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EXHIBITION Eloquent cries of mourning, loss and displacement

MICHAL BONCZA recommends a unique exhibition whose centre-piece is a collection of 'tear-gathering' vessels

Rachid Koraichi: Tears that Taste of the Sea
October Gallery, London

THERE’S a thematic unity to the ceramic vases, paintings and sculptures on show in this Rachid Koraichi exhibition, encapsulated by the apt line from a Shakespeare sonnet: “Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,/For precious friends hid in death’s dateless nigh,” an apt introduction to these meditations on sorrow.

Metaphorically collected in the large, inscribed lachrymatory vessels on display, these mass-produced “tear gatherers” were found in late-Roman period tombs and, no bigger than a little finger, contained the tears of a grieving relative.

Seeing them in museums, Koraichi was astonished by their exquisite craftsmanship and speculated about the lost stories of anguish that once filled them: “If only, somehow, we could analyse the empty vessels to retrieve their forgotten secrets,” he wondered.

One he saw had two handles reminiscent of a woman’s form, with arms akimbo and rested on broad hips and it inspired Koraichi to create a vase with four handles that would combine male and female sorrows.

There is an unassuming elegance in the shape and white surfaces of these striking lachrymatory vessels, inscribed in the blue of the sea and sky and representing both invisibility and the infinite. The seven on show invoke the mysterious numeral recurring in so many different cultural traditions.

Koraichi imagined using oversized vases as receptacles of past tears of pain but the sorrows of Algeria’s decade-long war of independence from France from 1954 on, or the 1990s campaign against murderous Islamist zealots, are still vividly and excruciatingly present in his mind.

While the international community looked away, 250,000 civilians were slaughtered and the seas of tears that followed in their wake might well have been gathered in Koraichi’s vases.

On the walls there are 21 richly inscribed handkerchiefs and for Koraichi they are depositories of tearful memories that cannot be simply washed off. Each rectangle, encapsulating a single intimate narrative forever etched in time and irreplaceable, has talismanic powers.

This vein of loss, memory and solace is resurrected in Koraichi’s plans for The Garden of Africa in Zarzis, Tunisia, which he sees as an Islamic idea of a cemetery as a restful garden. A non-denominational space, it will be inaugurated under the auspices of Unesco in June.

It will be “filled with the sound of water and teeming with plants — jasmine, hibiscus, bougainvillea, cypress, oranges and scented herbs – like a true garden of paradise,” Koraichi says.

And it will symbolise a place of rest and burial for the refugees who perish along the perilous sea routes in search of a dignified life and whose countless remains are returned to the shores by the currents, to be tossed onto the rubbish heaps of North Africa’s costal towns.

Ends June12. Entry is free and details of opening times and access are available at: octobergallery.co.uk

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