Michel Nedjar was born near Paris in 1947. Both his Jewish parents emigrated to France in the early 1920’s, his father from Algeria and his mother from Poland. Nearly all his grandmother’s family were deported during the war and died in concentration camps: his mother and grandmother survived by hiding on a farm in Brittany. His father developed a prosperous business as a master-tailor and Nedjar grew up amid garments and sewing machines, making his first dolls out of cast-off fabrics and tree roots, often playing with them in the cellar. On weekends, he would help his grandmother, who ran an old clothing stall at the Paris flea market. After leaving school in 1961, he worked as an apprentice tailor for several years. Following a brief period of military service and a bout of tuberculosis, he set forth in 1970 on a series of momentous journeys that took him to Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal. By 1975 he had twice visited Mexico, as well as Belize and Guatemala, where the dolls sold in the marketplace fascinated him. “It was my first contact with High Magic, craftsmanship, the Baroque, death,” he later remarked. Back in Paris, he began fashioning his own fetish dolls out of rags, twigs, sacking and other flea market rubbish. At first colourful and comical, the dolls soon became sombre, unkempt and fearsome; some took the form of morbid totems saturated in mud and blood. Later on, he produced low reliefs of massed figures, making more and more conscious allusions to the Holocaust. In 1980 he began to draw, often working by night to produce stacks of images on old envelopes, sheets of sample wallpaper or the back of old record sleeves. He had meanwhile exhibited at the Atelier Jacob in Paris where he was profoundly moved by a display of drawings by the classic Swiss Outsider, Aloïse Corbaz; Jean Dubuffet, who found his work “horrifyingly tragic,” contacted him. In 1982, he became a co-founder of the Aracine collection of Art Brut.
Over the past two decades, Nedjar has become an internationally known artist who shows in galleries across Europe and North America and is represented in all major Art Brut collections. For many years, he has also been a keen amateur filmmaker. He continues to travel, returning regularly to Mexico and India. His mature work embodies authority and dignity, as well as being conceived on a large scale. Animal and bird figures and the human face reduced to an owl-like mask, are constant motifs. Whether in two or three dimensions, his expressions remain true to a fundamental vision of the fragility of human identity, and of the sufferings of the downtrodden and dislocated victims of modern history. His work is a disquieting pursuit of human traces, which sometimes insists on the monstrous and the horrific. At other times, his imagery takes on a transcendent eloquence, manifesting something of the aura-like poise of ancient religious art.
© Roger Cardinal 2004 for the catalogue: Insita ’04 – International Exhibition of Self-Taught Art, The Slovak National Gallery, Bratisla, Slovakia