Critics’ Picks

Atef Maatallah, Pugilats, 2018, lead pencil on paper, 39 x 47 1/2".

Atef Maatallah, Pugilats, 2018, lead pencil on paper, 39 x 47 1/2".


Atef Maatallah

Elmarsa | Dubai
Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz 1 Unit 23
November 18, 2019–January 10, 2020

Atef Maatallah chases ruins. Although his photorealist pencil-on-paper drawings take us to the Roman archaeological site of Thuburbo Majus in Tunisia, theirs is a more detached ruin lust. It’s not the crumpled architecture Maatallah is after, but what happens inside of what remains. In Les Linges de Junon (all works cited, 2018), a wrinkled plastic bag slaps against a stone archway as two dresses are strung to a Corinthian column—hung out to dry—swelling in the breeze. In Pugilats, a plastic water bottle rolls onto a mosaic of two ancient Greek boxers, joined by a squeezed plastic cup. In Le Défilé des empereurs, a pair of goats sniff at the feet of three headless, handless statues draped in the smooth folds of silky cut stone.

Maatallah is not nostalgic; the scenes he draws are tinged—polluted—with the contemporary. Neither are the ruins very grand. They are made atmospheric, almost domestic: a site where lives are still lived. Sajeda portrays a half-unrolled prayer mat at the foot of what might be an entrance. The most intact remains are the smooth, flat, Greek mosaics, which Maatallah has intricately reimagined in monochrome, matte tesserae. In the show, an occasional mosaic made in collaboration with local artisans Rached Belabed and Said Chaieb is hung next to a smaller drawing in which a single element is abstracted from the larger scene: a beer can, a pack of cigarettes, a quartet of glass marbles. Thuburbo Majus is special to Maatallah; it is the place where he grew up, roaming the stone and marble debris. He is its most benevolent archaeologist, looking not for history but situating himself as part of it, welcoming himself into the slowness of its deep time.