What Lies Beneath
The changing face of water in the works of Nicene Kossentini.

Water is a fundamental part of our existence, both life-giving and treacherous, and for Tunisian artist Nicene Kossentini, it has long played an integral part in her oeuvre, an overriding presence that ripples, blurs and washes away. In her 2007 video La Disparation, for example, a piano player dissolves into wavelets that blur and distort his image. In What The Water Gave Me (2009), faces are indistinct, submerged in "a matrix in which the body is dissolved". For Kossentini, water - whether through its presence or absence - is an element that plays as much a part in her tableaux as the characters she depicts. "[Water] dominates the picture, yet I do not consider it to be a character, per se, but rather an environment or container," she explains, and in the lead-up to the Arab Spring, Kossentini's works increasingly came to represent her feelings of helplessness. "The repression around me was so hard and wild, yet I wasn't able to protest in a loud voice," she says. "When we can no longer speak, it is like drowning and choking."

This sense of drowning is particularly evident in her latest, and perhaps most visually arresting, photographic series. Boujmal, after the desiccated Tunisian lake of the same name, marks a new visual and thematic complexity. Unlike Kossentini's previous series, here the faces (those of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother) are anything but blurred, showing in stark monochrome, cut across by tight, black Arabic script, their faces sunk into the overwhelming greyness of the cracked lake bed. The text, tight and neat, marking the division between the land and horizon, uses the poems of the likes of Omro Al-Kais and Antara Ibn Rabia. "When I discovered the extent of the dry pond Boujmal, I immediately felt that I had found the desert of the Arab poets," Kossentini explains. Layering and linking different lines from poems, the text creates a wire, "as if an imaginary boundary separates us from the original text and the meaning that remains hidden from us."

Using portraits from a family album, Kossentini witnessed an interesting progression in her work. "The original photographs dated back to the 1950s and 60s and were really small and in bad condition," she explains. "I wanted the restoration process to make visible what is disappearing and what was absent. In What The Water Gave Me, the faces are disappearing; in Boujmal, they are appearing." And therein lies the crux of Kossentini's new direction - despite water's ominous presence, here it is giving, rather than taking away.

There is however, a dark horse amongst these new works - in the video work Revenir, produced from the same family album. A face, obscured by shadow in a doorway looms in alarming proximity to a haunting soundtrack as the camera gradually pans out to reveal a far more innocent shot. That face, with its indistinct features, holds a menacing quality that Kossentini's matriarchal portraits do not. "Whereas I tried to eliminate the traces of time in the other portraits, I purposely did not retouch this particular image," she explains. "I kept all the scratches and gouges, made even more visible when I scanned it, and it was completely by surprise that I discovered the small child standing in the background." This ability to cross over between video and photography comes from an understanding of how the two complement each other. "I enjoy working on the frontiers of photography and video," she admits. "My picture sets are often sequential so each photo is linked to another as if they were stills from a film sequence. Similarly, working in photography also allows me to get new perspective on my video work and its borders."

Overall, perhaps what Boujmal presents is a ray of hope. In an atmosphere of repressed voices and drowned hopes, one woman remains defiant - Khadija, Kossentini's great-grandmother, gazes firmly out of the canvas, head proudly tilted upward, her chin above the lake. "I hesitated greatly before deciding in the end not to dip half of this portrait into the surface of the pond," smiles Kossentini. "I suppose in a sense I kept her elevated as an evocation of emancipation." And emancipation there is.

By Anna Wallace-Thompson

  • What Lies Beneath (Detail) ‘Boujmal Sihem’. 2011. Tirage Argentique / Silver Print. 90 x 90 cm. Edition of three. Image courtesy Selma Feriani Gallery, London.
  • What Lies Beneath (Detail) ‘Boujmal Khadija’. 2011. Tirage Argentique / Silver Print. 90 x 90 cm. Edition of three. Image courtesy Selma Feriani Gallery, London.
  • What Lies Beneath (Detail) ‘Boujmal Fatouma’. 2011. Tirage Argentique / Silver Print. 90 x 90 cm. Edition of three. Image courtesy Selma Feriani Gallery, London.