Djamel Tatah

Galerie Liliane & Michel Durand-Dessert

Just inside the entrance, to the right, hung a very tall canvas. Its brick-colored ground was not smooth, but rather traversed by various traces: The brush marks revealed underlying layers of other colors, and the space thus created was at once tactile and vibrant, thanks to the way the matte mixture of oil and wax used by Djamel Tatah absorbs and diffuses the light that hits its surface. Cut off by the right edge of the canvas, a woman stands on the threshold. Just like her, the visitor entered the exhibition as if breaking in: transfixed for a moment, as if cautious to approach these half-length or full-length portraits of relatively young men and women, alone or in groups—dark masses against intensely colored grounds (red, green, blue, or orange), their pale faces and hands surging up, seemingly gripped by some obsession. But soon enough one was seized by these vast, apparently empty fields of color, by these life-size figures placed at human height, compelled to take part in a face-to-face confrontation that would brook no evasion; the looks given or refused by these paintings are challenges, and the outlines of gestures invite one to open a dialogue that soon undoes the seeming solitude of the figures.

Within each untitled work, from one work to the next, and between the works and their viewer, relationships are woven—but only beneath the surface, because no explicit narrative is conveyed and because the enigma of these presences remains irreducible: figures at once unknown and made familiar by their recurrence from one painting to the next and by their very anonymity. Tatah's recent works multiply these effects of repetition. The impression of strangeness is underlined by the coexistence in the same space of a figure and its doubles, such as this man standing on a ground strewn with his own curled-up bodies, or this woman shown four times from four different angles, constituting a sort of visitation to herself. The fascination of these paintings is reinforced by these nightmarish, hallucinatory visions.

While figures painted this way call to mind many situations, they are completely decontextualized, uprooted. Exiled from themselves and absent from their neighbors, disconnected from their immediate environment, they are still essentially present, introducing a crack, a pause in the homogeneity of the space. Migrant bodies—because they derive from photographs of models whose silhouettes have been transferred to canvas, with color reintroduced when they are painted—they are fixed at a point in space whose capacity to integrate them, either visually or politically, is radically questioned.

Guitemie Maldonado

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman