When his works first began to appear in 1988, professor Georges Lapassade, who had been studying and had published numerous works on Essaouira popular culture for nearly thirty years, declared : « the Moroccan Gnawa at last have their own artist », devoting a thus-entitled precursory article to Tabal, which was later followed by another article called « The other Tabal », in which he carried out a thorough study of the ritual possession trances and Tabal’s « double-split personality », i.e. that of both the ritual dancers and his own, given that, in order to paint, it is « the other Tabal » who emerges, the one whose « head flies off », to cite his own words which so perfectly describe that mysterious ability to dissociate that lies at the root of all trances.
It is surprising to note that ritual possession art had existed in Haïti for over fifty years, whereas no member of the brotherhood had ever taken up a paintbrush in North Africa until Tabal started to paint in 1988. One may well wonder why. It certainly was not because it was forbidden in Islam. Whilst numerous, poorly-informed people think that painting is forbidden in Islam, this is not in fact the case. The Spiritual Leader, his majesty King Hassan II, clearly confirmed this in an interview in the paper Le Matin on 28 November 1988. There is not a single verse in the Holy Koran that forbids painting.
After the king’s speech, a wind of freedom swept through the different popular and figurative art forms in Morocco. In Essaouira, numerous self-taught artists emerged, giving free reign to their inspiration, fantasies and imaginations. Spontaneous artists free of all learning and academism began producing extraordinary works deeply rooted in African religious culture, astonishing works that revealed a refreshing spirit and a deep sense of creativity.
Mohamed Tabal stood out as the figure head of this new Essaouira art movement. When he brought me his first four paintings one very fine autumn day in 1988, I immediately felt a shock. These « humble little things » painted on old split pieces of wood were highly interesting and manifested a clear artistic sense. In particular, there was a painting representing his father painted a year after his death and another about an unhappy love story.
Tabal had clearly not painted these works to become an artist. They were born in an existential emanation of the Gnawi universe. If we accept the the Gnawa supernatural relations linking the living to the spirits of the dead, we can understand why Tabal sought to recreate the presence of his father and of a loved one near him. These first paintings were thus emanations of possessions and magic, as in the Voodoo and Gnawa traditions, and they immediately introduced Tabal’s universe.
After we met, Tabal hung up his drum and became a painter. Every week, he brought me fascinating paintings, masterpieces of the imagination. He drew his inspiration from his African origins and Gnawa traditions. His works did not emerge from the former drummer’s conscious realm, but were cloaked in the mystical atmosphere of the Gnawa rituals, and recalled the mythical stories of the public storytellers.
At home in this universe, Tabal exerts the artists prerogative to paint as he chooses. Free in his methods, he can be classed in no school and has no constraints. Nothing and nobody retrains his inspiration, which proves that truly creative painting is a natural gift that has nothing to do with long periods spent in art schools. His highly original works open up a magical, sometimes chaotic universe, where only one order reigns, that of the born creator’s need to paint.
Eyes frequently play a primordial role in his painting. The contours are black, the pupils sometimes inhabited by the face of a character who blends into the composition, staring hypnotically. Is it a hypnosis session or a trance ? The question may well be asked because his paintings stare as much as they are stared at. In Tabal’s work, the fundamental presence of the eyes is an opening onto the mysterious and a mirror contributing to the strangeness of his works. They are magical, but not scary, and it would be exaggerated to describe them as haunted.
The colours are brighter and brighter, and in his more recent works, there are a multitude of little details that almost obsessively cover the mediums and surfaces of his paintings like sculptures. Representing a new stage in Tabal’s work, they are human or zoomorphic representations painted on a wooden frame with cardboard and hardboard collages. A huge camel with a multi-coloured cockerel, a blue dog-crocodile, a table surmounted by a revolving disc, and other highly amusing objects take us right into the heart of this extravagant universe.
///Article N° : 5325