Personal and National Histories: Interview with Nicѐne Kossentini

Boujmal, 2011. Photography, Silver print. © Nicѐne Kossentini

Boujmal, 2011. Photography, Silver print.
© Nicѐne Kossentini


Tunisian artist Nicѐne Kossentini’s work centres on her interest in memory and personal and collective histories. Primarily working with photography and video, the artist examines her origins through the lens of her culture and using images of women from her family. Kossentini creates a collective narrative of female identity in Tunisia that is intricately tied to the landscape and the culture of the country. Images of her ancestors merge with verses of poetry and traditional geometric Tunisian patterns weave and twist in her videos- Kossentini thus blends the past the present of Tunisian culture.

Her work has been exhibited internationally including in Bahrain, Brazil, Germany, France, the UK, Switzerland and Russia and she recently featured at Artissima art fair in Turin.

I spoke to her about her work:

Your use of layering, such as in,”Fatouma”, Silver print, 90 x 90 cm, 2011, is suggestive of memory and time, could you explain more about this method and the meaning behind it?

In ‘Fatouma’ from the Boujmal series there are three elements: the place, the poem and the portrait. The place, Boujmal, is a dirty, dried-up pool situated on the outskirts of the town of Sfax, where I was born. This little pool outside the town buried amongst olive groves is a lost, unknown place, except to certain farmers. This pool evokes the desert of Arab poets to me. Its reflective salt surface mirrors, echoes the disappearing language.
To compose this landscape with a line from a verse of Arab poetry superimposed across the line of the horizon and by a portrait of a relative which I took from the family album (Fatouma is a greataunt) could be considered as an act of reconstitution of a lost memory.
By composing this landscape with several layers of images, I was inspired by the way in which artists from the Land Art movement intervene in space. The pool for me is a surface where I can install and inscribe my elements, but the intervention is not real, it is made in the image.

Boujmal, 2011. Photography, Silver print. © Nicѐne Kossentini

Boujmal, 2011. Photography, Silver print.
© Nicѐne Kossentini

Your work revolves around video pieces and photography, what attracts you to these media and how are they suited to your themes and ideas?

My ideas and my questions lead directly to these two mediums and not the other way round. When I began to take my first photos, I began to think about time and to become aware of notions of loss and disappearance. These questions preoccupied me even more when I began to make films. The image recorded, be it fixed or in movement, is the representation of the fluid and invisible passage of time. I believe that all my works revolve around this question, and I draw largely upon this question of time in my photography and video work.

Your exhibition Boujmal was made up of a series of photographic portraits of your mother, grandmother and great grandmothers set against a salt lake in Sfax. Could you describe the thought process behind this highly sensitive and evocative work?

These portraits are extracts from old photographs of my family dating from the 50s and 60s. It’s a family album which my mother received just before my birth and is composed essentially of photos of women. I think what interested me in these portraits was that they were taken in an era which just preceded my birth. It’s an era which I missed out on knowing, but which makes up a part of me. Against loss, there is a transmission. Across the genealogy, memory is transmitted and safeguarded, but the memory is frozen, it seems unchangeable, but in the unravelling of time, it changes, like the changing of the landscape or the surface of the pond.

The City in The Sky (IV)  © Nicѐne Kossentini

The City in The Sky (IV)
© Nicѐne Kossentini

Your aesthetic has been described as ephemeral, would you agree with that?

The notion of ephemerality is tied to the notion of time which I always question in my work. It is this that I try to express, it is this invisible instant which passes. And I believe that we cannot represent time because it escapes us. We can only interpret it.

What role does light play in your work?

Light is an essential way to visualise time. I do not question light directly, I question time by way of light. It’s for this reason that this element is indispensable to my work.

How have your experiences in Europe compared to your life in Tunisia and how has this affected you artistically?

My stay of six years in France and my constant travels in Europe have allowed me to always see things from a distance when it comes to the perception of things in my country. Being at a physical distance allows you to see things better because when we stay closely connected to something, our vision is confused and paralysed. I believe that the experience of travel is important for every artist.
And so it was during my first stay in France that I began my artistic practice, but this practice reached fruition in Tunisia by way of constant trips back and forth between the two countries.

Boujmal, 2011. Photography, Silver print. © Nicѐne Kossentini

Boujmal, 2011. Photography, Silver print.
© Nicѐne Kossentini

In ‘Heaven or Hell’ you use what appears to be a traditional Tunisian design. How has the art of Tunisia inspired you?

In Heaven or Hell, I used the geometric motif of a ceramic. This motif is very visible in the ceramics which decorate the walls of the ancient architecture in Tunisia. In the video animation, this geometric motif is in rotation, and in its movement it decomposes and takes on a new form and a new order. Reprising and revisiting these forms often used in the context of traditional art is important for me as in my opinion one must insert contemporary art in Tunisia within the continuous history of art in the country.

Still from 'Heaven or Hell' 2011, video, 4'39 © Nicѐne Kossentini

Still from ‘Heaven or Hell’
2011, video, 4’39
© Nicѐne Kossentini

What are your plans for the future?

I will begin an artistic residence in Cordoba in Spain this year in order to make a film. I will probably dedicate a few years of work to this project in the future.

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