Rachid Koraichi whose work has been described as “writing passion” has just won the £25,000 Jameel Prize for a selection of embroidered cloth banners from a series entitled The Invisible Masters at a ceremony at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. It was considered that The Invisible Masters series matches the aims of the Jameel Prize through its qualities of design and reliance on traditional crafts. The judges particularly admired how he has made his great spiritual and intellectual lineage accessible to all through the graphic language he has created out of his artistic heritage.
In this series Koraichi uses Arabic calligraphy as well as symbols and ciphers from a range of other languages and cultures to explore the lives and legacies of the 14 great mystics of Islam. The work aims to show that the world of Islam, in contrast to contemporary perceptions of crisis and violence, has another side entirely, evident in the tolerant and sophisticated writings of great Muslim thinkers and poets such as Rumi and El Arabi. These masters, whose fame has spread to the West, left an imprint on successive generations and their message is just as relevant today as when first recorded.
Koraichi’s name is a transliteration of the Arabic Quraishi, indicating his descent from one of the oldest Sufi intellectual families in North Africa, whose roots can be traced back to the eighth century. Sufism’s deeply humane character respects intellectual curiosity, tolerating diversity and freedom of expression. For generations Koraichi’s family have practiced the contemplative study of the Qur’anic message and while honouring this legacy, as an artist Koraichi does not feel limited by it. In fact he reinvents and invigorates Islamic tradition.
As a small boy Koraichi was fascinated by the Arabic calligraphy in the old books in his home, whose illuminated pages had flourishes of arabesques; books that were all the more tantalising because they were kept away from children. At the age of three, before his regular school day began, he attended a zawia, a traditional school for Qur’anic study.
Koraichi’s formal art education began in Algeria at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, before he moved to Paris in 1971. There he studied at several institutions including the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs. Living in Paris and interacting with a cosmopolitan art world, his approach is modern, international, with an arresting array of media. These include installations and performance art, along with various metals, ceramics, textiles, carpets, murals, painting and print-work such as etchings and lithographs.
Koraichi has also collaborated with Middle Eastern and North African artists, intellectuals and exiles addressing the harsh political realities of the region, especially his native Algeria, where he has been actively involved in the struggle for democracy and freedom of speech. He has identified too with the fight for freedom in Palestine, creating Qassidat Beirut or ‘Poem of Beirut’, giving visual representation to his friend Mahmoud Darwish’s ‘Ode to Beirut’. He said: “I see in the exhibition of this project in the city of Ramallah a new step of solidarity with the besieged and victimised Palestinian people.” Koraichi gave the artwork to the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah, where it was shown.
[inset_right]Koraichi’s work is a personal alphabet, simultaneously aesthetic and ideological in which letters become symbols and signs[/inset_right] Koraichi’s work is a personal alphabet, simultaneously aesthetic and ideological in which letters become symbols and signs. Glyphs and ciphers are drawn from ancient cultures, some imaginary, others real—the shapes of Chinese and Japanese ideograms, for example; or Berber and Tuareg Tifinagh characters and magical squares. In effect, he has developed a language all of his own, a script of graphic, political, intellectual and spiritual power. Media like gold thread embroidery on silk and black steel sculptures literally embody the word, and become his own sacred calligraphy.
An exhibition of Koraichi’s series Ecstatic Flow at London’s October Gallery, in 2010, exemplified his quest to embody a complex spiritual vision, by the expression of the Sufi mystical elements of Islam, in works of art of great subtlety and imagination, this time on paper. The title Ecstatic Flow is derived from the Arabic word fa’-ya’-dad, meaning ‘to overflow’, ‘to flood’ or ‘to emanate’, suggesting an urgent outward movement of exuberance and abundance. It also describes the emotion of a human being experiencing divinity, an ecstatic feeling of connection, overflowing the normal containing limits of human consciousness.
One of the most well-known of the 14 Sufi masters featured in Ecstatic Flow and with whom Koraichi is connected by a similar mystical vision of love, is the thirteenth century poet, traveller and founder of the order of whirling dervishes, Jalaluddin Rumi. In other series Koraichi takes the movements of the circling dancers and solidifies them in fluid steel sculptures expressing moving meditation.
Koraichi’s elaborate installation The Path of Roses was included in two Venice Biennales, shown in Ankara and Morocco, at the October Gallery and at the British Museum—part of which was acquired by the Museum. It consisted of several different elements, including embroidered silk textiles, steel sculptures and ceramic ablution bowls in which floated roses, inscribed with texts by Rumi. The Path of Roses was concerned with the Islamic concept of Safar (travel and transcendence) and traced the journey of Rumi from present-day Afghanistan to found the Dervish order in Turkey, and to meet another Sufi mystic, Ibn El Arabi, who is also featured in Ecstatic Flow.
In another exhibition at the October Gallery titled Ancestral Memories, 49 glowing bronze finials and a monumental textile embroidered with signs, symbols and sayings were displayed–recalling the ancestral designs of the flags of each of the Sufi Brotherhoods. Interestingly the number 49 or 7 × 7 is charged with numerological significance, not just in Sufism, but in other traditions as well, such as Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish and Christian, representing ‘perfection’ and ‘completion’.
In Seven Variations of Indigo Koraichi celebrated the colour blue, which he suggests echoes the ‘vaults of heaven’, as described by Rumi. Koraichi’s banners are embroidered by webs of intertwining gold threads; but he frequently avoids colour, working with the dramatic contrast of black on white or earth-coloured clay, or starkly black steel calligraphic amulets. In his installations he often plays on the intersections of the shadows of such minimalist metal sculptures, their transience evoking the ephemeral character of life, in contrast to the permanence and stability of his steel forms. The combination of their polished surfaces gleaming in the light and their dancing, diaphanous shadows holds eternity captive. For both Rumi and Koraichi, the aesthetic and the metaphysical cannot be separated—after all great art is always about transformation.