Inaccessible, 2014 (detail). Sculpture, wooden bed, needles and mirror under a plexiglas dome, 40 x 40 cm Courtesy the artist and L’atelier 21, Casablanca

This exploration started more precisely with my manipulation of needles while I was studying. At that time, I chose them for their form: linear, metallic, and sharp. I was also very familiar with them, because of my personal experiences. At home during my childhood, my mother sewed, so needles were the most accessible toy…. I pricked paper and embroidered. I have a personal and intimate relationship with this object. In a more conscious way, the needle has also become a kind of symbol related to female intimacy.

CC | Because of its link with embroidery, traditionally a feminine activity?

SE | Yes. When I use needles, I think of what they convey: embellishing a piece of cloth and communicating a story. In the past, women devoted themselves to this task in their homes only, and in a reserved, closed way. Eventually, it was their way of expressing themselves—that is why I mentioned this intimate connection. The needle is also a universal element that evokes links. Thread connects as two fabrics are sewn together to make one single piece. Its sharp tip, and the resulting risk of being pricked, make evident the link to skin. I became deeply interested in the body and the relationship to the body. Not a direct representation of a male or female body, I depict a genderless, physical, human body. Through pain, the body gains its reality. For me, skin is present as a boundary between the body and the world.

Safâa Erruas, <em>Untitled</em>, 2008
Safâa Erruas, Untitled, 2008. Plant thorns and rice paper on canvas, 45 x 38 cm. Courtesy the artist

CC | Confronting and encountering your work does not leave you unscathed. Many extremes coexist together, such as pain and joy, or scars and repair….

SE | Occasionally, my work may seem light and pure. This is the surface, but one should then read the ‘subtle’. I am interested in the notion of seeing beyond all appearances.

CC | All this suffering highlights a wider absence…

SE | Disappearance is a vast theme. When talking about something, the opposite is always its absence. In my practice, as I tackle our emotional and physical pain, I particularly approach the absolute absence that is death. Death is a beautiful theme, and a very philosophical one, because it is an intangible loss. Everything can be reinvented, redesigned, and re-thought based on different values and cultures. Death cannot be. It really is the one and only reality.

Safâa Erruas, <em>Fuente de espinas</em>, 2015 (detail)
Safâa Erruas, Fuente de espinas, 2015 (detail). Installation, wood, mirror and white-painted barbed wire , 400 x 400 cm. Courtesy the

CC | Mourning and death, as well as the sacred and the mystery of existence, appear to be important themes for you. Not to forget that your creative process is akin to a ritual…. Do you weave bridges with spirituality, and with the divine?

SE | I do not invoke the spiritual in a direct way in the artwork itself. This is not a theme in my practice, as it could be for others, but it is undeniably very present. I can consider my artistic practice as a time of meditation. It is a kind of therapy. This is not a job for me.… I repeat the same gesture thousands of times, and it invariably takes a spiritual dimension. I want to live the creative process intimately, as a very deep spiritual experience and not only as a physical one.

CC | I do not know if you are familiar with the concept of resilience or if it has any resonance within your work. It is this strength and ability individuals have to keep on moving forward and to transcend the pain and trials of life, particularly in cases of psychological trauma.

SE | Faced with certain situations, in a reasonable manner, we think it is impossible to endure more. Sometimes, we see unbearable images, and we do not know how these people continue to live. It is intolerable, but then the unbearable becomes bearable. In humans, there is this strength. We do not know where we draw it from.… We have it inside. The scars are there, but we continue to live with them.

© Clelia Coussonnet

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