50e Biennale de Venise

Le Polygone et le Dédale

Samta Benyahia originally based her design for Le Polygon et Le Dédale – literally, the Polygon and the Labyrinth – on the Fatima rosette, an intense turquoise blue motif commonly found in Andalusian-Arabic pottery and architecture. More than a mere ornament or stylistic device, this rosette, pared down and purified, is a common feature of her work: set on the ground or adorning stained-glass screens or the Moucharabieh partitions that both divide and interconnect spaces, allowing the viewer to see without being seen and symbolizing the opposition between the internal and the external, the feminine and the masculine, fullness and void. 

Seen from above, the outer walls of Le Polygon et Le Dédale form the shape of an eight-pointed star – the star being a multicultural symbol of cosmic order and universal harmony, and the figure eight corresponding to the eight cardinal points, the eight spokes of the wheel of Fortune or to the New Testament’s eighth day, the day of rebirth and renewal. Via an opening in the eighth point of the star, the visitor enters a space that expresses spirituality with greater force and conviction than almost any of the artist’s other recently exhibited pieces. Just large enough for three or four people at a time, it is like a chamber of wonders, with the feel of a place of prayer, a place conducive to meditation.

Inside, across each of the star’s inner angles stands a stained-glass window, an opening to another world. Each window consists of three superimposed layers of glass adorned with one of three originally silk-screened Fatima rosette patterns, each featuring a different-sized blue or green rosette. The first layer’s kiln-formed, undulating surface creates the illusion that the motifs are moving within the depth of a transparent space of contrast. In harmony with a deep blue rosette set on the floor at the centre of the space, these windows produce an astonishing, rare interplay of colours and light that conjures up a touch of magic.

Le Polygon et Le Dédale, in its scale and wooden structuring, resembles the remarkably intricate and accomplished models of the Renaissance master architects. One senses the spirit of Daedalus, builder of the labyrinth in which Minos enclosed the Minotaur, conveying a sense of capture and liberation, knowledge and initiation, a psychic and spiritual journey.

Samta Benyahia created Le Polygon et Le Dédale especially for the 2003 Venice Biennial’s Fault Lines (shifting landscapes) exhibition at the Venice Arsenale. “I could not help being movedby this theme,” says the artist, “from the moment that I decided to take it on in tribute to the memory of the major work of the Algerian poet, Kateb Yacine, author of The Star-shaped Polygon (Nedjma in Arabic), who passed away in 1989. Visitors entering my installation will therefore hear readings from interviews with him dating back to between 1958 and 1989, and compiled and edited by Gilles Carpentier in 1994. ‘East and West are no more. The polygon has returned to the fore. And if there are echoes of Algiers on the streets of Dublin, it is because the creative artist does not inhabit but is inhabited by some starry vertigo, made all the starrier by the fact that he set out from the darkest corner of his alley. Words pummelled by poverty and fatigue … the crossing, in the depths of the hold … drifting from town to town in search of hypothetical casual jobs … olidarities shattered by the inevitability of hunger… the noxious vapours of silver nitrate from the bottom of the factory wells and the foreman’s racism … who has a thought for poetry when they’re living, if you can call it living, in such conditions’. “Le Polygon et Le Dédale is especially well suited to the Fault Lines exhibition,” she goes on, “conveying, as it does, the ideas of fissure and shifting landscapes. In tribute to the great Yacine – who, like so many of our continent’s thinkers and intellectuals, died in isolation, in the total indifference of a single party state that is ignorant of its times – a three-dimensional circular structure with a star-shaped polygon at each of its outer angles expresses the complexity of the world, the imbalance between North and South, the inequalities between men and women, plenty and famine, archaism and modernism. Once inside, however, one discovers a unified space, a kind of cocoon, a place of memory and eflection that is a symbolic recreation of the world of the past and present.”

Accompanying Yacine’s words are recordings of Aurès Berber songs performed by Hourla Aïchi, oral traditions passed on from mother to daughter and punctuating the lives of women. Those songs of love and exile resonate with the poet’s words, filling Le Polygon et Le Dédale with a disembodied human presence. With her gothic arch-style stained-glass windows filtering the light to magnificently enhance the Mediterranean rosette, Samta Benyahia has set out to reunite cultures polarized by history, cultures whose combined endeavours have contributed to the continuing advancement of knowledge, not least in the arts and sciences. While Western cathedrals open up to the light of day thanks to the skills of glaziers exalting in the purity of primary colours, secular and religious life in the civilizations of the Maghreb blossoms forth from within buildings onto bright courtyards and patios, into the spouting waters of fountains, enriched by luxurious mosaic-adorned surrounds.

At the centre of Polygon et Le Dédale is a sequin-filled rosette that Samta Benyahia likens to a “pool that reflects both light and darkness and the viewer’s silhouette”. It is also the most unabashedly feminine part of the piece, a dash of lightness. By introducing this element of finery, by casting in the sequins to bedazzle and distract as if she were putting the finishing touches to her work, the artist has placed at the heart of the edifice a shifting mirror reflecting one’s image of self and of others, within a prism where the worlds of the real and the imaginary inevitably fuse.

Sylvie Couderc

Dreams and conflicts. The dictatorship of the viewer. Catalogue Biennale de Venise, 2003. « La traversée des moucharabiehs et autres jalousies… » Ramon Tio Bellido.