The art of Slimen El Kamel is painted with Life. Real life. Made-up life. He is the master puppeteer of myths reaching beyond traditional borders, the director of a cinema verité on canvas. And as soon as unveiled, his cast of joyful and pathetic characters are set free. Some escape. Some remain inside the canvas. In a nutshell, that is what I can tell you about the work of Tunisian artist and art critic Slimen El Kamel, whom I met in London in 2016. Four years on, we have developed a friendship built on sharing our passion for art, for stories, and for this Life that he so uniquely insufflates into his work.
For our seventh exhibition, I am proud to present seven works made over the last four years. Over such a relatively short period of time, El Kamel’s palette has evolved tremendously. His men and women now often roam freely outside the canvas. Their expressions too have changed, for they now seem more at peace and playful than they were in his paintings of 2016, which conveyed a soft angst, translated by barb wire, torn photographic portraits and erotic pictures feasted on by armies of flies and ants. Since his 2016 Adam the Solitary and his Sisterhood lost in a maze of TVs, Slimen has allowed more color in. His bestiary has expanded to other animals that ornate his rural and urban portraits of Tunisian youths. Call to Nature (2018) is an example of this new magical realism made of vast pointilliste-like color fields, in which people propose, meditate, greet each other, and call each other from far away. All these small gestures of daily life serving as memories of who we are, and how we are – like a behavioral DNA which the artist likes to observe, dissect, record, distort, rearrange and reinterpret.
But there are always several possible readings in Slimen’s paintings. Happiness is often tainted with darker omens, human drama, blood stains and insects associated with decay. In Cities Nearby (2019), flowers, the moon, stars and the sun form the theatre of scenes of friendship, while on the opposite side of that stare into the lens (the artist’s eye represented inside the frame), there is an ensemble of characters who appear stranded, almost abandoned. In Tunisia, as in other countries around the world, many still leave the countryside to find work in the city. Families are separated, stories are split. And it is only when you start reading one of the possible stories in one of his paintings, that Slimen rearranges its elements and characters into yet another. In Two Moments (2019), we find the same man with his broom, the same lost boy and that same girl from the beach, that oil lamp, the footprints and the cat – all of these narrative elements sharing an altogether different emotion than in the former painting.
This process translates the artist’s intention to poetically connect the dots, to allow for correspondence between his works, in an effort to create a very personal yet universal world of stories. This is where the communion of art happens, in this no-man’s-land between the projected unconscious of the artist and our own, where his emotion merges with ours. When I see Tale of the Two Cities (2019), I am instantly projected into some of the first building stones of my human experience of what life in North African cities could be. Slimen’s vivid choice of oranges, yellows and reds remind me of Albert Camus’ description of the long Summer in La Peste (The Plague, 1947), which marked me as a teenager. Slimen’s city is designed out of negative orange surface on an otherwise dotted background in which his usual actors of nostalgia stand out, bringing me back to my own youth, to flashes of memories that I cannot connect to any particular moment anymore. A first kiss, an embrace, or leaving a friend, are all possible outcomes of this visual confrontation as far as I am concerned.
It seems that the time for waiting is over. Slimen El Kamel has moved out of this limbo all so present in his 2016 We are waiting, where a man stands next to a white plastic chair, waiting for the ants to consume his body, his freedom imprisoned in a giant grid of barb wire. Today, the artist’s characters inside the canvas communicate with the outside world, they are actors in a new society, actively writing a new (hi)story. Slimen El Kamel is taking the pulse of a new Tunisia, reading it with his home-made artistic instruments, and transcribing it for us all to feel.