This Long Journey into Your Gaze. Conversation with Rachid Koraïchi

Nuria Medina

Coordinator of Culture, Casa Árabe

Rachid Koraïchi was born in Ain Beïda, Algeria in 1947 and grew up during the French colonial period, which ended with the War of Independence in 1962. He studied at the National School of Fine Arts in Algiers in 1970 and later, after reaching Paris, at the National School of Decorative Arts and the National School of Fine Arts there. He also graduated from the Institute of Urbanism in Paris. The Arabic semiotics and graphic gestures in his work evoke figurative imagery and messages intended for a universal audience. His ideas take shape in a wide variety of media, including ceramics, textiles, steel sculptures, bronze pieces, alabaster sculptures, and so forth. He has also authored many books in a fluid dialogue with writers and poets from different eras, such as Mahmoud Darwish, Khalil Gibran, René Char, Michel Butor and Sylvie Germain. Koraïchi collaborates with artists and craftsmen from all over the world with extensive experience using traditional and contemporary techniques to create works and installations which promote dialogue amongst both local and global communities. The artist has often set up studios in different countries. His works can be found in many museum collections and at foundations around the world.

Nuria Medina: I would like to start at the very beginning, or, in other words, with your origins and the relationship you have with your ancestors (1). You come from a family, the Koraïchi, which originated in Mecca, and you have devoted a great deal of time to tracing the family’s relationships and connections with certain places and times. Explain to us how all of this is reflected in your work.

Rachid Koraïchi: My family belongs to the Sufi order of the Tidjaniyyah, whose name literally means “those who wear the crown,” referring to the crown of spirituality. It is important to mention, first and foremost, that it is rare in the Arab world to find a real, written genealogy for people. In the West, you have the luck of being able to turn to churches and priests, who have records of all of your births and deaths. This means that an individual can travel quite far back in the history of Europe and find their lineages. In contrast, in our culture it all lies in oral tradition and everything may be subject to change, from the creation of a hagiography to the destruction of someone’s reputation.  In my family, an extraordinary situation arose. A group of my ancestors set off from Mecca in the seventh century to spread Islam, and one of them, known as Adouani, left behind a manuscript, the Kitab al Adouani, that was translated in 1868 by L. Féraud, an interpreter for the French military in Africa. Though a translation written during the colonial era, it has been of great use to me in my personal research. Right when they were supposed to depart from Mecca, the group decided to split into two, and a part of the family would head north in the direction of Basra and Baghdad in Iraq, and Tabriz in Iran.  Six years ago, I had the opportunity to meet two women who came from Dagestan, Raïssa and Irina, and they put me in contact with Zumrud, the Minister of Culture, and the mufti, who belonged to the same tribe and had the same surname as I do. What happened is that, after leaving Mecca, their part of the family built four fortresses along what is now known as the Silk Route. The Republic’s Minister of Culture and the mufti arranged a trip to Dagestan for me. They gave me an amazing welcome, and I was surprised to see that many of them still speak Arabic despite the long years of Soviet repression they had endured. Every night we would visit the mosque alongside thousands of other people. I visited fortresses and learned about the existence of a wonderful collection of manuscripts that had been saved from Stalin’s fury and the Soviet era in general, because the local inhabitants hid them for decades, protecting them from the moisture with clay. After Gorbachov came to power, they all appeared out of their hiding places intact. Today, it constitutes a collection of thirty-five thousand unpublished manuscripts which include treatises on geology, mathematics, spirituality and other topics, currently safeguarded at the National Archives site, as well as in mosques and private collections in the Caucasus.  This discovery, so extraordinary to me, has led me to become highly involved in the restoration and preservation of all this heritage, which tells the tale of Islam’s arrival in that region during the seventh and eighth centuries. I have been granted financing by the Emirates to support the training of local youths on restoration techniques. The main patron is Sheikh Juma al Majeed, a major collector and benefactor who has also supported the restoration of manuscripts in Timbuktu. Some of the technicians from Dagestan have actually been trained in Madrid at Factum Arte, as well as Dubai. We are also carrying out a process to digitize all of the manuscripts, and the project has reached an advanced stage. With Factum Arte’s assistance, we have also created a series of replicas of funerary stelae and mosques doors, as well as a large digitized model of the Kalaa of the Koraïch. They have been presented at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

N. M.: The other branch of your family, the one you descend from directly, came through northern Africa until they reached Algeria. Africa has a major presence in your work, even though part of your education as an artist took place in France. Besides your ancestors, what are the other essential references that influence your work?

R. K.: I come from a country that has endured colonization and its consequences, a phenomenon that has affected nearly the entire continent of Africa. We can infer a parallel process to that which occurred in Dagestan, where the transmission of history and local knowledge, in addition to the teachings of the Qur’an, were passed down from parents to children in a manner you might call clandestine. Yet they managed to hold onto the language and their religion despite the violent repression by Stalin, the KGB, and others. To us, the period of the Algerian War was also an act of resistance. Learning the Qur’an in the Arabic language was an act of resistance. There we would work on tablets coated with clay in the traditional manner, writing on them with ink made using gum Arabic, charred wool and reeds. We would copy a chapter of the Qur’an onto the tablets and then turn them over to recite them to our teacher by heart. Only when the teacher was certain we had learned it properly could we erase the tablet and begin a new chapter. All this work at the Qur’anic school was fundamental for me.

In any case, it is important to point out that I never include texts from the Qur’an in my work as an artist. Instead, most of the texts I write are works by Sufi masters. In my view, this writing forms part of my work as a visual artist and not as a writer. My goal is for my work to be perceived and understood as graphic, plastic pieces, and not as a text to be read. Furthermore, all of the texts are transcribed in reverse and can only be read with the help of a mirror. I have a very interesting anecdote to tell about something that happened to me while I was completing the process to make the series The Invisible Masters with craftsmen in Cairo. One day, the workshop master called me in Paris to tell me there was a problem. Apparently, someone walking through the souk where the workshop was located stopped to observe the craftsmen working there and scolded them for sewing a series of writings onto the fabrics backward, pointing out that writing sacred texts in reverse was the work of the devil. The craftsmen stopped working. When the master of the workshop told me this, I told him to leave things be for a few days until I traveled to Cairo. When I got there, I went to the workshop and suggested to the craftsmen that we go to the Great Mosque of Al-Azhar the following day for Friday pray, and that we did. After praying together, I began to show them the designs on either side of the mihrab. They could clearly see that the names of God –99 names in Islam– and the Prophet Mohammed, were written in the normal fashion and also in reverse, as if being viewed in a mirror. I then made them see that, because we were in such an important place as a mosque, there is no way that this could be haram or the work of the devil. They had never even noticed this before. The very next day, the craftsmen resumed their tasks at the workshop with no further problems.

The mirror is something very important in religious thought, as well. Most people do not realize what a crucial role the mirror plays in human beings’ lives. In one of his texts, the Sufi master Rumi says that the truth is a mirror that came from the heavens and crashed onto Earth, shattering into pieces; each of us takes a piece of the mirror, and then we say we hold the truth, though in actuality we are each just holding a piece of that truth.

Rumi also tells another beautiful story that has to do with this. It is the tale of a king who tries to have children, and so he prays to God. His wife finally bears him a child, and he wishes to hold a celebration to mark the occasion and invite all of his people. Before the celebration, he invites Chinese and Greek artists to decorate a room in his palace. He draws a curtain across the middle of the corridor and assigns a part of the wall to each group, to paint it with frescoes. On the first day, the Greeks begin to paint theirs, using pigments, colors, and so on. The Chinese, however, work only with a stone, polishing the wall. After a week, the king sees that the Greeks have made great progress, whereas the Chinese are still just polishing the wall. He is surprised and concerned about work on the fresco, and when he returns to visit the artists the day before the celebration, he sees that the Chinese are still just smoothing and polishing the wall. The day of the celebration arrives, and when he draws back the curtain separating the two works, it turns out the painting by the Greeks looks even more beautiful when reflected upon the wall polished by the Chinese, because the reflection filters out all of the flaws seen in the original Greek fresco.

The shadow is also something essential to our existence, but we barely pay it heed. We are born with a shadow that grows with us, following the same progression; they say it is the most loyal thing we have, because it is born with us and accompanies us back to the grave. This is also the reason why my works are given a label that can never be removed, marked by my origin.

N. M.: As African art critic Salah H. Hassan has suggested about your work, “calligraphism” (or the use of calligraphic abstraction) has to do with searching for a new visual language on the heels of decolonization, but in relation with Western modernist abstraction, which has left its mark behind on a whole generation of artists in the Arab world and Africa. In fact, many African artists have added graphic elements and symbols from their own languages, which is interpreted as a gesture of resistance against cultural colonization and the imposition of a foreign language. Do you see this analysis as fitting you?

R. K.: To me, my relationship with language is something quite special, because writing is sacred. Any text in Arabic must be respected, because each letter in the alphabet can be used to compose the name of God, the Prophet or the Saints. I see cultural creation as a phenomenon that goes far beyond each artist’s ego. I exist as I am, because many other cultural expressions also have parallel existences in the very same era: painting, poetry, music, and so on. At the same time, when I construct something, I do not do so by destroying what my ancestors created.

In the end, it is Art History that will decide the importance of my work and take stock of what I have done from a broader perspective. This is why one of the books published with a part of my work is titled Eternity is the Absence of Time. It is the idea that everything forms a continuum and that we are connected with everything our ancestors did, just as those who come after us will be connected to everything we have done. And so on, forever.

N. M.: That explains a large part of your work, produced in quite different countries over a time span of many years. I think about sets of work brought together with titles like Path of Roses and The Invisible Masters as if they were forever linked, as if they formed a huge installation in which all of the parts form one single whole in which time holds no essential importance.

R. K.: Indeed. Humankind is a chain.

N. M.: Let’s talk about the symbols and
drawings found in your works. Tell me about their origin. Are they taken from any specific lexicon?

R. K.: They come from a very ancient lexicon, and for several reasons. I was born in Algeria, the country where the largest desert in the world is located, with a border along seven different countries: Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, the Western Sahara and Morocco. The longest border is the one with Mali, stretching along nearly half the country’s edge. Algeria is a continent-like country. To the south of the country, in the regions of Tamanrasset and Djanet, there are thousands of ancient rock etchings and cave paintings. The people who lived there were herders who moved with their livestock. When they became nomads, they would settle for certain periods of time and live inside the area’s caves. They composed their palettes of colors with limestone and local minerals and left behind mankind’s first traces of art and earliest walls with communication.

Amongst all their figures, the hand is a very symbolic part of the body, because we use it to touch, eat, strike, caress, and so forth. Our forebears placed the wall in their hands and, blowing pigments with their mouths full of air, created the earliest stencils in History. They also drew amazing giraffes and made other drawings to great perfection. We are talking about a time 50,000 years before Christ. However, it is even more awe-inspiring to think that people were creating and drawing in nearly the same way inside many other caves elsewhere. This art from pre-History came about almost simultaneously all over the planet. It is a legacy that has lived on for millennia, and it now belongs to humanity as a whole. It is interesting to reflect upon this from our vantage point today, because those art works were completely disconnected from the concepts of money or the art market.

When I am asked how to situate my artistic creations, I respond that this should be based on their signs, lines and brushstrokes. My culture is that of writing, a millenary art. In North Africa, for example, the use of tattoos is an age-old tradition. You can determine what tribe each person comes from by their tattoos. The problem is that cultural colonization does away with everything by producing homogenization. Colonization and globalization have standardized everything.

I recently worked on a project with students in northern France to create an alphabet together. I showed them how languages were created, and I spoke to them about the Rosetta Stone, which made it possible to decipher the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, and the Enigma machine, which allowed England to decode the messages encrypted by the Germans in World War II. It was fascinating to create a new alphabet with them.

I cannot explain all of my work as a whole, or its lexicon or codes, in a short summary, though I recently did perform an exercise of this sort. This happened in Limoges, France, where I made a large-sized tapestry for the city library. I explained the meaning of all the symbols I had used to the people at the library so that they could pass that information on to visitors, especially children. That tapestry was made with the idea of creating another containing new symbols that could speak to everyone.

N. M.: All of your work is the result of intensive artisanal craft production, which has led you to work with craftsmen from Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria and other places. In this very book, and other published in the past, the illustration of your working processes with their workshops has been an important feature. Tell us about your relationship with these craftsmen.

R. K.: The French word “artisan” contains the word “art,” which already says a great deal. The Sistine Chapel and Notre-Dame in Paris were built by artisans. Michelangelo worked with a fair number of artisan craftsmen assistants who were also artists.

In Islamic culture, statues are not often made due to the problem of figurative representation, so people had to come up with a different way to represent things.

I always strive to identify the best at their work in every field, highly qualified individuals with decades of experience in their trade. And many of the pieces I have made in my life have required over a year’s work by craftsmen, as was the case with The Invisible Masters, or the twenty-eight pieces of fabric which I am currently working on in Cairo for Le Chant de l’ardent désir [The Song of Ardent Desire], which will take three years to be completed. It is important to respect this specific process and these time spans, because what these master craftsmen made comes from the legacy of an age-old technique stretching back to the time of the pharaohs, when priests overlapped threading made with different types of cotton harvested on the banks of the Nile to accompany the pharaoh’s body in the afterlife.

When working with these master craftsmen, we have decided to do so with total perfectionism, taking all the time necessary, avoiding haste, so that the final outcome is of the highest possible quality. It also seems very important to me that the craftsmen’s techniques directly link us together with our ancestors.

N. M.: Where did the title of the exhibition arise: “This Long Journey into Your Gaze”?

R. K.: I was in Saint-Germain-des-Près having a coffee, and I thought that there is not one overall installation in this exhibition, but instead different series which were conceived several years apart. In other words, their production required a great deal of time before turning into what they have now become. It was a long journey to reach the gaze of the person who will be looking at my work in Madrid and Córdoba. It also feels like a very poetic title to me, like the title of a song, and the ambience I want to surround me during the times when I am producing my pieces.

N. M.: Sufi masters such as Ibn Arabi, Rumi and ‘Attar are instilled throughout your work, writings and thought. They are very important to understand a large portion of your body of work as a whole. What are the most universal ideas you have found in them?

R. K.: As soon as we become believers, we are all children of the same God. During the colonial era, I was expelled from my secondary school in Constantine because my father was a member of the resistance. My mother managed to get me registered in the St. Augustine Secondary School. Six months later, I was forced to attend catechism. Me, the son of a great religious Muslim family! Well, I must say I ended up quite happy there. I became great friends with the priest, and the day he asked me why I agreed to take those courses even though I was Muslim, as well as a descendant of the Prophet, I answered: “It is the Christians who welcomed in my ancestors. I am a sort of descendant of St. Monica, St. Cyprian and St. Augustine, saints of Algerian origin. In other words, they were from the same country as I, and that makes me happy.”

When I arrived in Atocha Station, in Madrid, I immediately thought about the attack which took place in 2004 and was deeply displeased by the fact that the people who came here to perpetrate such an attack would do so in the name of Islam. To me, of course, they are not even Muslims; the fact that they were born into a Muslim family does not ensure that they learned about true Islam or the Qur’an, or about proper respect for human life. I have lived terrorism up-close. For ten years, Algeria endured horrific violence, not resulting from a civil war, as people usually say, but instead because of pure terrorism, causing over 250,000 deaths. Much of my work is a form of combat. I wrote seven books to pay homage to the monks in Tibhirine, and in return John Paul II had a letter delivered to me with his blessing two months before his death. And I worked closely with Mohamed Dib, with whom I produced a book in Arabic in the form of a rifle case. The text he wrote, L’Enfant-jazz, tells the story of a boy who opens the gate to a garden overlooking the war. You must remember that jazz is the music made by the poorest African-Americans in the United States. Today it is presented as an intellectual form of music, but in the beginning they were songs of despair.

Getting back to the philosophy of the Sufi masters, the work I did on the series The Invisible Masters is related with their ideas of tolerance and respect. Rumi and Ibn Arabi thought deeply about building an infinite love of everyone for everyone. And I feel it is very important to remember that philosophy today. Those Sufi masters are no longer here with us, but their spirit lives on between us.


1.- This interview was published in the catalogue of the exhibition organized in Madrid and Córdoba headquarters of Casa Árabe in 2019 Este largo viaje hasta tu mirada, Madrid, Ediciones simétricas, 2019, ISBN: 978-84-17905-02-6. 176 This Long Journey into Your Gaze. Conversation with Rachid Koraïchi Nuria Medina