In conversation with two mesmerising Opera Gallery artists

French-Moroccan artists Yasmina Alaoui and Yassine Mekhnache’s latest exhibition at the Opera Gallery Dubai is “a journey through exotic cultures, ancestral techniques and abstract visions of nature”. Vision speaks to the artists about the tradition and meaning behind their work 

From 8-22 March 2017, the Opera Gallery Dubai is exhibiting the work of French-Moroccan artists Yasmina Alaoui and Yassine Mekhnache. Though the artists each have distinctive bodies of work, exploring different themes and techniques, they are united by their exploration of tradition and modernity, which focuses heavily on their shared Moroccan heritage.

In both cases, the result is a mesmerising blend of old and new, and an ethereal balance of colour and technique. Vision delves into the work of both artists.

Yassine Mekhnache
Yassine Mekhnache began his career as a self-made street artist

Yassine Mekhnache

Though French-Moroccan Yassine Mekhnache began his career as a self-taught street artist, he has recently taken a bold turn towards contemporary art, using mixed media for conceptual storytelling.

While his new work remains as abstract as his early street art, it is explicit in its embodiment of Mekhnache’s Moroccan heritage, using traditional techniques like ancestral Arabesque patterns, which he interweaves with modern painting and beading. The artist also includes ancient Indian embroidery techniques in his new work, resulting in an immersive exploration of modern culture that spans three continents.

Could you describe the process of transitioning from a street artist to working indoors? How has it changed your work? 

I have enjoyed drawing ever since I was a little kid, but the decisive moment happened when I started doing graffiti. I was about 12 years old when I developed a strong addiction to action, risk, lettering, and all the feelings provided when you’re illegally tagging a train. This gave me the perseverance to become an artist when I was a teenager; graffiti and tagging gave me wings.

Contemporary art was a late discovery, when I was 17 years old. The first encounter was during the Lyon Biennale, during which I first came across the works of Kader Attia and his Flying Rats installation.  Today, the link between my studio work and my former street work is based on impulse, a very precise stroke, and my engagement.

What I have retained from my graffiti years is the repetition of my name. It slowly translated into my drawings and my paintings, whereby I would look for a proper flow of lines and shapes. Out of this process, portraits started to come out. This is an ongoing artistic approach, all of my new paintings are part of this study of human portraiture.

Why did you decide to take a communal approach with your art?

Embroidery came into my life as an accident, albeit a beautiful one. Very deep inside, I know that this encounter with this craft was always meant to be; I just didn’t know when and under which conditions. I started spending a lot of time with artisans, in order to create a contemporary image based off of ancient crafts such as the ‘point of Fez’ in Morocco. Very few people know it, but it is one of the most complicated type of embroidery in the world, since it is the only pattern that looks totally symmetrical front and back. This time accumulated with different artisans from different countries has, over the years, created an intimate connection with the craft of embroidery. What I attempt is to create some kind of fusion between different regions of the world, with the common thread being ancestral know-how and different types of embroiling techniques.

I am deeply convinced that it is possible to create contemporary images based on old crafts. I believe physical and manual engagement is necessary to transpire into the final product. Within my canvas, the work from the artist and the artisans is complimentary; the only thing that counts is the intelligence of the ‘hands’ and the dialogue of the body. I proudly stress the fact that nothing is done with machinery.

How involved do you get in the works that take place in Morocco and India?

During each trip, I take the time to explain what I want, and I stay beside the embroiderers for weeks at a time to finalize the design, the choice of beads and sequins. It is very important to note that my work cannot be reduced to just giving the artisans a general direction. I spend hours with them, and they see that all the canvases are about team work and common engagement. I remember my first trip to India, where the artisans discovered for the first time the Moroccan embroidery technique. Being part of this exchange is truly fascinating. Over the years, we have built an invisible architecture between 3 continents.

Yasmina Alaoui
New York-born Yasmina Alaoui's work encompasses her multicultural upbringing

Yasmina Alaoui

New York-born Yasmina Alaoui is also of French-Moroccan descent, and uses sand, gravel and minerals on canvas to explore her mixed heritage and upbringing.

Her work is particularly fascinating in its exploration of contrasts: the secular and the religious; the classic and the modern; order and chaos, which she brings together to create bold, mesmeric pieces.

How do you use physical texture in your work to impart meaning? 

These new abstract compositions evoke vast mineralogical landscapes seen from the sky. Ruins of an ancient village, a civilisation that has disappeared, images of destruction or of looming human catastrophe, or perhaps the vision of a vegetal world or cellular division: each works contains its own message. 

Using physical texture is a visceral experience as well as a literal one. The materials are both organic/mineral and man made: a combination of salt, sand, gravel, acrylic paint, pure pigments, Kohl, ashes, hand-crafted stars made of plaster, broken ceramics... 

Religious imagery is often very unchangeable, with attempts to change it resulting in condemnation. What is your take on this? 

I grew up surrounded with sacred geometry. Its part of my identity, my culture, my DNA. It creates a ground layer of mysticism for future generations to figure out the past.

To what extent should this kind of imagery be allowed to be interpreted? 

Viewers each come with their own cultural background and life experience, and their personal interpretation can only enrich the work. I purposely avoid giving titles to my work, so that the viewer relies less on vocabulary guidance and explanation, and focus more on the instinctual emotions the work communicates to them.