When Anne Q. McKeown and I arrive at her Brooklyn high rise, with a sweeping view of the eastern part of the borough, artist Emna Zghal offers us something to drink: coffee, tea, or would we like something Tunisian?
Definitely something from her native land.
Emna serves us almond water, lighter than almond milk in viscosity but with a more pronounced almond flavor. Emna says this is because bitter almonds are used and it imparts more flavor. It is hard to find Tunisian food in the U.S., even in New York, where only 1,000 or so Tunisians have settled. Emna came to the U.S. in the mid 90s to attend graduate school at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Anne and I are here to make a studio visit. Emna will be one of six artists in Memory From Here, Memory From There: Fertile Crescent Dialogues at the West Windsor Arts Center Sept. 2 through Oct. 12. Anne is curating. As we sip almond water, we become aware of the pineapples.
Emna likes pineapples, but not just for eating. They are embedded in her artwork. She has
sliced the fruit into papterthin rounds, then dessicated them between sheets of paper, and created assemblages of interesting shapes by fusing them together in formation.
From these fruit forms, she creates plates and makes etchings and silkscreen prints. She scans them and enlarges the detail — the sinews of fiber and claw — and then goes back in with a stylus, adding more line. Emna loves the tangles of line that form in the pineapple flesh. She even makes prints from the tough exterior.
Think of how a pineapple makes you feel: Its sweet taste followed by a pucker, and always the fear of something thorny lurking.
Each “berry” on the exterior is unique, Emna points out. She has been working with pinapples for a year, since a fellowship in Senegal, and in her enormous body of work, pineapples become flowers, citrus fruit, a forest of trees, a wound, a womb. They are abstractions from a form in nature, but new patterns emerge. One looks, to me, like many shrouded figures kneeling and praying on a tiled mosque floor.
Growing up in Tunisia, Emna was surround by walls and floors of tile, geometric abstractions, Islamic motifs and Berber signs and symbols. When she began working in woodcut, she became interested in the infinity wood grain conveyed. “I was interested in the patterns of nature, which unlike the man-made grid, conveyed extension without being totally predictable,” she writes in an essay.