LONDON: Moroccan artist Nabil El-Makhloufi has a particular talent for conveying mixed emotions in his work. Take his images of crowd scenes, which can seem both harmonious and dissonant. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on, or whether it’s good, bad, or somewhere in between.
This sense of ambivalence is deliberate, admits El-Makhloufi, but not contrived.
“I am faced with the same puzzle as the spectator,” he says. “Enigmatic or threatening situations that attract curiosity and disturbing feelings are an important part of my work. “
Perhaps this ability to stand out and observe the dynamics and non-verbal interactions of groups is more acute in El-Makhloufi because he has lived much of his life as a foreigner in his homeland. adoption, Germany. This experience, he said, gave him the opportunity to contemplate and contrast his “Arabness” with German culture.
“I like the open-mindedness of people in Germany. You can speak directly and talk about anything, ”he told Arab News. “It’s a big difference from Arab culture, which has a lot of taboos. I have unconditional love for Morocco, but Germany has opened my eyes.
“The advantage of living here is that it gives me a distance to think about all these questions about my Arab identity,” he continues. “So for me to some extent it’s important not to be integrated or else that feeling is lost.” He smiles, suggesting he is joking.
El-Makhloufi moved to Leipzig after visiting the ancient East German city on a trip to Europe in his early twenties. He was immediately drawn to the city’s rich cultural scene. When he visited his visual arts school, he loved the hustle and bustle of the place and “the smell of paint”. It is here that he will continue his artistic education, based on the diploma he obtained at the School of Fine Arts in Rabat.
His decision to study in Leipzig was also based on a desire to forge his own path. The close ties between Morocco and France meant that many Moroccan artists traveled to Paris to study. Germany, according to El-Makhloufi, would offer a new challenge – notably the learning of a new language – and would add another dimension to his development as an artist.
As a child growing up in Fez, he exhibited an early talent for drawing, but art was not taught in his primary school, so there was no formal structure for his early artistic learning. His main inspiration was an uncle who “drew everything around him”.
When he graduated from high school, art was part of the curriculum, which gave him a solid technical background. From there, it was a natural progression to study art in Rabat, which had a much more vibrant cultural scene than its relatively conservative hometown.
These years of training in Morocco remain a major influence on El-Makhloufi’s work today. “All of my photos always have a direct reference to Arab culture,” he says.
Naturally, however, his life as a foreigner also plays an important role in his art. Migration is an issue he has thought deeply about – not just recent and widely reported refugee struggles, but older patterns stretching back generations. However, even though some of his paintings seem to make this connection obvious – like “La Consideration,” in which a man looks intently at a wooden ship model – his work is still open to many interpretations, the artist insists.
“In this picture, I’m trying to express being alone with a decision – not necessarily related to boats and migration, but an existential decision that you might have to make at any time,” he explains. he.
Likewise, while “Passage” shows people crammed into boats, immediately conjuring up stories of refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the English Channel on overcrowded boats, El-Makhloufi says he sees a larger universal story of the human desire to be oneself. realization.
“This boat with refugees that I painted is like a process that every human being goes through,” he explains. “There is always a transition from one situation to another. There is always a development in your own personality. It is a universal human situation. I try to express the fragility of this transition.
Like ambivalence, fragility is something he is adept at grasping in his work. Particularly in “The Leap,” his image of a young man in the air – maybe performing a dip in water, but maybe not. Its destination is unclear.
“It’s a celebration of youth. This image speaks of Arab youth, but it also has a tragic side, ”says El-Makhloufi. “Young people want to fly, but at the same time their situation is very uncertain. “