Nicène Kossentini | Sign(s) of the Time(s)

What is left when our landmarks and memories disappear? Moreover, in an ever-changing world whose metamorphic pace is verging towards the frenetic, how is our ability to think and dream being influenced?

Nicène Kossentini. What the water gave me. 2009, Photography, Silver print. Courtesy of the artist.

Nicène Kossentini, What Water Gave Me VII, 2009. Black & White Photography, 109 x 60 cm, Edition of 5,
What the Water Gave Me series © Nicène Kossentini. Courtesy the artist, Sabrina Amrani Gallery and Selma Feriani Gallery


Reflecting on identity and asking ‘Who am I?’ escapes none of us. It means being situated in relation to our collective pasts, and that is made up of a myriad of histories: national, familial, genealogical, and personal.

These narratives may cross, influence or a contrario confront each other. Invariably, the construct of identity is not exclusively tied to a territory or a culture, and it is moving and flexible. It is influenced by the perception of events as they are remembered in the present and now, rather than as they were lived in the past. Histories, identities, and memories are steeped in continuities and ruptures.


As an artist, I am distressed by understanding how I can reconstruct the landmarks I am losing if I am cut off from my past.

–Nicène Kossentini


With delicacy, Nicène Kossentini’s artistic practice reflects this existential quest to know how to continuously position oneself in the present through the past. Implicitly, her artworks are marked by signs that whisper of time’s passing and its impact on memory, transmission, and society. She tries to capture and make visible the imperceptible and transient instant when things have already disappeared.


Nicène Kossentini. Boujmal Amna, 2011. Black & White Photography, 90 x 90 cm, Edition of 3, Boujmal Series © Nicène Kossentini.
Courtesy the artist and Selma Feriani Gallery


In Tunisia, her place of birth and residence, the French colonial presence left both intangibly and tangibly violent traces that, decades later, still permeate society. Importing Western ‘modern’ practices, colonisation denied local knowledge systems, traditions, and customs, displacing and rendering them outdated. This usurpation induced many syncretisms, as it did profound tensions. Its schism also leaked into Tunisia’s art scene, where contemporary art remains largely unrecognised and misunderstood.

Though her artistic life and voice first took form through photography, Kossentini is an adamant experimentalist; she remains acutely committed to finding the most meaningful ways to articulate pressing questions and does so by operating through various media: video, photography, and even sculpture and sound.

Her practice is deeply informed by the local, particularly by orality and, more specifically, the intimate and inter-generational tradition of storytelling by women within the home. It draws from language and the deep libraries of Arabic and Islamic poetry, literature, and philosophy. She feels the necessity to reinvent her artistic universe and, in so doing, reinvent herself. Through her work, Kossentini invites participants to enter into contemplative spaces; she elicits our concentration and capacity in order to really open up our seeing.

Clelia Coussonnet | As a video artist and founder of the first Experimental Cinema Programme at Tunis’ Higher Institute of Multimedia Art of Manouba [ISAMM], where did your interest in the ‘image’ emerge from? And how has it evolved in your practice?

Nicène Kossentini | I began with photography, even if it very quickly led me to video art. I wanted to experiment with the moving image. My practice constantly oscillates between these two media. In my videos, I can use static shots, like in La Disparition and Myopia, or I can animate an old photograph, as in Revenir.


Nicène Kossentini, excerpt from Myopia, 2008. Three-channel video installation © Nicène Kossentini.
Courtesy the artist, Sabrina Amrani Gallery and Selma Feriani Gallery.


Currently, I am trying to call into question the image and its meaning in my practice through new artistic forms that I find more intriguing and attractive. This repositioning occurred at a time when there was an explosion of the ‘visual’ in our daily lives. Faced with this invasion, nothing spoke to me. I am still not able to cross the opaque threshold of images. Lately, my interest in sound has also grown strong. It is enigmatic and impalpable, therefore invisible.

This exploration appears to manifest in your work Spawn & Wrack, where you broadcast the recorded testimonies of several Algiers inhabitants.

It is a video installation based primarily on sound, and, in it, the recordings manifest orally and are transcribed in the video as scrolling text. The voices invariably have a strong presence, yet any associated images have disappeared. This installation, was realised in Algiers during an artist residency. I collected the stories of six Algerians. In these accounts, I recovered an emotion that I associate with photography’s attempts to capture a transient moment.


Nicène Kossentini, Spawn & Wrack, (Frai et Varech), 2013. Video installation in situ © Nicène Kossentini.
Courtesy the artist, Selma Feriani Gallery and MMK Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt.


I feel a strong emotional charge in your work. There is a delicacy that emerges as we are pulled towards an intimate contemplation. Reading, in the literal sense, in your photographs [1] is futile—with texts that are often without beginning or end… The use of tashkils [2] [phonetic accent guide in Arabic language] roots your practice in musicality.

This emotion I spoke about and that you point out exists in the exact same way both in language and in sound. Words have always been present in my work—even in the photographic series, such as Boujmal, for example. Sometimes I am more challenged by the absence of language. Shakl is an invisible, silent text where I kept the accents. The movement persists despite the missing letters.


Nicène Kossentini, Shakl, 2012. Black ink, glass and canvas, 73 x 130cm, Edition of 10 (detail) © Nicène Kossentini.
Courtesy the artist, Sabrina Amrani Gallery and Selma Feriani Gallery


Nicène Kossentini, Shakl, 2012. Black ink, glass and canvas, 73 x 130cm, Edition of 10 © Nicène Kossentini.
Courtesy the artist, Sabrina Amrani Gallery and Selma Feriani Gallery


As a Tunisian artist, I live in a cultural context where representation through the image is not deeply entrenched in society. We grow up with the invisible figure of the abstract reproductions of Islamic art. I acquired my artistic sensibility through language—it was conveyed by poetry and literature. Even during my studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, I was immersed in Arabic poetry rather than in any specific references to contemporary art or imagery.

You often revisit traditional techniques such as painting under glass, and mirror engraving in Extinction Within Contemplation, for instance, and geometric patterns from ceramic in Heaven or Hell. Are you paying tribute to Tunisian arts and crafts?

I am interested in memory and heritage. My contemporary creations, departing from ancient techniques, simultaneously inscribe links to the present and to a distant past that is disappearing. In my works, I am not bringing back to life what no longer is. I try to express what is disappearing, becoming absent. I bring to light this evanescence.


Nicène Kossentini, Heaven or Hell, 2011. Video installation 4’39, variable dimensions, Edition of 3 – Installation view at Sabrina Amrani Gallery
© Nicène Kossentini. Courtesy the artist Sabrina Amrani Gallery and Selma Feriani Gallery.


You grasp the movement of loss more than you document it….

Documentation does not attract me. I probe loss and the emotions associated with it. I feel a vast sense of frustration caused by this confrontation with ‘the present’, which is the legacy that has built me and one that I am losing without really knowing why, or how. We are subject to high-speed changes and are struggling to catch up. Powerless as we are, we record this distortion…. It is a global phenomenon, and everyone experiences it in their own way.

Pace and movement are at the core of my existential quest—far more than memory—as they are signs of time. What disappears does so in duration, and it spans the present. This movement of time is what I seek to epitomise and capture through image or sound.

For some thinkers, when the past becomes an excessive reference, the future is difficult to envisage. Others want to unearth neglected memories and rewrite a fairer History. Do you see any tensions between memory and oblivion?

I believe that humanity now lives in discomfort and disquiet. What sets us apart is our ability to deal with these major changes. There are those who do not resist and who fall back on themselves, trying to return to a past that they can identify with in order to escape a present that scares them. There are those who examine the present, learn to live in it, and strain to reinvent our time.


Nicène Kossentini, They Abused Her by Saying VII, 2010. Black & White Photography (fine art print on Diasec), 70 x 50 cm, Edition of 5,
They Abused her by Saying series © Nicène Kossentini. Courtesy the artist, Sabrina Amrani Gallery and Selma Feriani Gallery


As an artist, I am distressed by trying to understand how I can reconstruct the landmarks I am losing if I am cut off from my past. The past is a referent, but it only makes sense for the present in which I live. I study the past to have a clear vision of the future.

You offer a genuine poetry of seizing the moment, the ephemeral that vanishes. The questioning of temporality binds your quest to that of the space where this transience manifests.

My problem with the image today is this: I want to dig precisely into this space that I do not see, what sneaks in between things. We are between the real and the imaginary.

The border is fine.

I love being in this in-between, between earth and sky. I love all that floats outside the literal.


Nicène Kossentini, Untitled (Butterfly), 2014. Sculpture, translucent fibreglass, Japanese fabric and resine. 180 x 150 cm,
Edition of 8 – View at Selma Feriani Gallery © Nicène Kossentini. Courtesy the artist and Selma Feriani Gallery


In 2014, I made a sculpture of a white butterfly, Untitled (Butterfly). The human-scale piece sat crouching near the ground. I wanted to show an invisible and fleeting being summarising the fragility of our ephemeral lives. So, the sculpture appears to be both living and dead, between reviving and disappearing. There is an ambiguity in it that evokes a state of being ‘in-between two worlds’.

In contrast to darkness, you work a lot with transparency and light. I would also like you to dig into the sky motif—common to your photographic series I Saw the Sky, Envol, and The City in the Sky.

It is not a universe that I designed consciously. This is the transparency and the in-between that we spoke of earlier, where I am able to examine my surroundings. I want to overcome obstacles that prevent us from seeing differently. I do not escape from reality beyond that border. On the contrary, I disclose that it is hard to distinguish the ‘truth’ of a situation when you are near it. We are able to understand better with distance because, the more our minds are open, the further we see. It is dangerous and grave when we lose the ability to reason.


Nicène Kossentini, The City in the Sky IV, 2013. Black & White Photography (digital print on Hahnemuhle Fine Art Baryta) 120 x 120 cm,
Edition of 5, The City in the Sky series © Nicène Kossentini. Courtesy the artist and Selma Feriani Gallery


Nicène Kossentini, The City in the Sky VII, 2013. Black & White Photography (digital print on Hahnemuhle Fine Art Baryta) 120 x 120 cm,
Edition of 5, The City in the Sky series © Nicène Kossentini. Courtesy the artist and Selma Feriani Gallery


To perceive what is beyond the visible, you have turned to the ordinary—almost anonymous—voices of six Algerians. Did those stories resonate personally, in light of your familial history and Constantine lineage?

In Algiers, my residency was a challenge. The city and its walls seemed insurmountable, and I was not able to interpret it through images. So, I decided to tackle this difficulty by going in search of intimate stories. By creating complicity with these people, they opened this door to hidden spaces.

My ancestors migrated to Tunisia three centuries ago. Although we have lost all traces of this origin in my family, my grandfather proudly used to say we were Algerians. I was deeply influenced by and probably tried to find these quasi-genealogical links during my residency. For that reason, I chose to meet ordinary voices. I identify with all those lives. These accounts are fragments of History. We are all connected as individuals. What was said between sentences struck me most. From small insignificant words emerged the entire meaning.


Nicène Kossentini, Spawn & Wrack, (Frai et Varech), 2013. Video installation in situ (audio excerpt) © Nicène Kossentini.
Courtesy the artist and Selma Feriani Gallery


It is touching that you mention our common humanity and these magical interstices where the meaning of our existence appears.

Yes, these are not narratives related to current or immediate political events. The meaning of human existence itself shines in those sounds: giggles, accents particular to a city or a village, sighs, a special intonation. Even the musicality of the voices, unique to each, expressed this perfectly—everything was there. The history of Algeria can be read in books. I wanted to escape these historical, political facts, which are undoubtedly moving. The real History for me is in these gaps.

Speaking of those little stories that make up the larger one, are you interested in the concept of transmission, be it of fictional accounts, like those of your grandfather, or testimonies about the way History is passed on through individuals?

What is crucial in transmission is the question of landmarks. In the Tunisian context, historical events specific to its colonisation led to the birth of a dual culture: on the one hand, a local culture considered ‘traditional’ and, on the other hand, a ‘modern’ culture said to be ‘Western’. Consequently, the references have shifted, have split, and this has created a mental confusion. I believe that today, at both a national and regional level, there is this problem of disorientation.


Nicène Kossentini, excerpt from Stories, 2011. Video 3’10, Edition of 3 © Nicène Kossentini.
Courtesy the artist, Sabrina Amrani Gallery and Selma Feriani Gallery


My paternal grandmother was a storyteller who learnt everything from her mother. In Stories, I had the idea to film her reciting tales at the end of her life. She was losing her memory, remembering only fragments. After my grandmother, there were no more transmissions. That chain was broken. The world is changing, in its temporal dimension as well. Faced with an ever-increasing speed, we do not have time to tell stories, nor to listen to them.

The border between intimate and public space is also shattering, given the impact of new technologies and the circulation of ‘information’.

The relationship between us has changed with the development of the Internet and social networks. I do not speak solely about our intimate relationships with our families or ourselves, but also about our relationship with the world. The passage of time, in the present moment, has changed. My great frustration with respect to current developments is that they prevent us from pausing for a moment to contemplate, imagine, and dream. Robot-like, we have quick access to and gorge on images and therefore ideas. In reality, we are simply becoming desensitised and losing our ability to discern, to ‘taste’.


This article forms part of the In/Visible Voices of Women series. Read more about it.


Nicène Kossentini (b.1976) lives and works between Tunis and Paris. Graduated from Tunis Fine Art Institute and from Marc Bloch University in Strasbourg, she followed trainings at the Studio National des Arts Contemporains Le Fresnoy and at the Ecole de l’Image Les Gobelins, France. Her videos, photographs, sculptures and paintings question current events in the world. In this perspective, she always slips towards a quest for aesthetics, beauty and poetry to confront violence and cruelty. Lately her work was shown in The Divine Comedy; Heaven, Hell, Purgatory by contemporary African artists at the MMK Frankfurt; in Songs of Loss and Songs of Love at the Art Museum of Gwangju and at the National Museum of Bahrein.

[1] Photographic series: Boujmal’, ‘What the Water Gave Me
[2] Artworks: Shakl’, ‘Rasaîl I’ and ‘Rasaîl II

All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.

Tunis, Tunisia | Doing our part to combat immappancy  

Interview by Clelia Coussonnet.

Another Africa © 2016 All Rights Reserved