Nabil Azab The Big Mess With Us Inside It

May 6–Jun 11,  2023
    Nabil Azab, Untitled (The Big Mess With Us Inside It No. 1), 2023. Commissioned by Pumice Raft, Toronto 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Franz Kaka, Toronto
Nabil Azab, Untitled (The Big Mess With Us Inside It No. 1), 2023. Commissioned by Pumice Raft, Toronto 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Franz Kaka, Toronto

In tandem with the commissioned billboard project Just How We Found It, Pumice Raft presents this solo exhibition by Montréal-based artist Nabil Azab. Framing photographic abstraction through the cultural and political context of family history, the artist’s practice engages archival and family photographs, immersing viewers within memories and ghost images that highlight the subjectivity of recollection and the role of storytelling in the formation of identity.

Nabil Azab, The Big Mess, 2023 (felt marker on inkjet print). Courtesy of the artist

In the October 18, 1935 issue of The Daily Telegraph, a black-and-white photograph from The Associated Press depicts a tightly-packed crowd of Italian soldiers aboard a troopship, sailing through the Suez Canal towards the northern Abyssinian front. For people living along the British-controlled Suez Canal, this image might represent the origin of Italian influence amidst the complicated colonial rule of North-Eastern Africa and its waterways. For Azab, this image helped contextualize why his grandmother, who was born in Port Said, Egypt, was taught Italian in grade school. 

Planet News Ltd, [Untitled], 1956 (gelatin silver print). Courtesy of Nabil Azab and Pumice Raft

Twenty-one years after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, an unknown Planet News Ltd. photographer captured an image of Suez Canal builder Ferdinand de Lesseps’s statue in freefall, moments after toppling off its base in Port Said. Published on December 21, 1956, this image acts as an icon for the Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal—an event that contributed to the scattering of Azab’s family across the Middle East and Europe. But rather than highlighting its direct subject matter, Azab focuses on the plumes of dust and billowing smoke surrounding the icon, engaging with his own identity through the past’s persistent atemporality and its entanglement with the present. Opacity through abstraction represents the potential value of seemingly unintelligible experiences, impenetrable and hidden. In other words, opacity makes potential exponential, in contrast to the cultural flattening that often characterizes transparency, legibility, and representation (see Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 2006). The quality of this abstraction offers different ways of looking that do not rely on a resolution.

In Azab’s practice, his grandmother’s photographs are often a point of departure for his own abstract works, sometimes using a single image as the locus for an entire exhibition, as was the case in Something good that never happened, shown at Afternoon Projects in 2022. By scanning an original photograph or negative and subsequently projecting it at a magnification beyond its referent, Azab engages with the image at the scale of his own body so that it can be rephotographed and, in turn, incorporated into the artist’s own experience. Within these moments of translation, Azab allows the images to breathe, effectively creating new meanings that manifest out of the tension between specificity and abstraction. This gesture challenges the truth claims of documentary photography while highlighting the gap between a photograph’s subject matter and the porous nature of cultural memory.

Nabil Azab, Untitled (The Big Mess With Us Inside It No. 2), 2023. Commissioned by Pumice Raft, Toronto 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Franz Kaka, Toronto

The Big Mess With Us Inside It and the satellite billboard project Just How We Found It present works that express an aural tonality, where the aesthetic composition of the images enact a deep relational gestalt—not only in reference to Azab’s biography, but also between the artist and the public. Azab’s photographic abstractions use archival materials and methodologies as a starting point rather than a final result.

Read more about the billboard component of this project.

Curated by Parker Kay

Project commissioned by Pumice Raft. Courtesy of the artist and Franz Kaka, Toronto. Presented by Pumice Raft in partnership with CONTACT

Nabil Azab (b. 1994, Paris, France) is a multidisciplinary artist of North African descent. They live and work in kanien’kehá:ka territory (Montréal). Azab employs drawing, painting, writing and researching as fodder for abstract photographic works that resist the objectivity and disciplinarity of the medium in contemporary life. Recent solo exhibitions include Something good that never happened at Afternoon Projects, Vancouver (2022) and the welling up which would not pass at DRAC, Drummondville, Quebec (2022).