Nelly Zagouri is hardly a newcomer to the American art scene. The Paris-born multidisciplinary artist lived in Brooklyn for five years and Los Angeles for three. She has designed jewelry for Chanel and Boucheron, designed an opera, and her work has been featured in The Fader, ID (which called her Hoya Faya jewelry “Brooklyn’s most exciting jewelry brand”) and The New York Times Style Magazine. Her work is currently on view at the Mash Gallery in Mid City as part of the exhibition “In Her Element, Works by a collection of artists in honor of Women’s History Month,” curated by Haleh Mashia.
“There aren’t many places for women to express themselves, and it’s a constant battle,” Zaguri said.
It’s no surprise that Zaguri is an artist. As a child growing up in the suburbs of Paris, some of her fondest memories are spending hours with her older sister at the dining room table with crayons and paper, drawing princesses and cats. She never stopped. And now she is the first in her family to become a professional artist.
Although she considered studying commerce or marketing, those who knew her best encouraged her to focus entirely on art.
At the Haute Ecole des Arts du Rhin in Strasbourg, France, she worked with many different media. At one point he thought he would become an illustrator of children’s stories. Then she fell in love with the jewelry workshop and studied fashion accessories at the Haute Ecole d’Art et de design in Geneva, Switzerland.
Her jewelry brought Zaguri to New York, where she worked with filmmaker and artist Matthew Barney. Zaguri, a great admirer of Barney’s work, worked with him on costume design for his filmed opera River of Fundament. “I learned everything in that time and I’m so grateful for that experience. But I felt like an artist hiding behind a brand.
The experience led her to create her own jewelry collection called HOLY FAYA (a play on the New Yorker pronunciation of “holy fire”). She created 3D printed jewelry using bioplastic and gold. After half a decade in New York, Zaguri moved to the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where he would continue to work in the field of costume design.
One thing that has always fascinated Zaguri during this time is that many of the early theaters in Los Angeles were built by Ashkenazi Jews who also built synagogues. She loves the idea that diaspora makes travel a mix of knowledge and culture.
But something about her career choice started to feel off. Zaguri identified with the many subsets of art she pursued. But she did not feel like a modern artist.
“It took me almost eight years to say, ‘I’m an artist.’ First I was like, “Okay, I’m an illustrator. Now I am a jewelry designer. Now I’m an art director. Now I’m the creative director. I have been to exhibitions and shows in museums and galleries, I would present myself as more connected to a specific work or craft. But it took me a while to say, “I’m a contemporary artist.”
She admitted that painting is what excites her the most.
“Drawings always hold everything together because that’s my language,” Zaguri said. “That’s how I communicate things even better than by talking or writing or anything like that.”
While her American career flourished, Zagouri had been an expat for eight years and missed her family. So after 3 years in Los Angeles, Zagouri returned to France.
“I felt I had to go back to my roots somehow,” Zaguri said. “And I also already thought that if I went back to France, I could easily go back to Morocco. I had that in mind and that’s how it happened. At first it overwhelmed me, and then I really found myself again.”
Zagouri’s father lived in Morocco until the age of 10, and her mother is French with roots in Greece. Her surname “Zagouri” comes from the Zagora desert located in southeastern Morocco. There was an energy that lured her 1,600 miles southwest of Paris to Morocco.
“I was in this weird mix — in the U.S. I’m seen as French, but in France I’m in this perpetual identity conflict,” Zagouri said. “I’m coming back [to France] it made sense because I had a better understanding of what I was looking for.”
The move also inspired her to trace her paternal side of the family to North Africa.
So, about two years ago, Zagouri visited the coastal city of Essaouira in Morocco. Those in the US who know about Essaouira only know it because it was a hippie town in the 1970s. And before he died in 1970, guitarist Jimi Hendrix considered buying the nearby town. The beaches of Essaouira are said to be the inspiration for his 1967 song “Castles Made of Sand”.
It was in one of the two Jewish cemeteries in Essaouira that Zagouri sought the grave of his great-grandfather. Although she did not find it, she was struck by the beauty of the cemetery. It faced the ocean and was the perfect place to watch the sunset in the Atlantic breeze.
But the tombs of the graves themselves impressed the Zaguri the most.
“I had never seen such tombs in all my life – like the Egyptian tombs – ornaments, drawings and the shadow of a person,” said Zagouri. “So I didn’t find my great-grandfather’s tomb because there were so many. It was very fascinating but also fantastic because for the first time I felt that I had discovered the roots of my ancestry. Seeing these tombs changed me. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the tombs and their design.
Zagouri returned to France and studied the art he saw on the graves in the cemetery, trying to understand the symbols and what they meant. The information he found was sparse and vague, so Zaguri went back to his element, brush in hand and canvas in front of him, to make sense of it. She would turn what she saw at the cemetery into a piece to celebrate femininity and resilience.
“I see this resilience as inherent in our condition because we [as women] they go through cycles,” Zaguri said. “So as women, you are connected to the elements. You die every month and are reborn from it. I wanted to use reincarnation. So how do I talk about life and death, the afterlife and cycles? That’s how I got interested in ancient Egyptian mythology. I was crazy about this biblical archaeology.
And that’s where her paintings “Blue Lotus” and “Venus of the Nile” (featured in the Mash Gallery show) come from. Both are brightly colored acrylic paintings on linen, with gold, mother-of-pearl and Essaouira blue pigments sourced from Morocco.
“Blue Lotus” incorporates Egyptian mythology, reincarnation and Kabbalistic philosophy.
It appears to be a woman walking away from a tomb and turning into a flower, surrounded by palm trees and with bright desert colors.
“I wanted to talk about human resilience,” Zaguri told Blue Lotus. “Here you have direct expression: the grave becomes a woman who becomes a flower. It’s a complete cycle.
“Venus of the Nile” also evokes images of rebirth. There seems to be a mermaid on a boat made of papyrus and her own scales.
“And so this idea that the soul travels and that you can reincarnate into anything, like stone, water, a flower,” Zaguri said of “Venus of the Nile.” “So this is a woman on a solo boat going to the desert world. She is between life and death.
In both paintings, Zagouri is associated with Egyptian imagery. The lotus flower was used as an aphrodisiac and narcotic. And they were abundant along the fertile farmlands around the Nile River. The lotus is also a symbol of resilience as it grows out of muddy waters, opens its petals during the day to the sun and then closes at night.
The paper asked Zaguri what reincarnation means in the context of her own journey as an artist. She described the combination of the history of France and its former colonies, as well as the Jewish diaspora and the Muslim diaspora in North Africa.
“Right now there is a need for my generation to come back [their roots in North Africa] so I feel like I’m a part of it,” Zaguri said. But it is a very global movement and it is very beautiful to see that as a second generation in France, many Jews from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, we want to go back and explore now that we realize that we lived in between many shadows .”
Nelly Zagouri’s art can be seen until April 8 in Mash Galleryas part of the “In Her Element” exhibit: 812 N. La Cienega Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90069
To learn more about Zagury, visit her website https://nellyzagury.eu and follow her Instagram: www.instagram.com/nellyzagury.