“Maybe that is the ultimate power of the image, that it has no fixed meaning.”
Raja Aissa is a Tunisian photographer currently living and working in Paris. Her art is deeply philosophical and powerful, but also rich in subtle nuances. The series Scheherazade is a display of works that mirrors the complex search for identity within all of us. The imagery is a representation of the interplay between the society and oneself, showing the multiple levels of identities constantly battling each other for recognition. In a world where identity is everything, Raja Aissa’s work stand as a beacon of aesthetic reflection on the perils of a static cultural self-image that perhaps is more important today than ever before.
Your Middle East had the privilege to engage in a short conversation with her.
The name for one of your photo series is Scheherazade, just like the legendary queen immortalized as a spectacular storyteller through the book One Thousand and One Nights. Do you believe yourself to be a storyteller?
I think that we all are storytellers. We have to tell stories in order to survive as they are important for how we define our lives and the world around us. We make sense of the world by telling stories. In that way all of us are like Scheherazade who had to make up stories in order to stay alive.
I feel strongly that the importance of Scheherazade has returned to the world. I can’t rationally explain how as I didn’t choose the name of the series consciously, it just came to me during the process. I think that the whole idea started with the revolution in Tunisia in 2010. The revolution made me speechless for a long time, and suddenly I started making holes in pictures by burning them with a burning tool. As these holes emerge in the pictures I started to draw Islamic patterns on them, and that’s how the whole thing started to evolve. Somehow it was a call to the story of Scheherazade. The idea of mystery, the idea of multiple identities and how we need to burn away pieces of ourselves in order to know who we truly are.
At the start I didn’t know the significance of the burning, but it evolved to a search for identity. I don’t particularly like the word identity because it narrows and destroys who we are due to its inherent ambiguity. But for me the search transformed into a quest, a quest to find ourselves. The burning kind of signified the pain that goes with every quest to find out who we are. It is not a smooth path, and maybe because it is so difficult and because it could be so painful we have to make up stories and hold on to those stories until we discover that this whole thing is just one side of a much bigger picture.
An old meaning of the name Scheherazade in Persian is the person whose realm or dominion is free. Did this guide your process during the photo series?
With the Tunisian revolution came an explosion of identity that surprised us all. It was supposedly a revolution orchestrated to get rid of a dictator, but all of a sudden the political freedom gave us a sense of quest for who we are. This showed me that when we are confronted with many choices it could lead to a sense of freedom that people can’t really manage, so we need to hold on to an identity in order to feel secure.
When I was working with the Scheherazade series I realized how many different choices I had when it comes to identity and the perception of an image. I only worked with one image, one portrait and one pattern, but there were so many different ways of doing it. Just by moving the little holes, showing parts of the face and hiding others, it gave the image a sense of multiplicity, and this multiplicity of being is the essence of freedom. If only we are aware of the choices and stories that are available to us, then a moment of freedom could present itself. What is interesting with the Scheherazade story is that she managed to reverse her destiny by trapping the king with her stories. The king became the prisoner of his own projection on women, on the world. So by freeing ourselves from our identities we can understand how much we are trapped by our own stories and start transforming them by “burning” different holes in our own images.
In your art you problematize the relationship between the image of ourselves and the image that the society gives us. In what way is it possible to escape this discrepancy?
What is interesting for me is that we are living in a world ruled by the image. The image is immediate and it can lead to discrepancies. One of the ways to escape from this is to understand the mechanism of social interaction and our own self. When we understand that stories are only stories and that our self-image does not depend so much on them, that they are only references and not an end in themselves, we can understand that stories does not make us who we are. In that way we can put a distance between ourselves and others and understand the way things really are. I made a point of making this series interactive with the viewer. That is why I incorporated mirrors in the photographs so when you look at the portraits your own face is reflected in it at the same time. So as a viewer you are not only a projection but you project to.
How can we truly know our own self?
Knowing ourselves is a life journey. It is important, it is complex and it fluctuates. It is something in movement, we cannot hold it and it is not material. And we have to accept that, that it can disappear and be transformed. Maybe this realization could lead us to an approach which is not an end in itself, that our identities are not static. The concept of identity somehow takes away culture. We think that it brings us culture but I think it pushes it away, inhibits it. One of the reason I used Islamic pattern in the images is because of its importance for the Islamic civilization as it carries the sense of unity with the self and the sense of unity with god. That is why I transformed and alternated it, opening parts of it and closing others. This shows that the search of who we are is not only to be taken within the definition of culture. When it comes to identity we have to be, not skeptical, but aware that its an easy way out to put ourselves within a cultural identity.
I think that the world we are living in today is scary to many people. It has become so globalized that people feel that they are loosing their own identity. This fear of loosing who we are makes people confused and because culture is so image oriented there is not much distance between ourselves and information. The images jump on us and consume us.
That is why I started my whole technique of working with layers. Things are not what you think they are, there are always layers behind it. I think it is the same process that allow us to know better who we are. We need to remove layers, veils, fabric and thoughts and distance ourselves from the need of belonging somewhere. Belonging means rejecting others at the same time, which leads to refusal and polarization. That is one of the problems that we are faced with in an increasingly globalized world, that sense of belonging that removes us from who we could be.
Photo from a Raja Aissa exhibition. Credit: www.selmaferiani.com
Your work acts as a kind of scalpel, dissecting the different layers of the image. But what is the ultimate power of the image to you?
This is very hard to answer. It is so difficult to grasp the ultimate power of the image because there are so many levels on which an image could work. And I think that they are kind of all-powerful. It could be a feeling of a deeper self that lead us to a sense of mystery and to a dialogue of stories. But it could also be a feeling of amazement where the image takes you somewhere else or it makes you have an experience at a higher level. An image is speechless, and it carries words that has silence in them. But the most important thing is our own reaction to the image, the fact that our experiences of images changes all the time. Maybe that is the ultimate power of the image, that it has no fixed meaning.
To see more of Raja’s work, go to: http://www.selmaferiani.com/artists/raja-aissa/