Haythem Zakaria is a Tunisian born artist currently based in France. His transdisciplinary research-based practice is underpinned by a profound interest in cosmology and spirituality. Working with the landscapes of the Atlas Mountains and North African desert and coast he has created an oeuvre in which art becomes epistemological research in the quest for archetypal figures.
In 2018 his ongoing multimedia project Interstices won the Grand Prize of the Japan Media Arts Festival. He has also exhibited at the Jaou Tunis 2017 Nation Migrante, in France, Belgium Egypt and most recently at Halle 14 in Leipzig.
Between October to December 2018, Haythem Zakaria joined over 30 other artists exhibiting works at Casablanca Biennial. Responding to its title Tales from the Water Margins, artists engaged with contemporary issues of hybridity, identity and migration. Haythem Zakaria displayed his mesmerising black and white digitally altered photographs and videos of ancient, unpeopled landscapes and sentinel shorelines of infinite silence characterized by unceasing metronymic wave action from part of his long-term research project Interstices.
Haythem Zakaria is currently working in association with Arts Cabinet on a long-term research project entitled Potential Archaeologies, which is part of his Interstices project.
Denise Clarke (DC): Several works shown at the biennial - such as your Interstices, Bospherousby Magda Starwarska-Beaver and Joshua Horsley and Search for Libertaliaby Shiraz Bayjoo – are part of larger on-going research projects. To what extent do you conceptualize the biennial as a research engine or “investigative tool” that both extends existing and develops new fields and propositions for artistic research?
Haythem Zakaria (HZ): Some authors speak of a new trend of “biennialization” in the world. In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of biennials. I think that the economic model of a biennial which is often quite substantial and heavy and the profusion of these types of events make it a place of excellence for all actors in the artistic scene. The challenges of a biennial reinforce these requirements and expectations. It is therefore normal or logical that these events are currently converging on “multidisciplinary laboratory” type spaces. It is a current state of art and a stage of evolution and mutation in progress.
Personally, I hope to be able to detach myself from this limited approach of hanging, exposing, unhooking. I think that the artists work should be located in another place and be less predictable in its form of demonstration. I also hope to have more opportunities to experiment through biennials or other event formats with ways of creating and reflecting.
DC: Haythem, there are some clear synergies between the conceptual framework of the Biennial and your Opus series particularly in terms of a focus on isolated littoral landscapes and communities. How important are such issues to your overall artistic practice?
HZ: These questions are quite recent actually in the field of my artistic practice. Originally, the Interstices project and its first two parts (Opus I and Opus II) completely excluded communities around filming locations as well as human – landscape interactions (southern Tunisia for the desert of the Nefta region and northern Tunisia for the sea of the Cap Bon region). Some aesthetic choices in the video as well as the photos of the two Opus accentuated this exclusion. In particular the hyper panoramic format as well as the absence of people/actant.
It is this absence that has ultimately led to an interest in the influence and synergy between certain landscapes/regions and the surrounding living communities. During a project in southern Tunisia I had started to take an interest in some archaeological remains. In particular, funeral places and rites in pre-modern societies.
Within the framework of the Casa Biennale and following the invitation of the Limiditi to structure and develop a proposal, I started to develop an axis that would focus specifically on the ancient Portuguese city of El Jadida. To develop my proposal for the Biennale I drew on my experience of the landscape to find an approach that is faithful to my practice/sensitivity.
DC: You describe the initiation of Opusin terms of ‘’deploying a research field around the Atlas Mountains’’. Can you explain the questions and processes that drive that research and what underpins your understanding of ‘’landscape’’?
HZ: Francois Julien’s writings and in particular his book, ’’Vivre de Paysage’’were very influential in the conceptualization of the first Opus.In this book F. Julien describes the differences between Western and Eastern thought (and more precisely China) on landscape. My approach as an artist was to observe the landscape and try to sublimate a new dimension in what may seem trivial at first. It is a mechanics very present in my work. Visible levels and interior levels.
With Opus IIII am starting a whole new dimension related to the landscape that has matured since the first two parts. I introduce the notion of a two – level archetype. One anthropological as described by Mircea Eliade and the other psychoanalytical/Jungian. Instinctively I hypothesize that behind most of the creationist and cosmogonic myths there is a recurrent and primitive structure/architecture.
The figure of the mountain and more precisely Mount Atlas became obvious to me. It is a very dense and historically stratified material. Even if Opus IIIhas a more important temporality in relation to all my other projects and my way of working in general, I think I will only just start to touch the richness of this subject. In addition to reviewing my working time, I also reviewed my methodology and process. So, there is a completely new and exciting aspect to this new opus.
DC: Given your transdisciplinary focus on the intersection of aesthetic concerns, philosophy, spirituality and theology, do you feel that there is perhaps a genealogical connection between your work Intersticesand that of The Casablanca Group, in particular the work of Farid Belkahia and his interest in Berber history and spirituality?
HZ: I think it is interesting to raise this possibility and this intergenerational affiliation. Actually, I don’t know if it is really up to me to question this link. Personally, I feel closer to the artists of the 2000 generation in Morocco, for example, than the Casablanca Group. For both movements I do not feel a belonging. Actually, I often find it difficult to find myself in families of artists. I am certainly sensitive to it, curious and intellectually and artistically admiring for certain things, but that’s where it ends. I have never delved any further into this question. However, I understand that we are seduced by this analogy between my modest work and Farid Belkahia’s work. One thing is certain, if this link really exists it is not deliberate on my part.
DC: Whilst your current work is rooted in the landscape and peoples of the Atlas Mountains, do you envisage it as a romantic/poetic projection that has some global significance?
HZ: In my various works, I always try to get as close as possible to a universalist dimension in the philosophical sense, but also as close as possible to a dimension as cosmos.
LIMIDITI is a cultural association promoting artistic research located in the fortified Portuguese city of El-Jadida, South of Casablanca. Its mission is to promote artistic research, to create new perspectives on the city “beyond the familiar” and respond to the lack of connection between contemporary artistic practice and residents and traditions. In practice this is done in a variety of ways, through artistic interventions and residencies for research, collaboration and meetings focused on contemporary cultural practices. Zakaria and Moroccan artist Mo Baala both worked through Limiditi – Temporary Art Project to bring biennial proposals to realisation with Zakaria also using his residency at PirPiri “Riad Laboratory” in El Jadida to initiate his research for Interstices Opus III entitled Potential Archaeologies in collaboration with Arts Cabinet.