You did the impossible
See, I had almost given up
And now I love ya like Sunsets, bubble baths on the jet

Mariah Carey, The Impossible, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (2009).

A faceted heart gleams on a henna-tattooed hand. It is not beating, but it might as well be. This diamond ring has its reasons for being beyond comprehension.

The first time that I saw it, it was in the basement of Lucy Chadwick’s gallery on rue Champ-Lacombe, in Biarritz. It was being paraded, amongst other images, in large scale and on a loop, to the sound of a syrupy Mariah Carey pop song. On most of the images, a crowd of people all dressed up were dancing inside a gym. The party was in full swing and I felt great. It has to be said that I was barefoot, shoes not being allowed on the beige carpet that covered the entire concrete floor for the occasion. This underground space, as welcoming as a womb, was like being encircled in a big embrace. “I wanted the viewer to feel like they were being carried along”, explains Zeinab Saleh, whose video borrows its title from that filmed by her uncle in 1997, on a wedding day unlike any other.

Somewhere in London, four couples are getting married inside a sports hall. “Two friends and two aunts”, specifies Zeinab, who twenty years later digitised this VHS cassette tape, whose label, playing on words, clearly outclasses its subject. Because, on the face of it, with funds lacking, nothing was worthy of 4 stars, with the exception of the ring, the one and only extravagance that was equal to the event. It doesn’t matter, good marks are comforting and memories are priceless. Zeinab, who cherishes this archive like a treasure, is well aware of this: without it, the newborn baby she was at that time wouldn’t have held on to a single trace of this ceremony.

View of the exhibition j~o~y r~i~d~e, 2023. Courtesy of Galerie Champ Lacombe, Biarritz © Zeinab Saleh

Amnesia would have been a pity. All the more so as this great moment itself tells a shared and painful story, which, fortunately, has a happy ending. These delighted faces were once sad, marked by a forced exile, far away from Somalia which had been in the grip of civil war since 1991, and a somewhat complicated arrival in London. Time has passed, taking with it a portion of the unhappiness, the cause of which everyone remains silent about. Everything comes to pass, and joy, unbridled here, is no exception.

Mariah Carey also came close to throwing in the towel before her other half pulled out all the stops. At least, that is what is implied by the easy lyrics of The Impossible, the twelfth song of the twelfth album of the diva with a five-octave range, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, released in 2009. Unable to find the right words, this hymn to love finds many others intended to define a feeling so vast, so common and so mysterious, that none, in the end, succeed in doing so. And thus Mariah Carey successively compares her heart’s impulses with her insatiable appetite for sunsets, bubble baths, milkshakes, Kool-Aid1 or Jodeci2, giving thanks along the way for an American pop culture that it is largely rooted in the 1990’s.

Nostalgic for those years, Zeinab Saleh follows the same cumulative logic, adding other images to those of the original: sweet peas in bloom, a butterfly, a birthday cake, a Windows screensaver, a parade of swans, a galaxy, a scene from House Party3. Personal or borrowed, these extracts inserted at irregular intervals mark interruptions to the original programme, that itself has been wound back countless times. As if the montage, a means of reconstructing and appropriating a specific era, as well as family life, has taken on the form of mental zapping, moving at random from one thought to another, stirring up scattered sensations of bliss and sensuality. Their analogy, fundamentally debatable, is seamless to all appearances. These jerky fragments d’un discours amoureux (fragments of a lover’s discourse)4 sow confusion between a bouquet of chains and a mass of affects, literally and figuratively. A duality that is visible to the naked eye: the imperfection of the source images filmed by camcorder, full of grain and scratches, is contrasted with the smooth, almost hydrated finish of the images that have been added in, all in ultra-HD. For Zeinab Saleh, this difference in texture is akin to the gulf that separates true love from its fake replica.

A ceremonial object, the ring unquestionably belongs to the realm of the tangible. Beyond its presence, its dominance is such that it magnetises the camera which frames it in a close-up that occupies an entire wall of the Biarritz gallery. Whether it is a talisman or a trophy, it is an allegory that is shaped to the greatness of its function: to demonstrate love.

Virginie Huet
Translated by Jacqui Chappell

1 Fizzy drink with artificial flavourings.
2 R&B boy band originating from Charlotte in North Carolina, composed of four brothers: Donald and Dalvin DeGrate, Cedric and Joel Hailey.
3 Cult comedy film directed by Reginald Hudlin, with Christopher Reid and Robin Harris, released in 1990.
4 Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments) is an essay by philosopher and semiologist Roland Barthes, published in 1977.