Adel Abdessemed

‘Mon Enfant’, 2014
133 × 70 × 40 cm

Even at first glance, Abdessemed’s Mon Enfant (“my child”) confronts the viewer with one of the most powerful experiences to be had when facing an image, when immediate identification occurs and an unmistakable memory arises, clutching at a few features that constitute a faithful representation. The jauntily tilted cap, the short coat and, more poignantly, the arms raised in surrender recall, all of a sudden, the emblematic picture of a Jewish boy taken during the evacuation of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. Sharing the fate of all images whose visual impact turns them into an emblem, this photograph was progressively detached from its original context to become an icon of all childhood betrayed, transcending the uniqueness of the little boy who was photographed by German soldiers (and who was fully identified afterwards). This process is powerful but it also exposes the image to the risk of becoming a mere symbol, replacing the actual event and its complexity with an abstract idea and general values of compassion and pity.

Mon Enfant resists such “symbolic evolution” through a resurgence of individuation via the very materiality of the sculpture, where the mimetic fidelity of the photograph gives way to the dense substance of the ivory. The figure thus inhabits a new time-frame, one that is condensed and plural, reinvigorating the meaning: the memory of the well-known icon merges with the dense temporality of the organic, and precious, material. The icon regains the possibility of being adopted by the viewer, of becoming “my child” rather than just an emblem.

History thus becomes a history of individuations, of single bodies and of their afterlives in other times. It is not by chance that Abdessemed mentioned, among other visual echoes in the sculpture, the pose of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, the painting taken by Walter Benjamin as a key image for his philosophy of history. Like Benjamin’s angel of history with its widespread wings, the little boy’s eyes and raised hands are turned toward the past, staring at the catastrophe overwhelming him, even as the wind of history, trapped in his open arms, blows his fragile figure into our future. The sculpture intercepts the movement that incessantly transforms a child of the past into “my child,” merging an embodiment of the disasters of history into the light features of the ivory.

Angela Mengoni