Between Memory and Dream: A Look at Jihane Mossalim’s Portraits

By Sophie Dubeau Chicoine

In his essay “The Poetics of Space” (1957), French philosopher Gaston Bachelard addresses the poetic reminiscence of one’s childhood house:  

“Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.”

As I shared this quote with Jihane Mossalim, a painter born and based in Montreal, we both reflected on how these words drew parallel to her practice. Mossalim creates portraits, and through them she explores themes of memory, childhood, and nostalgia. An important part of her work consists of going through stacks of her own family photos as well as collecting photos from strangers and friends. Mossalim is particularly drawn to private moments that people choose to capture, whether it’s an anniversary, a school picture, or a family gathering on one’s house porch. Driven by the images that struck her the most, she then renders these photographs into paintings, mixing different sources at times to create entirely made-up frames. Contemplating her work, one can’t help but wonder upon the story behind each one of her canvases, wonder if these moments, though rendered with such authenticity, even truly occurred. Considering her work is well steeped in nostalgia, I was surprised to find out that Mossalim doesn’t consider herself a nostalgic person per se. How paradoxical, I thought! 

Deutschland Carnival, 2021

From the first moment I looked at her paintings, I was captivated by one featuring two children dressed in clown-like costumes (Deutschland Carnival, 2021), automatically reminiscing on my own childhood memories, and wondering who these children were, who took the picture.

“It’s like looking through someone’s window at night and catching a glimpse of their life,” Mossalim shared with me as we both nurtured a common curiosity over this portrait. 

Hide and Seek, 2019

When I asked the artist how she started getting further involved into painting, she recalled how it all came back to an anecdote: she had recently moved and wanted to decorate her new apartment with artworks. And so, as she started to paint on a more regular basis, she encountered a true passion for the medium and more precisely for portraits, which she always comes back to. A lot of her paintings are based on photographs from the 50s and 60s. Mossalim has been drawn to this era for its fashion and for the distinct style of its film cameras. The scenes chosen by the artist mostly depict family gatherings, as well as portraits of children dressed for special occasions. Set side by side, some aspects of Mossalim’s paintings show common interests with the work of fellow Canadian painter Michael Harrington, both capturing scenes that compel a similar sense of oddness, as if the paintings were still images from an old film noir. 

Porch Talk, 2019

Before talking with Mossalim, I had stumbled upon her booklet “These Stranger Friends of Mine,” which she published in March 2021. “These Stranger Friends of Mine” comes as the result of a project in which Mossalim asked relatives, friends, and strangers to share a personal photograph paired with the story behind the image. The short publication compiles a few of these stories, each accompanied by a painted version of the original photograph. Browsing through the pages, I was immediately compelled by the painting of a couple, standing in an apartment building alley (After the Fire, 2021). 

After the Fire, 2021

According to the story, there was a fire in the apartment right below them.. A neighbor had decided to take a picture of the couple as they were getting back to their flat after the event — a fleeting moment, though remarkably rendered by Mossalim through the serene expression of the man contrasted by the troubled eyes of the woman beside. During the making of this project, Mossalim felt particularly surprised by the willingness of people to share so much detail about their personal lives. “I guess sometimes it’s easier to share [such memories] with someone you don’t know, as if there’s some sort of comfort to it,” Mossalim suggested. 

Garden Party at Night, 2019

Parallel to her art practice, the artist also acts as the Fine Arts Director of the Convergence Initiative, a project committed to introduce people to neuroscience and art, as well as promoting the interactions between the two disciplines. Yet, Mossalim explained to me how, until recently, she couldn’t find the overlap between the two in her own practice. Her epiphany occurred rather when she began her most recent project, which involves both portraits, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Augmented Reality (AR). This series, which Mossalim is working on as part of her thesis in Art Education at Concordia, isn’t so much about memory, but rather about how one perceives themself vs. how an AI program constructs a vision of them. Highly invested in this research-creation project, the artist was delighted to present me early experiments taken from this series. One experiment consisted in a painted portrait, onto which was overlaid a subsequent portrait made by an AI text-to-image generator. “I feel like this project adds another dimension to my work,” the artist confided. As for the painted portraits themselves, the artist’s decision to frame close-up faces bears similarities to the work of a fellow Canadian painter, Maya Kulenovic, who Mossalim deeply admires. 

L1, 2022

In many of her portraits, the traces left by her brush seem to reflect one’s fleeting memory, the painted scenes being surrounded by some mystical form of haziness. In his own words, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard would most definitely refer to this as an example of the poetry of memories. Above all, Jihane Mossalim’s paintings appear as a frame for an endless reminiscence of one’s nostalgia and dreams.

You can check out more of Mossalim's work through her website.