Houda Ghorbel and Wadi Mhiri: Witnessing the Present
Houda Ghorbel and Wadi Mhiri are working as an artistic tandem of different backgrounds encompassing professional practice in fine art, design, architecture and community work. They are dedicated to sociocultural and political, religious and philosophical issues. Collective memory and identity, societal coherence and civic engagement, democratic culture and freedom of expression are reoccurring subjects of their artistic research and articulation. They engage themselves in civic society and employ their artistic practice to address critical issues. With their recent intervention “Circle Vicieux” at the “Porte Espagnole” at the La Goulette harbor close to Tunis, they created a strong symbol for all the refugees that lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. To develop iconic imagery, is one of their fortes.
Their works profit from their profound knowledge of traditional crafts for example like weaving, tailoring and pottery. In 2016, they developed an exhibition program titled “Ward et Cartouches” (en: “Roses and Bullets”) compiling a series of works with mixed materials with a distinct focus on ceramics. “With our imagery we address our themes, with the choice of materials we link it to long-standing traditions of craftmanship in our culture.” “Ward et Cartouches” include works like “Pensées Canalisées”, a pipe system that lead to a series of distorted faces. Another one is “Les Cinq Moments de la Journée” referring to the five prayer times a day in the Islamic culture. It is an installation of five identical objects made of ceramics and covered with a shiny white glaze. Their shape is a mix of a missile or a bullet and a penis. They are directed towards the viewer from above eyelevel with a threating impetus. “We want to speak up against the false missionaries, those turn our prayers into useless acts like we do it as well with “Allongez-Vous”. That is an installation where the viewer has to lie down on a white bed to find him/herself under a multitude of hanging bullets in clusters forming the word “Jihad al-Nikah”. “Jihad al-Nikah” (en: “Sex Jihad”) addresses the ongoing practice that Tunisian women travel to Syria to have extramarital sexual relations with multiple partners to comfort Jihadist fighters. “We are living in a very demanding time and we care about the world. In a way, our works are like testimonials. We want to give an image to what shapes the face of our times.”
For the Segou Art Biennial 2016, they developed a large-scale work called “Contenants pour un Continent” made of 600 calabashes painted white, mounted in the shape of the African continent and set to swim ín a river: “Our floating installation is composed of white painted calabashes linked by iron wire. … The calabash is a dried fruit. It is an integral part of several African civilizations and it is used as a multifunctional tool, it serves as a plate or a container, as a watering and as a musical instrument – just to name some. Transmitted from a generation to another, used, repaired, the calabash is a sacred companion for Africans. … Africa formed by calabashes is thought to be a symbol for unity and belonging, a call for love and peace against all the actual scourges gnawing on the African continent, such as the terrorism and civil wars. For us, these calabashes represent the dream of a unified Africa, without any border, enriched by its civilizations and cultural mixture. It is given to the flow of the river as an invocation of the sky for a better tomorrow.”
In 2014, they realized their first mutual work using uv-light. “We discovered light as a material that creates focus. In the interplay with white surfaces, these start to glow, and all the other interior of the space fades. We experimented with various materials, worked on shapes and forms. At one point we started to work with dark bluish space as a sculpturing material. We have drawn on walls and we built with white threads across the space … exploring the grammar of light and reflection, color and space. Light makes a space a glowing volume and the reflection of glowing white is a strong impulse to the human eye. We like the minimalism of the material, the minimal invasiveness of the uv-light, the low energy consumption and the extremely interesting esthetical output.” In the recent years, they have become one of the outstanding positions of the reflected use of light in artistic articulation on the African continent.
In their light-based works, they work with a unique mix of figurative and abstract aspects to create symbolic values and metaphorical imagery. “So many things that happen in our world confront us with a demanding complexity of intertwined developments and constant dynamics. When we work with light, we create paintings with a spatial and a temporal dimension. They are like three- or four-dimensional metaphors that express our attitude and offer an esthetical experience to our visitors. We are hoping to spark an echo in their hearts and minds.”
The mutual works of Houda Ghorbel and Wadi Mhiri include objects, mixed-media installations and context-specific interventions. Since 2012, they work regularly as a team, as a couple, they have been living together for the past 23 years. Houda Ghorbel studied Fine Arts, holds a Ph.D. in Sciences and Artistic Techniques and teaches at the Tunis Art Academy. Since 2004, Wadi Mhiri ’s focus is on photography, earlier he studied Fashion Design in Paris. Both exhibit regularly throughout the Mediterranean and the African Continent. They engage in cooperative and educative environments like the ART MATTERS Collective, an international group of artists and curators that develops new opportunities for context-related art projects in Africa and Europe.[Citations by Houda Ghorbel and Wadi Mhiri. Summary of interview on October 3, 2017 by Bettina Pelz]