First published: Summer 2017
Michel Nedjar was born in 1947 near Paris, at Soisy-sous-Montmorency (Val d’Oise). His father was a Sephardi and his mother an Ashkenazi, but he became aware of his Jewish origins and the horrors suffered by the Jewish people only after watching Alain Resnais’s film Nuit et Brouillard (1956). Half of the Nedjar family were killed in deportation. It was a crucial moment in Nedjar’s future life: he made his first painting in oils, representing a deportee surrounded by flames and burning bodies.
Untitled (Présence), 1994, acrylic and wax on paper, 41.3 x 29.5 ins. / 105 x 75 cm
His father ran a tailor’s shop and Nedjar was expected to continue the business. He learnt to sew, and even earned a Certificate of Professional Competence, but in 1969 he discovered another universe that absorbed him for his whole life. His sister owned a book on the history of art, and in it Nedjar discovered prehistoric cave paintings as well as the work of Aloïse Corbaz, which changed his perception of reality. The same year, Nedjar started a relationship with Teo Hernandez, who introduced him to experimental cinema, literature and poetry. Together they travelled to Spain, Morocco and Portugal in 1972, where Nedjar took LSD, and after that to Mexico in 1973 to 1975, where he was introduced to hallucinogenic mushrooms by a local shaman. During his stay in Mexico, he saw the magical Hopi kachina dolls, made from cottonwood root and symbolising the immortal god-like beings that control the weather and bridge the gap between the human and the spirit world. When Nedjar returned from Mexico to Paris, he created his first dolls, which were exhibited at Atelier Jacob, Paris. In 1978, after a terrible depression, Nedjar created a series of dolls using fabrics, rags, feathers and ropes. He put these dolls, which he called “Chairdâmes”, in a ritual bath of soil and blood and buried them in the ground before their definitive birth. Their tragic appearance is reminiscent of the burning, mutilated corpses in Nuit et Brouillard. But these dolls also evoke a secret passion from Nedjar’s childhood, to create dolls from wood and pieces of fabric found at home. Another reason that pushed Nedjar to create his dolls was his desire to part ways with his “vocation” of a tailor. He tore the fabrics as if cutting off the past where he had to obey his father. Making the dolls – in great quantities – became a cathartic ritual that processed and released his pain, and also marked the beginning of his artistic quest. Nedjar travelled extensively and always brought something home with him. Often it was something he found on the street, which he then used in making his dolls. He always chose used materials, to give them a second birth in his work. He said he “doesn’t want to let them die”. Guardians of the history of different countries, these dolls became talismans, charged with the memories of these places. Several times, Nedjar almost gave up making the dolls, but he always came back to this “ritual” in times of great personal hardship, such as when his partner, Teo, died in 1992, and after his father died in 2010. After his father’s death, Nedjar began to sew his dolls with a needle, as if he was bringing the ragged edges of this fundamental loss together.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #94