Sarah Nefissa Belhadjali is a French artist with a focus on contemporary art and curatorship. But it’s not always been like that: she was first interested in psychiatry, then studied biology, and finally ended in the arts field. By promoting artists focused on showcasing their art through fashion pieces, the artist has expanded the Nouvelle Collection Paris, her own project, to a multi-disciplinary platform for collaborators and other artists in the French capital. 
First of all, I would like to know a bit more about your background. What brought you to become an artist?
I never intended to become an artist but rather discovered art very late in life. Having wanted to become a psychiatrist, I began my education studying medicine but failed the second-year entrance examination. I then transferred to the biology department at the ​Université de Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris. While working in the lab as a biology student, I began to notice that I was more interested in the aesthetic norms throughout the world of science.
So that sparked your interest in the visual world.
I began photographing the laboratory, collecting abstract images of molecular bio-data (primarily PCR). I was also fascinated by the terms and methods employed to name and represent abstract elements invisible to the naked eye. The diagrams and other hierarchization at work in scientific literature have greatly influenced my work as an artist.
Once at the ​Beaux-Arts de Paris​ after the completion of my Bachelor’s in biology, my research began with a turn towards those forms that invoke the data, diagrams, and abstraction of language. I am also interested in the exhibition norms of artworks, and in reflecting on the transposition of elements pertaining to one field to some other field and what this transposition can provoke in the viewer’s gaze.
Your art is directly linked to fashion design. How did you get involved with art and fashion? What factors contribute to fashion as an artistic discipline?
My practice appears to be about design, but I believe it is first and foremost about conceptual art. ​Nouvelle Collection Paris​ began as an experiment that has grown exponentially throughout the project’s evolution. The concept comes from an observation, a remark on more and more visual artists using clothing or objects meant to be worn as part of their artistic practice. Nevertheless, they don’t conceive their work as one of fashion or design.
I realised the work had rippling connections with a whole network of artists working in various other mediums. This motivated me to create a venue for showcasing these works, characterized by their ​portabilité (​‘wearable​’ and ‘​portable’​ in French). ​Nouvelle Collection Paris i​s thus a hosting body for worn and carried artworks. We performatively experiment with them and ultimately showcase them as any other fashion brand would. Nouvelle Collection Paris’ critical intervention lies in its attention to the reception site of fashion images. At the same time, I found it interesting to use fashion and its codes as vectors because the two spheres, while distinct in their codes, share quite a similar influence.
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Nouvelle Collection Paris is a project that has been ongoing since 2016 and started at the Beaux-Arts Academy of Paris. What have been the changes in these two years?
I graduated at the end of 2016, right after the launch of the project. The two main challenges in these two years have been solving practicalities outside of school and finding ways to reinvent the format. Thanks to Nicolas Bourriaud’s invitation to his Montpellier art centre, La ​Panacée​, where he had me experiment with the project, I was able to think through pushing it further.
All the while maintaining the runway as the initial focal point, I became inspired to work on the operations of a business itself. In designing forms of collaboration as a creative means, I assembled a work staff for the last edition of the ​Collection Croisière 2019​ as a role-play. I assigned job titles to the artists in line with their respective practices. These titles were a pretext for an artwork based on the branding of a company image for Nouvelle Collection Paris.
Could you elaborate more on this?
So, I offered artist Louise Siffert the position of ‘Happiness Manager’. It is a role she already takes in her performance pieces, which question the working world and our incessant injunctions to self-care. A runway show is a stressful moment, and I wanted to highlight that fact with the extension of this offer. Louise, in turn, conceptualized a performance of relaxation for the staff, held in public the day before the show.
I proceeded to give out other job titles following this same conceptual transposition, which sets a blurred boundary between artist and service-provider: Casting Director, Make-up Artist, Set Designer, Sound Designer, and Head of Public Relations. Each operated in a more or less similar mode as artists in relation to the supposed tasks of their staff positions. This is the case with Garush Melkonyan, who has played a special role in the project involving management and organization since the very beginning.
For several years, his artistic work has investigated video aesthetics and their internal dialogues. He hacks them and arranges them into installations. For the last collection, he designed a work on model castings. He actually did the casting of the models with me and was then inspired by a technique called ‘the calliagnosia’ from a science-fiction novel. In this novel, a neuronal device disables the wearer from distinguishing a beautiful face from an ugly one. His idea was to make a documentary of this fictive technique as used in the casting of Nouvelle Collection Paris.
How did it go?
Some scenes were shot the day before the show with actual runway models as well as actress Gaëlle Menard. I even staged myself in the role of Director in a conference-performance that combined real facts (I speak of the history of the project) and facts invented in direct correspondence with the works featured in Nouvelle Collection Paris. In pursuing these questions, I wish to develop performances that intervene at these levels, that can transform my practice in its interaction with Nouvelle Collection Paris as well as with all the other artists contributing around a similar set of concerns.
“My practice appears to be about design, but I believe it is first and foremost about conceptual art.”
The collection is composed of photographs and clothes from different artists, all of them representing a way to dress the human body. How would you define the experience of working with different artists? Any specific collaboration you’d like to mention?
There is an enriching energy generated when working collectively. What has been most important to me from the beginning are the connections I’ve been able to make. These are intense moments that create strong bonds and memories. Opening up the project to people we did not always know has also inspired many pleasant surprises.
Caroline Grout was one such surprise. She participated in the Spring/Summer 2017 collection as well as the Fall/Winter 2018. Her pieces were among the most reminiscent of clothing, but with an added performative element and details that were not very visible at a distance. Two years later, Grout married. Matthieu Brion – an artist who also participated – and I were able to wear the pieces she had proposed for the second collection to her wedding. To wear a work made by the bride for her wedding was, to me, a rather unique experience in the course of Nouvelle Collection Paris. It was the first time that one of the works was taken outside of an artistic context, and this action opened up a conversation on the artistic production of a bride for her marriage.
As you’ve been mentioning, your art is also composed of performances, in the sense that every catwalk is a performance of the artworks you are presenting. What is the importance of ephemerality in your art?
The works presented by Nouvelle Collection Paris are made to be worn and so become activated once on a body. The ephemeral is an important aspect – a certain excitement gathers around ​an event. ​ Ephemerality is inherent in both the world of fashion and the practice of performance. It is therefore upon this temporality that these two circles meet.
What are your inspirations? What brought you to become an artist?
The way Marcel Duchamp speaks of his ready-mades and, in particular, of the reciprocal ready-made left quite an impression on me. He imagined an inversion of the process at work in the ready-mades by employing an artwork in everyday life, as in his famous example: "using a Rembrandt as an ironing board”. This concept of the reciprocal ready-made was articulated by Marcel Duchamp rather late in his career. It is a reference that has slowly become ever more present as the project has developed: to create a world-work, a work in motion, one that takes account of the ‘reciprocity’ of works symbolically returned to the real world.
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Nouvelle Collection Paris seems to revolve around the premise, ‘What if contemporary art became fashion?’ After having worked in this project for two years, did you find an answer to that question?
Works of art that can be worn have been around for a long time, and the boundaries between some art objects and fashion pieces are quite porous. To varying degrees, the medium ‘clothing’ has been used by artists, whether as a support as in Sonia Delaunay, as a way of presenting women's body by bringing notions of feminism as in Jana Sterbak, or even a purely conceptual approach as in Stephen Willats. And the examples are even more numerous if taken right from the fashion world.
Many designers have cited or collaborated directly with artists such as the famous Mondrian dress by Yves Saint Laurent, the collaboration between Seth Price and Tim Hamilton during the Documenta 13, as well as contemporary artist Jon Rafman, who rethought set design in a project for Balenciaga’s last runway show.
Did you find any changes in how contemporary art is perceived? What about the way fashion is perceived?
In my opinion, social media plays a decisive role in highlighting the porosity between art objects and fashion pieces. One can find within the same feed, one after another, an artwork and a fashion ad without any real distinction, given that Instagram content remains more or less homogeneous. In turn, many artists become disinhibited in the way that they communicate about their works. I also have a feeling that artists are growing more interested in fashion and particularly in the energy it generates.
You work very closely with Alex Huanfa Cheng, a photographer. The objective of the project, in his words, is to appeal to a growing audience by reaching mediums that they frequently use (such as Instagram). What is the interest of having the attention of the youth?
The collaboration with Alex Huanfa Cheng was prominent. As a graduate of the Beaux-Arts in Paris, Alex was primarily a visual artist all the while practising fashion photography on the side. His approach was of particular interest to me, and I was curious about how he would handle a subject belonging to both worlds at once. The youth, particularly those who have spent their adolescence on social media – especially Instagram –, are much more uninhibited concerning the mediums they use in their artistic practice. Likewise, those who are not artists may be more receptive to art that is worn while older people tend to want more practical categorizations.
Do you have any future projects that we should be looking forward to?
I am in the middle of a new project but cannot speak about it until it’s fully confirmed.
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Lydie Chamaret, Octopus hat, 2009, velvet, resin, metal.
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Kamil Bouzoubaa-Grivel et Jane Eglington, What The Funny Line Did Next, 2017, EVA foam, neodymium magnets.
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Sarah Nefissa Belhadjali, Curator’s jacket - Send me your titles, 2018, cotton, plastic, impression on ex (realisation : caroline Grout).
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Underclothes, stylist’s own.
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Dounia Ismaïl, Up, 2018, balloon, helium, string.
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Miriam Poletti, A Moment of Greatest Proximity and Greatest Distance, 2018, acrylic enamel on PVC.
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Transparent leggings, DRAG&DROP.
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Charlotte Nicoli, Oui/ Non/ Je ne sais pas (Yes / No / I don’t know), 2018, stamps, mirrors, ink.
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Juliette Le Dez, Rayon, 2018, transparent vinyl fabric, tattooed oranges.
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Mélanie Villemot, Tatemae, 2018, acrylic pearls, aluminium, plastic, moisturizing cream, food coloring, chick pea our, clay.
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Pierre Graizon, The Ones I Could Have Been, 2017, wool felt, wood frame.
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Timothée Chalazonitis, Hundred Marbles, 2018, marble found pieces, epoxy glue and plastic mesh.
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