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Dec / Jan 2010
Parallel Worlds

WRITER: Ana Finel Honigman

Zakaria Ramhani’s vibrant and mesmerising paintings cleverly turn simple but colourful modern calligraphy into the creation of isolated and expressive human figures. But with one of his pieces fetching 30,000 USD at Christie’s April, 2010 auction in Dubai, he is now commanding prices that put him in the top ten global artists under 30.


“My work is inspired by my experiences and my relationships with the people around me,” proclaims Zakaria Ramhani, whose multi-layered calligraphic paintings juxtapose Western and North African cultural references. Ramhani’s paintings initially appear relatively abstract or figurative but they all contain the same elements of coloured text interwoven to form a human face. The text used in his polyptychs or diptychs is either French, English or Arabic, often unreadable, and represents the tensions between cultures that create model identities. As he states, “Constraint and conflict seem to be the elements that guide my creative process.”

Born in Tangiers in 1983 and living in Montreal, Ramhani became the youngest person from Morocco to receive a bursary from the French government to undertake the prestigious creative residency at Paris’s Cité Internationale des Arts. He is currently represented by the progressive ArtSpace gallery in Dubai.

Ramhani’s paintings layer cultural references over the universal focal point of an enlarged, obscured, portrait. The face often resembles his own. He combines text and form because, “I always think of a face as a mirror of the universe or a metaphor for life. I create a fight between the visual and iconic impact of the face and the written word. I seek to find myself between the combination of both.”

Post-colonialist conceptions of identity form his conceptual foundation. He articulates his purpose as “otherness is the conceptual unity of my approach, it is nourished by the encounter, be it with another or with oneself.” Ramhani’s notion of “otherness” originates from the world-view of theorists such as Edward Said, Albert Memmi and Sarojini Sahoo. These politically active scholars appropriated feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that male-dominated society regards men as the “norm” and women as “other” or lesser. In relation to Post-Colonialism, these theories reflect the oppressive nature of Western culture and its power to influence other cultures’ identities.  

The nature versus nurture debate over identity also informs Ramhani’s creative development. His father is a renowned traditional Moroccan artist who taught his son to paint in the family studio. But Ramhani’s politically aware paintings deviate from his father’s landscapes, romantic scenery and still-lives. “I do not remember having made the decision to become an artist,” says Ramhani. “My father was a painter who worked at home in the evenings in his studio. As a child, I thought that when he was painting, he was playing like I did. I do not know who chose the other, me or painting. I did hunt for this purpose. It was love at first glance.”

Another forefather for Ramhani’s style is the tradition of calligraphy in Arabic art. Ramhani’s use of Arabic in his paintings ties his work to Middle Eastern art history despite the incongruous blend of figuration and tradition. He explains, “I’ve always been interested in the relationship between calligraphy in the history of Arabic and Islamic art and the icon and image in Western art. I certainly did not invent the idea of forming a face or a self-portrait with calligraphy, since it goes back to the most distant civilisations. But I am interested in the absence of perspective and the third dimension in Arabic and Islamic art. The most original aspect of my work is how I somehow inflated the figure of the letter with the different values of light and colour. The idea is to not represent reality but to invent a parallel world from the treasure-trove of our art history.”

Art history is not the only area that he mines, since his work is also heavily invested in poetry and literary theory. As he describes, “I think that the power attributed to words, calligraphy and text is the idea that these forms represent our attempts to express emotion. Of course, the interpretations of our words depend on our personal and cultural contexts. We write to create the illusion of eternity. We want our thoughts to cross the ages. We want those words to memorise and materialise concepts. We want to convey what we believe is the truth, life and memory. We write mainly with the hope of being read!”

The text in his art is often unreadable. The colours are too dark and the forms blend into a shady blur. But this muddled expression paradoxically articulates his concerns about the faith that we put in the written word. “I think that I’m trying to free myself of this when I put the writing in the service of an order of figurative representation, as it melts into the paint... It is not truth, it is not even necessarily readable.” Yet it is powerfully understood.

Who Zakaria Ramhani
What A young contemporary Moroccan calligraphic artist
Value One of his pieces fetched 30,000 USD at Christie’s April, 2010 auction in Dubai, and as such, Artprice puts him in the top ten artists in the world who are under 30-years-old
Why Ramhani’s vibrant and mesmerising paintings cleverly turn simple but colourful modern calligraphy into the creation of isolated and expressive human figures.

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