Wahib Chehata creates “paintings” because as a photographer, he draws inspiration from them. He is a photographer who acts and thinks like a painter. This is not a mere detail. What does an image made of light have in common with an image made of material? A mechanical and a manual image.
For Wahib Chehata, the staging is essential. Wahib Chehata does not choose to capture the decisive moment through his photographs, like Henri Cartier-Besson, nor does he claim to have an objective eye like Bernd and Hilla Becher, and even less so the demiurgic and algorithmic eye of Andreas Gursky. Instead, he acts as a stage director who slowly prepares and then selects the moment which he will eternalize. He sets up his tripod, selects the time of day based on the light and adjusts his lights in accordance, he tunes his subject’s pose, sometimes asking him to pose in a locked movement. When finally, the ever so sensual “click” of the camera resonates, nothing has been left up to fate, all the parameters have been considered. Photography is a tool that conveys the here and the now of an image, it freezes a moment in time crafted by all shapes and forms.
Wahib Chehata is also inspired by European pictorial art’s theatricality, from mannerism to realism. Wahib Chehata wants to go further, he wants to transpose a certain je ne sais quoi from paintings in his photography, which is the enjoyment of the visual before the visible.
Wahib Chehata is haunted by the idea of incarnation, by the need to give life and substance to an image. He wants to depict incarnation through Catholic religious iconography, discernible in his images, incarnation as carnation, material effect. This becomes particularly clear in his series Résilience inspired by the erudite composition of Dutch still lives, the chiaroscuro, the minacious rendering effects of material, down to the self-righteous connotations. In Wahib Chehata’s work, however, this is portrayed by noble objects, raw meat and a peeled skull that stands in as the Golden calf in the era of mass distribution.
Wahib Chehata’s work is towering. It is prolix and organic, and organized in series. Never mind the obvious formal and technical disparities in his works (some photographs are airbrushed, others are not, there are numeric collages, neon lights, calligraphies, videos…), there is a certain coherence and unity tying them together: the images’ peculiar time, dense and thick. This time is not linear, but rather a succession of layers where certain elements surface.
Wahib Chehata’s works are spectacular, in part due to their size, often mighty, and their frontality, compositional integrity and colour scheme, often quite striking. They are also spectacular because of their familiar compositions, symbols and references, which appear at times subdued and at other times less so. They refer to archetypes of our time, but also of past times. This can be observed in Dans la Solitude des Shamps de Coton (2016), a manifesto work. This paroxysmal moment is frozen in time—the very moment when the man is about to caress the open wound with his finger, he is giving a mysterious consultation, perhaps that of the medicine man. Or of a sceptic? The composition is inspired by Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1603). But here, the togas have been replaced by tunics. Here, the Christ’s humble and sickly look and his gesture—he is guiding Saint Thomas’ hand into the open wound—have been transposed into a stance of de defiance from the African wise man. But in Caravaggio’s painting, the Christ has subjugated to the humility of the moment and his divine essence has been transformed into abject flesh. We could say that this transposition is a militant, pan Africanist act on Chehata’s behalf, a conscious effort to counterbalance the aesthetic, mythological and historical domination of the Western world on African countries.
Through his many series, and particularly the most photographic ones, Chehata has a way of citing and reincarnating the past, their compositions, their light and darkness: Renaissance is inspired by Velazquez and the Italian Seicento, Résilience, from Dutch still lives, Black & Light, by Dutch portraits, and finally Entropie, where Jean-François Millet’s French fields are transposed to Malian land.