Wahib Chehata on Mythology, Renaissance, Baroque & Photography
On my way from Paris to Casablanca, I checked to see what art shows were happening around. I found one that looked interesting: an original exhibition of work by the up and coming master Wahib Chehata at the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern Art in Rabat. It was just ending and I realized that I wouldn't make it - what a disappointment!
After a bit more research, I discovered that the A2Z Art Gallery in Paris would be showing Wahib's work when I'd be there. I had to see it and meet the artist.
We arranged to meet on Wednesday afternoon at Wahib's studio, right where the pulse of it is these days. When I arrived at his place, I found one of those Parisian courtyards filled with a mysterious spirit. I love them! The motorcycles were a good sign telling me: "Wild hearts live here! Welcome."
As I entered the studio, I saw white drape flowing down from the ceiling and covering the floor. There was also a tripod, lights and a crazy paint-splashed couch facing me from the far corner. A work table was silently hiding behind it all. This view told me right away: "There's serious work being done here. Respect and silence please."
The side walls were covered with the printed photographs, which seemed like either part of a work-in-progress or a simple reminder to himself of his own work. Some of these photos were slightly floating, as if it wasn't necessary for them to be perfectly glued to the wall.
A Renaissance style mirror - elegant and refined - hung in between it all. Its presence made such a strong statement: it was keeping everything in tact while preventing the whole area from being too sugary.
A variety of books were sitting on the radiator and the stairs, loosely organized. I am sure that Wahib had read, or at least carefully investigated, all of them.
I eagerly took in everything I saw. Wahib and I sat down on the black leather couch at the end of the studio and started chatting.
Wahib was born in Sousse, Tunisia, but he grew up in France. He told me it took him awhile to find his positioning and style as an artist, and he said that came after embracing his French education and his African roots (not so Tunisia in particular, as Wahid says) under the same identity. I could relate to Wahib's struggle to unite everything into one. For us, the mis-rooted ones, it often takes awhile to create a new center from our multi-layered backgrounds and diverse experiences.
Wahib told me that his creative explorations are based on three fascinations. The first is mythology. He was always curious about how myths were created, transcribed, shared and passed on. The second is paintings from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, especially the those done in the clair obscur technique (also called chiroscuro, meaning strong tonal contrasts between light and dark to create 3-D form; often the effect is quite dramatic). The third is three sacred books - the Old Testament, New Testament and the Quran.
Wahib's first attempt to blend all three of these interests together happened in Bamako, Mali, when he was visiting friends. He came up with the idea to orchestrate scenes from sacred texts using local people from Mali. By using the clair obscur technique, Wahib gave another dimension to African identity. He said he wanted to "invert" Orientalism. Here are some of the works from this series, called "Renaissance":
Bold and sharp accent colors, piercing emotions and unusual faces makes the viewer stop and forget time. The whole effect is almost paralyzing, as if we were put on hold.
That was exactly Wahib's intention: instead of a photograph creating immediate excitement (what most of today's photography does), he wanted each photograph to stop time, just like a successful painting can do.
This "Renaissance" series was supported by the Montresoo Art Foundation in Morocco, and the pieces were recently exhibited at Mohammed VI Museum of Modern Art in Rabat and the A2Z Art Gallery in Paris. It was a well-deserved great success.
Wahib has another series called "Black & Light." He decided he wanted to photograph interesting looking people while also referencing Flemish painting style. Wahib posted an announcement on Facebook and had almost 1500 applicants. The result is a book of more than 1300 photographs: modern authentic faces, traditional technique, sharp and tasteful elements - exactly what define Wahib's style.
Here are some of those photos:
Here is what Wahib says himself about this series (sorry, it is in French):
While sipping water from crystal glasses, Wahib and I talked about people's faces and how much they tell about a person's life. I admitted that observing people and imaging how they live is one of my favorite things to do. Unfortunately, this way of passing time has gotten me into trouble a few times when those being observed noticed my deep gaze and seemed uncomfortable.
When looking at Wahib's portraits, you can have an equally intense experience with the subject's inner world, as if that person was right in front of you. I relished being able to take the time to observe these people through Wahib's photographs, without any danger of getting into trouble. It was bliss.
I'd like to share one more series by Wahib. This one, called "Resilience," is a sharp and intimidating twist on nature morte (translated: still life) done the in the clair obscure style. These photos are intense... they made me speechless. How about you?
I would describe Wahib's work as intense, sharp and elegant, yet heartfelt. Deep, philosophical and mysterious. Daring and bold. Just like the man himself.
I hope you enjoyed this séjour at Wahib's studio and discovering his unique work as much as I did. Arrivederci!