‘To gaze at a river made of time and water
and remember Time is another river.
To know we stray like a river
and our faces vanish like water.’ 
Jose Luis Borgés
The highly detailed execution and exaggerated distortion of Frédéric Malette’s many
faces make each of his portraits so distinctive.
These are familiar faces, different faces, expressive faces, and the static faces of
carved busts. The artist’s pencil skilfully explores every detail of the faces, bodies,
scenes, and destinies that he observes, most often via the medium of photography.
Despite their initial neutral appearance, the compositions are in fact unstable and very
often modified in some way. On closer examination, these alterations are not only the
fruit of the artist’s imagination but also the result of the physical treatment of the graphite
applied to the tracing and drawing paper.
The drawings are erased, rubbed out, blackened, scratched, torn, superimposed, applied
to the front and back of the sheets, and sometimes enhanced with very expressive
almost childlike lines, which are often covered with vertical and horizontal lines,
framed, isolated, or hidden by imposing abstract forms. In both form and content, the
materials and subject matter are associated with the energy and the academic and
intuitive gestures that are an inherent part of Frédéric Malette’s ‘progressive drawing
process’—an evolving process because he believes that drawing ‘commences within
one’s body’, creates a tempo, and sets a rhythm.
This tempo is sustained—even obsessive—, due to the highly demanding rhythm of
work the artist devotes himself to, and which is nourished by the research he began
four years ago: that of ‘naming and identifying the enduring nature of a word, a “memory”’,
and via this process the enduring nature of its identity.
As the descendant of a French family that moved to Algeria during the reign of Napoleon
and of a mother on whom the ‘war without a name’ and the inevitable and subsequent
departure in 1962 left painful scars, Frédéric Malette unashamedly describes
himself as a ‘product of French colonisation’. One of his founding series, entitled
Les Bannis (The banished, 2013), which is based on his family album—in particular,
his grandfather, who was a legionnaire—and the accounts of his mother, attested to
this and quite literally marked the beginning of a catharsis. ‘The images lie dormant
within me and need only to be awakened.
Drawing (…) explores events that took place before my birth, before our existence,
the innermost part of us, in order to liberate and separate us from the beings that we
are composed of and which are part of us, so that we can live in the present, truly
“inhabit” it, and be capable of doing so.’
Frédéric Malette regularly draws on the family archives to create his works. In Les
cris silencieux (Silent screams, 2014), he combined drawings of photographs of the
events of the Arab Spring with drawings of family photos taken in Algeria in the last
century, and explored the links between the colonial heritage and contemporary realities
in North Africa.
This also applies to the compelling portraits—in the recent and famous series Part
des anges (The angels share, 2016)—, which are based on the image of a man from
Ghana, where the artist’s family, this time on his father’s side, lived for a while. By
transforming this magnificent face into a ghost-like image, the artist is questioning our
relations with foreigners, and our relation with others in general. The philosopher Emmanuel
Lévinas, for whom the ‘experience’ of the Other took the form of a face, asked:
‘What happens when I look into another person’s face?’
This fundamental question of alterity—even more so than the question of identity with
which it is indissociable—seems to underlie most of Frédéric Malette’s work. Indeed,
as everyone is aware, this issue is particularly pertinent, given the dramatic current
events related to the migrant crisis.
Hence, Frédéric Malette is incessantly shifting between the past and the present,
between minor and major history, and he is inspired by personal accounts and mythologies
to highlight their collective and universal dimensions through the medium of the
pencil: like ‘a personal memory that meanders, dashes, moves steadily, cuts across,
comes to a halt, and then, ultimately, enters our collective memory, whence history
Via this approach, Frédéric Malette shifts from memories to drawing, as an outlet for
a certain traumatism that he suffers and he does this ‘to be able to live in the present,
“inhabit” it, and be capable of doing so’. Hence, the paper is invested with space
and time, and here lies the mystery of what is, what has been, and what will be. And
like Dante and Virgil, after the chaos, leaving Hell, we can finally ‘see the stars once
It is difficult to evoke Frédéric Malette’s work without mentioning his love of words: the
writings of Virgil and Dante, and also, amongst others, Aeschylus, Albert Camus, Aimé
Césaire, and Jean Giraudoux. Literature, poetry, and theatre … the artist sets aside
time every day for reading, which is a fundamental complement to his drawing work.
This serves as a source of inspiration for the magnificent titles of his works and series,
reflecting a particular semantic field—that of shadows and light—, which can only be
rendered by a thousand shades of graphite.