Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

In Praise of Rags

Michel Nedjar's dirty dolls

I first came across the singular dolls of Michel Nedjar at the Halle St. Pierre art museum in Paris, at the foot of the Montmartre hill. These dolls, hanging against dark backgrounds in the filtered museum light, left me no peace. Made largely from fabric—often rags picked up in the street, bits of cloth discarded by the homeless—the dolls are transformed in the most surprising and violent ways. Nedjar buries them or mixes them with earth, plaster or blood; subjects them to pigment baths or runs a hot iron over them; ties them with string as tight as baling wire and hangs them from the neck. If you were to meet the creator of such objects, what sort of man would you expect to find? Probably not the charming, lighthearted, generous, energetic, open-minded man that Nedjar is. Walking through Paris with him, you see the city in a new way. The quantity of things left behind on the sidewalks that might be made into dolls! Shoes, with or without laces, lengths of fabric bundled together with duct tape.Nedjar’s father was a tailor of Algerian Jewish background. His maternal grandmother had a stall in the St. Ouen flea market, at which, until quite recently, Nedjar worked as well. At the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to become a tailor in the family business. The apprenticeship was not a great success. Instead he took the Jewish rag-trade tradition, the schmattes culture, and subjected it to his own dark impulses. Schmattes were renewed and reinvented, brought out of the alleys and into the art galleries. In Nedjar’s case, all the way to the Centre Pompidou. In these burned and twisted human forms, these toys that are awfully hard to play with, there are direct echoes of the concentration camps. Nedjar lost most of his family to the Nazis. In the Belleville district, he points out the apartments from which they were taken. But thanks to his dolls, the dead live again. That’s Nedjar’s art: to give life to lifeless rags, to let the spirits in them emerge and haunt us.