The Festival of Lots (Purim) commemorates the Jewish people’s deliverance from a plot to exterminate them. This mythical episode, supposed to have taken place in the Persian city of Susa in the 5th century BC, is recounted in the Book of Esther, read in the synagogue during Purim from a scroll, the Megilat Ester. This joyful festival is accompanied by a carnival with theatrical re-enactments of the biblical story in which the characters are played by actors or marionettes.
These thirty dolls, made with found objects and fabrics, constitute a carnival procession featuring all the story’s protagonists: Queen Esther, her uncle Mordecai, King Ahasuerus and the evil vizier Haman. To these biblical figures, Nedjar added a cortège of dolls with colourful names such as Mariée polonaise (Polish Bride), Reine de la nuit (Queen of the Night), Pétard chinois (Chinese Firecracker), Zapato, Esprit de la forêt (Spirit of the Forest), Titi, etc., all having personal connotations for him.
Michel Nedjar was born into an Algerian Jewish family in Paris. His father was a master tailor and he began learning the trade as an apprentice in a tailor’s workshop. But it was with his grandmother, a rag woman at the flea market, that he developed his interest in shmata – the Yiddish word for rags – that would become central to his art.
After selling clothes at the flea market and travelling widely, he turned to art. Self-taught, he began making his first dolls in 1976 with rags, earth, mud and blood. Among his many influences, Michel Nedjar cites Alain Resnais’ film Night and Fog, his travels in South America and “primitive” rituals. Death, omnipresent in his work, is a means for him to exorcise his demons. His first dolls, which he buried then exhumed, served as rebirth rituals, and he has often said that his dolls have “saved” him.
Michel Nedjar co-created the Aracine group, which from the early 1980s, built up one of the largest collections of Art Brut in France, later to become incorporated into the Musée de Villeneuve-d’Ascq (LaM) collection. His creations soon attracted attention and he showed at the "Singuliers de l’art" exhibition at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1978. Jean Dubuffet bought several of his dolls for his collection at the Musée d’Art brut in Lausanne, as did the art dealer and collector Daniel Cordier.
In 2005 the mahJ commissioned this installation, Purim Dolls, which began a new phase in his work. The dimensions of the story of Esther on which Nedjar focuses are fragility, invention, laughter and transgression. Made from broken objects, rags, buttons, string, card and silver paper delicately sewn together, his dolls embody the precarity of the Jewish condition, breakup and the dispersion of exile.
Michel Nedjar has made an important donation to the mahJ.