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Rachid Koraïchi: A Celestial Architecture
By Maryline Lostia
Particular and unique groups have taught us to see ourselves as particular and unique beings, believing in our own ineluctability, taking ourselves to be one and only. To remain one and only, you have to block out all others, and thus, mimetically, systems are reproduced. And the act of resistance rightly consists in not falling into the trap and in saying that to be an artist is to be several and that no one holds truth captive.
Rachid Koraïchi 
Born in the Aurés region of Algeria in 1947, Rachid Koraïchi grew up in a Sufi family. This fact is important in understanding the sacred place he accords to writing and signs. From his earliest childhood, even before he could read, he turned his gaze to the Arabic writing present in his home on illuminated pages in old books decorated with arabesques. Full of marvel and mystery, these books were kept away from children, a fact that did not fail to arouse the boy's curiosity.
Early in the morning, before the regular school day began, the Koraïchi family would send the three-year-old boy to zawia, the traditional school for the study of the Qur'an.The teacher or taleb would ask the children to recite the Qur'anic verses that had been inscribed the evening before on a wooden palimpsest. Then the memorized text was erased from the board, which was thus prepared to receive the tracing of other letters studiously applied by the child, carefully holding between his fingers the qalam, the writing reed, so unforgiving of mistakes. This early apprenticeship, characteristic in Arab-Islamic culture, unquestionably established in the child a profound attachment to the act of writing.
This attitude that connected the act of writing to the sacred was reinforced by the religious text itself. In the passage of the Qur'an describing Creation, the world comes into being through the divine word. The Arabic letters kaf and nûn are the two signs that command Creation (these two letters, which constitute the imperative of Creation, correspond to the 'fiat' of Christian tradition). From that moment on, the power accorded to the word by religious tradition is immense. Words engender Being as well as the reality of everything that surrounds us.
In the beginning was the sign, and it is more than likely that humanity itself also began with signs. We find signs inscribed in the first rock paintings at Tassili; these are the first faltering gestures of writing. The beauty of these prehistoric works fascinated Koraïchi.
Jamel Eddine Bencheikh describes Koraïchi's work as écriture passion ('writing passion'). This 'writing passion' may be understood in several senses. First, it may be explained by the artist's interest in texts from the mystic traditions of Islam, texts whose import he will take up again in his own work. It may also be explained by the related work he did with his friends, Mohammed Dib, Bencheikh and the Palestinian poet laureate Mahmoud Darwish, but also with René Char and Michel Butor, showing that different cultures may be enriched and nourished by their mutual encounters. "ln the space of the studio, one comes to our work as in a one-to-one confrontation. But in reality, that work is irrigated by and ramified in the reflection and labor of others,"  Koraïchi says in an interview. Over the course of his career, the characters of a personal alphabet have proliferated, investing his work with a force by which letters become signs, or by which signs come to life in the form of personages (and in such instances we may understand that the human figure is a sign among other signs, created and named, as is the case with other message-bearing letters).
The dizzying replication of letters and signs reveals the drunken play of many entangled elements; echoes rebound off one another and multiply. The artist seems to be animated by the folly of repetition. If this is so, it is because the spiritual world is as infinite as his quest. How, then, as signs that give form to desired beauty, can finite words attain and encompass this spiritual world? In his quest, Koraïchi echoes the same concerns as Sufi writers over the centuries who have wondered how words, images or signs can truly interpret the mysteries envisioned in ecstatic contemplation.
The work of Koraïchi makes us see two essential and contradictory aspects inherent in the letter and the sign. By the infinite compositions that a set of signs or letters may engender, reality is created and totality constituted. But this totality, no matter how hard we try to hold onto it by running through all the possible combinations of letters or signs, will always escape from us, because that totality is infinite and too rich, and because that totality is also multiplicity.
Materials of Memory
Arab-Islamic civilization is characterized by a love of the divine word. The sura of the Qur'an are ceaselessly chanted. The divine Word, stunning in its lyricism, is copied over and over again, embedding itself, painting itself. Calligraphic works in which letters spring to life with animal and vegetable forms cover objects of all descriptions: papyrus manuscripts, the façades of Qasabah, enameled ceramics, talismans in copper or bronze, the domes of mosques and prayer rugs. Everything becomes available as the support for the sacred word. Proud of this tradition, which has inscribed itself in him, Rachid Koraïchi distinguishes himself from other artists in his choice of material supports. Of course, he does not forget easel and canvas, but he seldom uses it. Instead of enumerating the kinds of supporting ground on which Koraïchi has applied his efforts, one would have an easier time asking which ones he has not made use of. If clouds and the sea or wind, in their immensity, have evaded him as supports on which to inscribe his marks, they have nonetheless symbolically incarnated in his works. Furthermore, Koraïchi makes use of the flight of birds to draw pathways leading to the sky, and these pathways between heaven and earth, invisible to us, have as much material reality for him as the markings of a pen.
In other works, Koraïchi takes the natural phenomenon of light and tames it. Natural light in return draws its ephemeral traces for him. In such a way, the shadows that his sculptures throw on the walls multiply his works by re-casting and re-drawing them.This alliance with the sun allows the artist to give another life to what he creates, as if, once finished, this artistic creation draws on its own vital energy to engender other works over time. For example, his personage-signs sculpted in steel are doubled by their shadows, which seem to act autonomously in laying themselves all over the ground, overlapping and intermingling, only to disappear at the end of the day to be reborn on the next. Even light and space function as invisible supports.
Renewing his aims with an ancient tradition that did not distinguish between artist and artisan, Rachid Koraïchi celebrates objects fashioned by artisans. He has often worked with people whose timeless craftsmanship he admires. Among many others, one might mention the potters of Jerba who, with their ancestral know-how, extract from the earth clay jars whose simple beauty seduces us. Koraïchi has a similar appreciation for the skill of the embroiderer Fadila Barrada of Casablanca, whose examples of worked indigo linen may be admired in this exhibition. The list of objects is long: vases, shallow ceramic basins for ritual ablutions, enameled plates, wool rugs, ornamented and embroidered fabrics in silk or linen, kaftans (women's traditional dress). Revisited, all the artisan forms that Koraïchi employs in his work come to new life, as if fitted and adorned with a woven garment where the interlaced threads unfurl in exuberant lines, modeling themselves into the signs and sentences that make up his universe. In this immense variety of forms and supports, the integrity of his style confers a unique identity on his objects.
Koraïchi's name predestined him to his work, since the quraishite is the individual whose inherited responsibility it is to transmit the meaning of the divine message of the Qur'an through some hermeneutic device. Koraïchi's work with signs links him to this ancestral vocation and leads him to examine individual elements of the text. In this inquiry and throughout his work, he attempts to disentangle one of the seven esoteric meanings of the sacred text. One of the hadith (a sacred word transmitted by the prophet but not written down in the Qur'an) affirms: 'The Qur'an has an exoteric and an esoteric meaning. This esoteric meaning itself has an esoteric meaning, and so on, for seven esoteric meanings.' Koraïchi focuses on the signs and symbols that have been transmitted through several civilizations, then invents other possibilities.
Such procedure might appear a little fanciful, but put into the context of a certain Arabic legend, it assumes another dimension. It is said that the Arabic alphabet was formerly composed of all the letters we are familiar with and, in addition, seven other letters that have since been lost.  The ensemble of letters in their entirety conferred on whoever possessed them the power to answer all questions. Tradition recounts that the lost letters fell under the table and disappeared. It is these missing letters that have withheld from us the ability to deciphering the ultimate meaning of existence. Reality, like meaning, has plural existences.
Between the lines, as it were, we note that although the quraishite's vocation is to transmit the message of the Qur'an, it is also his duty to show that this message does not exist. For instance, contrary to conventional wisdom, although tradition has forbidden the representation of figurative images in the mosques, Islamic dogma does not bar artists from the use of figuration. Islam is an aniconistic religion, not an iconoclastic one. In other words, the representation of figurative images is not prohibited; it is their adoration that is condemned. Koraïchi, who is thoroughly immersed in Muslim culture, understands this difference, and therefore denounces the twisted, contrary interpretations to which Islam has been subjected. Profoundly attached to the beauty of Qur'anic message, he reiterates and invigorates the Sufi tradition, which is the bearer of a life-enhancing message of tolerance and openness.
The Way of Correspondences
The story of the encounter between Koraïchi, a contemporary artist and Maulana Jalal ad-Din Rumi, a thirteenth century mystic and founder of the order of whirling dervishes, is one of a culmination of many long journeys, rich in deviations and travel companions. One might say that Koraïchi is a good artist to go 'on the road' with, a companion who makes the way more beautiful, narrowing it through a game of mirrors until one place indicates another point of departure, which is in turn enriched by a new encounter. On his way to Rumi, Koraïchi is accompanied by two other Sufi thinkers: Ibn Arabi and al-'Attar. To the former, Rachid Koraïchi has devoted a traveling exhibition entitled Letters of Clay. This exhibition commemorated the work of Ibn al-Arabi with an itinerary that begins in Damascus, where he is buried, and follows in reverse the path of his life as far as Murcia in Spain. Koraïchi has rendered homage as well to al-'Attar, author of The Conference of Birds. Koraïchi's installations in the gardens of Chaumont in 1998 and 1999 revealed the invisible routes traced by birds in flight between sky and earth.
Al-'Attar and Ibn Arabi are like Ariadne's thread, leading to a specific place and to a specific man. That man is Maulana Jalal ad-Din Rumi. The intersecting itineraries of these men share in one historical fact: at the time of a long trip with his family, seven-year-old Rumi met al-'Attar, who presented him with The Book of Secrets as a gift. Throughout his life, Rumi would greatly admire and cherish the older man, and write that the master had journeyed to the Seven Cities of Love, meaning that he eventually attained spiritual fulfillment. Did Rumi meet Ibn al-Arabi, on the other hand? Only legend would have it so, though the meeting of minds is undeniable. Ibn Arabi traveled to Qonya in the course of the year 1210. His teachings developed in the city, thanks to the most influential of his disciples, Saddredin al Qunawi. It is also at Qonya that the most reliable manuscripts of the works of Ibn al-Arabi have been preserved. Ripe with spiritual opportunities and endowed with a long-standing aesthetic tradition, located at a cross-roads where the paths of great mystics intersected, having cradled Hittite civilization and welcomed two thousand years later one of the most fervent disciples of Christ, Saint Paul, the sacred city of Qonya reached its apogee in the 13th century in an exceptional climate of exchange among diverse religious beliefs. This city stood for openness and tolerance, and it is there that Rumi settled and later founded the monastic order of whirling dervishes, the Mawlawiya.
The inexhaustible spiritual world of Rumi has enthralled Koraïchi the artist for long. The Path of Roses (Le Chemin de Roses), his first exhibition devoted to the scholar and held in Ankara in December 1999, included twenty-eight basins for ritual ablutions, ornamented with texts from Rumi and pertaining to his philosophy. Another exhibition in Morocco, entitled The Path of Roses II included linen ribbons embroidered with Rumi's words, twenty-eight steel sculptures measuring ninety-eight centimeters and ninetyeight sign-symbols measuring twenty-eight centimeters. In the installation the artist played with the intersection of shadows, their transience symbolizing the ephemeral character of life in contrast to the permanence and stability of the steel figures of Humanity forever standing in the sun. The latest installation brings together different works that Koraïchi has executed over the past two years, also in homage to the Sufi master.
Rumi and the Songs of the Mirror
Maulana Jalal ad-Din Rumi's philosophy accords an important place to poetry, music and dance. If the arts are the object of constant admiration, it is because they are the means of acceding to the divine, and afford us to the beauty of Being. To better understand this, one has to think of God as the Artist Creator par excellence. The creation of the world is the living work of the greatest artist, yet in creating the world, God did nothing other than create a mirror, as demonstrated in the hadith qudsi (sacred word) in which God says, "I was a hidden treasure, and I desired to be known. I created the world in order to be known by it." 
Rumi saw in the original act of the Creator the will to communicate His transcendence. According to him, "The artist demonstrates his talent so that we may believe in him and recognize his capacities."  But if the world is the mirror of epiphany in which the glory of Being is reflected, this same world is made divine because it reflects divine Beauty: "The totality of forms is only a reflection in the water of the stream: if your eyes were open, you would know that in reality all forms are He."  Hence, immanence and transcendence are not two separate phenomena: they are complementary aspects of the same Reality.
In the Rumi tradition of Sufi mysticism, the artist unveils the beauty of Creation, thereby bringing us closer to Being. The best artist, according to the master, is the one most adept at reflecting Creation. The passivity of the artistic mind as the contemplator of beauty is illustrated by a parable that Rumi tells in his work, Mathnawi: in order to pick the best artists a sultan set up a contest between the Chinese and the Greeks, giving each an opposite wall to decorate. A curtain separated them.The Chinese deployed all their graphic talents, while the Greeks tirelessly shined their wall day after day. Once the curtain was raised, it was the reflection of the Chinese frescoes on the polished wall of the Greeks that aroused the most admiration. The Greeks, for Rumi, were the authentic artists; the purity of the mirror evoked the purity of their hearts, which had the capacity to receive innumerable images. As for the artist, so for the saint, for according to Rumi "the perfect saint preserves within himself the infinite form without form of the Invisible as reflected in the mirror of his own heart." 
The artist, then, is the mirror reflecting transcendence: through his reflections we are permitted to contemplate the Beauty of Being. This contemplation is precious. Through it, our eyes become accustomed to the image of a higher Beauty, a Beauty otherwise inaccessible because its inherent purity is too great for our eyes. The artist becomes the mediator between this divine essence and us.
This concept of artistic creation as a mediating presence could only be seductive to the quraishite, the interpreter and scribe. Tradition requires that Qur'anic verses and the texts of the mystics be written as if they were reflected in a mirror, so that the meaning is veiled to those who do not understand it. To access the meaning of a text therefore requires concentration and purification, for the sacred word is too precious to be easily divulged. Rachid Koraïchi is faithful to this tradition, and applies it to his renditions of Rumi's texts. Like a companion to the great mystic, Koraïchi reflects certain fragments of his poems. If for Koraïchi, artistic creation consists in the will to make oneself a mirror to the beauty and culture that surround us, there is also in him the temptation of the demiurge who gives life to his creations. In a number of works he uses the mirror effect so that if the works were folded along a central line, they could be super-imposed with exact symmetry, just as the palm of the right hand can be super-imposed over its reflection, which is the left palm. The message of this is that every living being constitutes on its left side the reflection of its right. The artist is effaced before this re-created beauty, which, through the game of mirrors, is imbued with a life and movement of its own.
All artistic forms are a means of acceding to transcendence, a way of seizing the unity of Creation through universal sympathy. Neither the religious meditations of the Qur'an nor rational knowledge accord us privileged access to Being. In contrast, music, poetry and dance are not only testimonials to the grandeur of the Creator, but also modes of communion in which all Creation may participate.
Metaphysics of the Arts
Music, according to Rumi, is a mystical activity in tune with a sacred cosmos where all Creation celebrates the glory of God. In this way the entire Universe comes together to sing the triumphal joy of Creation: "I see the waters that gush from their springs... the branches of the trees that dance like penitents, the leaves that clap their hands like minstrels."  As creation celebrates its Creator, music is also a setting forth, with the musical scale  symbolizing the ascension of all Creation: "From the moment when you came into the world of existence, a ladder was placed in front of you so that you could escape. At first you were mineral, then you became plant; then you became animal: how would you be unaware of it? Then you were human, endowed with cognition, reason, and faith. Consider this body pulled from out of the dust: what perfection it has acquired."  Even mineral life participates - at the lowest rung of the ladder in the lowest note of the scale - in a song raised up toward human perfection. But this great symphony also lets itself be interpreted as the echo of the divine voice reverberating from macrocosm to microcosm.
To this fleeting art, the most beautiful because it is the most metaphysical, Rachid Koraïchi is undeniably sensitive. Even if they seem rudimentary because they sound only a single note, the ritual ablution bowls in his installations are like the shells of porcelain that charm the ear of the artist. In his creations Koraïchi gathers the breadth of notes, from the ting of the voice of porcelain, which resonates like a tuning fork, to the varied and spontaneous songs of the birds for which the artist created a garden in homage to al-'Attar.  If music is celebrated in Koraïchi's work, so too is poetry. Poetry is musical creation, which brings with it the creation of images. Transcendence is not spoken but celebrated in poetry or chanted in prayer: it is the musicality of the Verb. The same holds true for the act of writing, which finds form in calligraphy or in the embroidery of golden thread so as to render homage to the text. Rachid Koraïchi re-transcribes the Rumi's texts, be they from the Mystic Odes, Mathnawi, or The Book of the Inside, by repeating them to infinity, as if the poems were a prayer or an incantation to the Divine.
Inseparable from music, dance is more than any other artistic form linked to Rumi.The idea of dance as an aesthetic doorway to communion with the Divine may at first be surprising. We have become accustomed to thinking of the carnal envelope of the body as the eternal prison of the soul, weighing the soul down, distancing us from spirituality. We forget, however, that the body is part of Creation; the body is the spirit's anchor point in the world. The posture of the turning dervish, with one hand stretched toward the sky, and the other turned toward earth, suggests the central position of the human. "Consider this body pulled from the dust: what perfection it has acquired."  The human body thus marks its ascension above the vegetable and animal realms.The dance of the Mawlawi symbolically celebrates the whole of Creation, from the macrocosm to the microcosm. Its movement describes the solar system as a cosmic round in the middle of which every being, like a rotating planet, turns around itself, but the dance also describes the higher levels of ascension attained by Being. According to the Mawlawi, this circular dance is the secret of origin and return, a dance that invites us to return with serenity to the place we have come from. In the gentle and soothing movement of the dance, death loses its tragic form, for when the dancers throw off their black cloaks and toques, symbolizing the tomb, it is so that they may accede to the angelic order, clothed in white, in a supreme gesture of self-surpassing: "When you will have started your voyage from the human condition, you will without any doubt become an angel. When you will have finished with the earth, your dwelling will be the sky. Go beyond the level of the angel: penetrate into this ocean, so that your drop of water may become a vaster sea ..."  Death is beautiful and light, like a dance that, in its movement, carries us higher.
There is the same wisdom, the same jovial acceptance of all of life's motions, in Rachid Koraïchi's work. Whether his movements be the expression of desires and drives or of pain, he finds resolution in a kind of amor fati that is, in a sense, a resignation to the turmoil that dominates the course of our sensate lives. Koraïchi takes the movements of the dervishes and fixes them in steel and on the interior surfaces of ritual bowls; he takes dance and turns it into a rhythmic sequence of successive immobilities. An attentive observer will find the same kind of circular animation in his drawings also: spinning rapidly, the point- symbol of the Unity of Being-gives rise to concentric lines just like a stone tossed into water creates lines of waves on its surface. These concentric circles are like the successive strata that must be mounted in order to travel up the universal ladder of Creation. The entire installation takes up the motif of point and circles like a refrain, recalling that the world and man, in their movements along the circle of existence, owe their appearance to the manifestation of divine Being. The lines of the drawings are inscribed on a ground for which Rachid Koraïchi has chosen the color blue, thus suggesting the vaults of heaven as described by Rumi. The indigo blue used in the fabric of the linen bands embroidered echoes the famous Blue Koran in Cairo. Just as the sura of the Blue Koran are written in gold letters, here a multitude of golden threads intertwine in embroidered letters to underscore the beauty of the message passed on by Rumi.
'Complete faith is pleasure and passion'
Koraïchi and Rumi are connected by a similar mystical vision of love. The Christian distinction between concupiscent love and benevolent love - that trench dug between sensual love, ugly because it is attached to the senses, and a higher form of love - is an arbitrary division. For Rumi, pleasure is no more to be scorned than the flesh: both are parties to Creation. "Happy the soul awakened from sleep by caresses! These caresses render it joyous, the soul tastes this pleasure."  The separation between soul and body is not meaningful. 'Carnal' pleasure engages the entire being, and mingles with aesthetic pleasure. To be captivated by beauty is to answer to our calling:
His two gazelle-like eyes capture lions.
They bring a rain of arrows down on me.
The arch of his eyebrows and the dart of his eyelashes
Attest that it is he who is master of my life.
If I am made distraught by his wild hair,
It is because its perfume intoxicates more than amber or musk.
If my soul hides in his hair and mingles in its thickness,
It is because my soul is held captive in the chains of his tresses. 
When Rumi says of al-'Attar that the latter had traveled to the Seven Cities of Love, there is room to imagine that just as there exists a ladder in Creation, Love offers its own different levels: "Love is the philosopher's stone that carries out transmutations. It transforms dust into a treasure of spiritual meaning." 
The reader coming from occidental culture can only be struck at first glance by how, within the philosophy evoked here, love strips down the ego. If there is transmutation, it is in the form of an effacement of individuality. Love does not address itself to a particular person; it is love of the attributes present. There is no demand to be loved for oneself as an individual, because the one who loves belongs to a greater Love and renounces the self as a unique being. "Be drunk with love, for love is all that is; without love, no one has the right to enter the house of the Beloved. They say, 'What is love?' Reply: 'The renunciation of will itself.'" 
The one who has unveiled the mystery of love,
Is no longer, for he has disappeared in love. 
These notions of the negation of individuality and of timelessness recur in the steel sculptures of Koraïchi's installation for Venice. Standing straight and firm in the light, the steel forms seem to hold eternity captive. But what is inalterable is Being, or generation. There is a radical difference between the solidity of humanity represented standing in the sun, and the fragile traces of those beings that are shown moving about on the ground in the game of projected shadows, traces that are effaced as individuals replace others in succession. As Koraïchi says, "whatever the circumstances, there is continuity."
The shadows intermingle in a stratagem that keeps them out on the ground. They intertwine and meld into one another. The sun, like Love, enables the proximity and congresses. Yet the shadows infinitely fall on the ground, as if lying in death, but what does it matter, since humanity will always stand on the threshold of the present by appealing to other shadows projected by the light of the sun?
The alliance between mystic poet and artist blossoms into a bewitched infatuation with all the arts. If Rachid Koraïchi integrates other artistic forms into his installations, it is in order to show us the richness of such alliances. We find the same notion in Jalal ad-Din Rumi for whom the aesthetic and the metaphysical can never be separated, in the sense that art is the setting out on a journey toward the Divine. Our gaze being insufficiently pure to turn directly toward divine light, art, which is sensitive to the illuminations of the Divine, becomes an intermediary giving us a way to imagine what divine Beauty might be like.
"Life is art," Koraïchi says simply in a book devoted to him. In fact, life is never beautiful; only images are, once the mirror of art and metaphysics has transformed them. Koraïchi fully and completely embraces this lesson that reminds us of Schopenhauer. In order to make life imperishable or worth living, we need to either feel the redemptive beauty of transcendence or retain life's beautiful illusion, which, by the fascination it exerts, can rip us out of the profane world. Rachid Koraïchi himself creates the beauty that he finds essential, in order to enchant, in the space of an instant, our aesthetic sensibility. Our eyes are drawn to the signs of his universe; the music surrounds us in the mystical atmosphere appropriate to Sufi, and the sense of smell is enlisted as well in this convocation of senses: rose water poured into ablution bowls invites us to take part in another form of refinement. One instant of this aesthetic hymn, in which we escape the weight of our existence, is an instant of eternity.
Translated by Emoretta Yang