di Roberta Marin [*]
The creative wind that blew in Europe between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century was the same that shook the artistic world in North Africa and Tunisia. The avant-garde groups brought new life to both shores of the Mediterranean and the Arab artists who founded them or joined them at some point in their careers are still remembered today as the pioneers of art in their countries of origin and more generally throughout the whole Arab World. Just to name few of these short-lived but prolific artistic groups, it is worth mentioning La Chimère (the Chimera), formed in Egypt in about 1927, followed in 1938 by the Surrealist group Art et Liberté; or The Old Khartoum School, organised in the middle of the 1950s in Sudan or The Casablanca School, established in Morocco in 1964.
While these avant-garde groups developed in different countries, they shared some common characteristics. They all belonged, for example, to the colonial and post-colonial period, when the European ‘powers’, above all France and the United Kingdom, divided up North Africa and also the Middle East. Europeans introduced the art of easel, which was pretty much unknown in North Africa, and brought with them the Western artistic traditions, which was considered an innovation as opposed to the more traditional Islamic art. Local artists absorbed the lesson imported from abroad, but felt they had to detach themselves from that sort of academicism that arose in public arts schools, most of the time set up by foreigners, who were also the only tutors. Academicism became one of the main features of the art of the period in North Africa, but it was also seen as a symbol of the European occupation and for this reason, a new interpretation of art was sought by the artists, who either gathered in groups, or continued independently with their own personal practice. The search for breaking with academicism also persisted in the subsequent generations of artists, who drew on local traditions to achieve this.
Considering Tunisia as a case study, we will need to point out that the country had been under the control of foreign powers for almost all its history, at least up to 1956, when the republic was declared. Tunisia was a colony of the Romans for about 800 years and from 647 Muslims came to the scene. The region was part of the Ottoman empire from the end of the 16th century for nearly 3 centuries. From 1881, the French made Tunisia their protectorate. Only in 1956, Tunisia finally reached independence. In 2010-2011, the Tunisian uprising and campaign of civil resistance, known as the Jasmine revolution, unleashed the so-called Arab Spring. As a direct consequence of the Jasmine Revolution, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was removed from office and parliamentary elections followed.
As it happened in other countries of North Africa, also in Tunisia French established cultural institutions, such as the Institut de Carthage, which opened in 1894, and in the same year they organised the first Salon Tunisien (Tunisian Salon, an annual art exhibition). Only French artists living in the colony were involved in these cultural activities, which showed an inclination for academicism and orientalism, totally neglecting the rich and multi-layered native art. In the same period, art groups were founded, such as the Société des Amis de l’Art (the Society of Friends of Art) and the Société des Amis des Beaux-Arts (the Society of Friends of Fine Arts), but they were destined to disappear in no time. In 1923 the Centre d’Art (the Art Centre), which had to become few years later the École des Beaux-Art (the School of Fine Arts), opened its doors. Students and teachers were mainly French and Europeans, who lived in Tunis. Although the local artists were not directly involved in the artistic development of the colony, they certainly absorbed the lesson coming from abroad and mixed it in their work with elements drawn from local traditions and cultural heritage. Among the most influential artists should be mentioned Yahia Turki (1903-69), who fixed on his canvases the effervescence of Tunisian cities with their suqs and bazaars and the narrow alleys of the labyrinthine medinas, populated by locals engaged in daily activities. Most of the time, the scenes portrayed on his canvases are bathed in sunlight that sparkles on the walls of the buildings painted in white and blue, the typical colours of the Tunisian traditional neighbourhoods (Gerschultz, ‘Yahia Turki (1901–1969), 2016).
Looking at Turki’s works the viewers are almost physically taken into the medina and can hear the noises coming from the shops, the scents of the spices neatly arranged on the stalls and the chatter of passers-by. Turki produced also portraits, still life and landscape paintings. He is considered as a pioneer of the modernist movement in Tunisia and more broadly as the father of Tunisian painting. Turki greatly influenced the work of younger artists, such as Ammar Farhat and Hathem el Mekki, among the others. Another important personality of the artistic scene was Pierre Boucherle (1894-1988), a French artist born in Tunisia. He studied in Paris with André Derain and upon his return to Tunis, he founded an art group, known as the Groupe des Quatre (The Group of Four) in 1936, which became in 1947 at the end of the Second World War the Groupe des Dix (The Group of Ten), since more artists joined. The members of the Groupe des Dix were some of the most famous artists of the time, such as Yahia Turki, Ammar Farhat, his wife Safia Farhat, Jellal Ben Abdallah, Abdelaziz Gorgi, Edgard Naccache, Ali Bellagha and Zoubeir Turki.
These artists were also among the founders of the École de Tunis (the Tunisian School) in 1948, an art movement with the clear objective of breaking with the colonial and Orientalist trend of the time in order to establish a truly Tunisian style of painting (Micoud 1968: 47 and 51). Boucherle was the first president of the École, followed by Turki in 1956, the year of the independence of Tunisia from France. The École de Tunis had no manifesto, even though the artists were united in the common purpose of depicting the daily life of local people in a more realistic, intimate way, far from the repetitive and academic approach showed by the French Orientalists and genre painters.
They wanted to create an authentic, national style of painting and to achieve that, they revived elements and motifs typical of traditional art, such as Arabic calligraphy, local handicrafts, and miniature painting. Ammar Farhat (1911-1987) and Abdelaziz Gorgi (1928-2008) made a name for themselves in Tunisia and abroad, even though their backgrounds were very different. If Farhat had a modest upbringing and was a self-taught artist, Gorgi was born in a family of artisans and was one of the first Tunisians to study at the Institut Supérieur des Beaux-Arts (the Higher Institute of Fine Arts) in Tunis (Yakoub, ‘Abdelaziz Gorgi, Tunisia (1928-2008)’). Farhat is remembered for his social realism. Although he produced what appeared to be a dreamlike, fairy-tile type of painting, his works are in fact imbued by an acute observation of society and direct experience of his personal relationship with the less privileged classes.
Also Gorgi found inspiration for his painting in the traditional way of Tunisian life with an eye on realism, but along his long career, he moved more evidently towards naïve art, surrealism and cubism. (Yakoub 2018) The artist was also very active to promote the local art scene both in Tunisia and abroad and in 1973 opened the Galerie Gorgi in Tunis (Jelassi 2018: 44-46), followed in 1988 by the inauguration of a second gallery in Sidi Bou Said.
In the early 60s, the next generation of artists tried to divert from the artistic language that distinguished the members of the École de Tunis. Hatem el-Mekki (1918-2003) and Hedi Turki (1922-2019) showed a new approach in their practices and an evolution towards new aesthetic ideas. These artists were not content to be recognised only within the borders of Tunisia, but aimed to make art with a wider scope and to become international artists. To achieve that, they partly detached themselves from the way in which traditional Tunisian life was portrayed and started experimenting with Abstraction, Expressionism and Surrealism. Hatem el-Mekki often portrayed human figures on his canvases. He used abstract forms and bright, intense colours to fix a moment in the life of his subjects.
Hedi Turki joined the École de Tunis, but also trained in Paris, Rome and the United States. Upon his return to Tunisia, he taught art at the École des Beaux-Arts de Tunis for about twenty years. Human figures are also at the centre of his research, as can be seen in his early canvases and in a number of beautiful sketches kept in private and public collections. However, after his stay in the United States and having become familiar with the art of Pollock, Mondrian and Rothko, the artist developed a more deeply rooted interest in Abstraction and at the centre of his practice he placed lines that generate complex geometric shapes emphasized sometimes by soft and sometimes by rather intense colours.
While el-Mekki and Turki experimented with new innovative trends and showed an inclination towards pure Abstraction, Nejib Belkhodja (1933-2007) and Nja Mahdaoui (b.1937) also approached Abstraction but declined it in a more traditional way, applying Arabic calligraphy, arabesque motifs and architectural forms to their works. During his stay in Paris, Belkhodia attended the atelier of the French artist Robert Delauney and was fascinated by the work of the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky.
He used lines and geometric shapes not only to recreate the architectural features of the medina in Tunis, but also to evoke the harmony and the elegance of the Arabic script. Mahdaoui, on the other hand, has become known as the ‘choreographer of letters’ and the ‘inventor of abstract calligraphy’ for his use of what resemble Arabic letters, but bear no meaning (Porter 2006: 94). He creates his own calligrams and experiments with different materials, like, for example, parchment, wood, ceramic, and brass. Since the study of calligraphy and its application in art are central to his aesthetic, Mahdaoui is considered to be part of the Hurufiyyah or Letrism movement.
Rafik el Kamel (1944-2021) had his first education in Tunis, but moved to Paris in 1967 with a scholarship from the Tunisian Ministry of Culture to study at the École des Arts Décoratifs (the School of Decorative Arts). He spent four years in the French capital, where he met intellectuals and artists and developed his own personal style. Upon his return to Tunisia, el Kamel was appointed professor at the School of Fine Arts and become an active figure in the local artistic scene. El Kamel was very interested in Abstraction, trying to match it with his personal quest for understanding the human soul and, even more specifically, to investigate his inner self. He experimented with figural and non-figural scenes and used a variegated palette of light and bright but also more restrained colours in his work.
Member of the second generation of Tunisian artists is also the renowned painter, sculptor and ceramist Khaled ben Slimane (b.1951). After graduating in Tunisia and Spain, he continued his studies in Japan, where he deepened his knowledge of Japanise calligraphy. A spiritual man, interested in Sufism, Slimane uses in his work a variety of Arabic letters and symbols and signs belonging to the native Berber tradition and the extended cultural heritage of Tunisia (Issa, Cestar and Porterijjkol 2016:180-85).
The resulting mixture of motifs shows the artist’s investigation into spontaneous human feelings and the multilayered interiority given to each person by familiar and cultural traditions. The Arabic words applied to his works at times bear some meaning, as in the case of Allah and Huwa, ’He’, which refers to God, the creator, and are repeated along the artworks to recall the state of active meditation and trance typical of Sufi practitioners. Aim of Slimane is to bring together tradition and innovation.
Another artist who has chosen Arabic calligraphy as main feature in his work is the French-Tunisian street artist known as eL Seed. Born in 1981 in France to Tunisian parents, he focused on his roots and questioned himself about identity from a young age, but it was only with the Jasmine Revolution, that opened the bloody but important season of political uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, that eL Seed understood the role that his calligraffiti could play in his own practice and in the bubbling artistic, political and social scene of the time (Seaman, ‘eL Seed: Building bridges with Arabic from Korea to Cape Town’, 2018).
In his murals and canvases, the artist often quotes verses from famous poets, such as the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, and from the holy Qur’an. Walls in Douz, Kairouan and Gabes have been decorated with his graffiti, but the artist went beyond the borders of Tunisia and created his calligraffiti also in Egypt, Qatar, South Korea, South Africa and as far as the favela of Vigigal in Brazil. Through his work, El Seed wants to build metaphorical bridges and reach as many people as possible in his attempt to bring a message of equality and hope especially in those countries where personal freedom and freedom of speach are not always respected and where the social disparities are still present.
After the Arab Spring the artistic scene in Tunisia has dramatically changed. Many more artists have been recognised at international level and new art galleries (Le Violon Bleu, B’chira Art Center) and online platforms (Carthage Contemporary) have opened to sell, exhibit and promote their work (Larkins, ‘Chkoun Ahna opens Tunisia’s Contemporary chapter’, 2012). Mohamed Ben Soltane (b.1977) is a multimedia artist, who has experimented in his career with photography, art installations and comics. His work is deeply political and find inspiration in life in Tunisia and its contradictions. He focuses on and critizises, often with a sharp sense of humor, the different aspects of Tunisian society, such as the situation of women, the emigration of young people to Europe, religous issues, the lack of freedom of speech in the media (Keyte, ‘The 10 Best Contemporary Tunisian Artists’, 2017). Mouna Karray (b.1970) is a photographer and multimedia artist, who uses in her practice also video and sound installations. She is interested in analysing the role played by identity, memory and mental boundaries in the life of a person and more broadly in modern society (Hamdi 2011: 30-32).
In this brief excursus on the fertile Tunisian art scene of the last century and the current one, the concern shown by the artists in finding their own identity at a regional and international level has emerged. Cultural background and heritage have rarely been overlooked or forgotten, but it has been imbued with sometimes scathing criticism of the country’s political and economic situation and lack of human rights. The art scene has always been lively, especially in Tunis, but thanks to the opening of new art galleries and cultural centres in the last decades, the work of Tunisian artists has been increasingly projected onto the international arena.
Dialoghi Mediterranei, n. 62, luglio 2023
La Tunisia è uno di quei Paesi dell’area mediterranea che ha molto da raccontare a chi la visita sia per turismo che per ricerca. Le diverse fasi della sua millenaria storia e la sua affascinante tradizione artistica si combinano d’altro canto con una situazione politica e sociale difficile, che spesso ha leso anche i più elementari diritti umani e ha incrementato l’emigrazione dei Tunisini verso l’Europa. Non è un caso infatti che proprio in Tunisia tra la fine del 2010 e l’inizio del 2011 sia scoppiata una rivolta contro il potere costituito – la cosiddetta Rivoluzione dei Gelsomini –, la quale ha dato impulso in Nord Africa e Medio Oriente al dilagare di altre manifestazioni di protesta, collettivamente diventate famose in tutto il mondo con il termine giornalistico di Primavera Araba. In questo articolo, è analizzato lo sviluppo dell’arte moderna e contemporanea in Tunisia prendendo come riferimento alcuni degli artisti più rappresentativi, i quali nella loro produzione hanno enfatizzato sia la tradizione e l’eredità culturale del loro Paese sia gli aspetti più prettamente legati alla situazione politica contingente, sempre con uno spirito critico nei confronti del potere. L’apertura di nuove gallerie d’arte ha favorito la proiezione delle opere degli artisti tunisini sulla scena internazionale.
J. Gerschultz, ‘Yahia Turki (1901–1969)’, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism: Taylor and Francis, 2016, https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/yahia-turki-1901-1969 (accessed 30 May 2023).
K. Hamdi, ‘On the path of contemporary Tunisian art’, Contemporary practices, ix, 2011: 24-32.
R. Issa, J. Cestar and V. Porter, Signs of our times. From calligraphy to calligraffiti, London, 2016.
N. Jelassi, Gorgi pluriel, Tunis, 2018.
M. Keyte, ‘The 10 Best Contemporary Tunisian Artists’, 2017,
https://theculturetrip.com/africa/tunisia/articles/the-10-best-contemporary-tunisian-artists/ (accessed 7 June 2023).
A. Kordic, ‘Encounters with People and Landscapes of Tunisia in Mouna Karray Exhibition at Tyburn Gallery’, 2016, https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/mouna-karray-exhibition-tyburn-gallery-london, (accessed 7 June 2023).
Z. Larkins, ‘Chkoun Ahna opens Tunisia’s Contemporary chapter’, 2012, https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/tunis-chkoun-ahna-58841/ (accessed 29 May 2023).
E. Micaud, ‘Trois Decades D’art Tunisien’, African Arts, vol.1, no.3, Spring, 1968: 46-55 and 78-84.
V. Porter, Word into art. Artists of the Modern Middle East, London, 2006.
A. Seaman, ‘eL Seed: Building bridges with Arabic from Korea to Cape Town’, Al Jazeera online, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/7/28/el-seed-building-bridges-with-arabic-from-korea-to-cape-town (accessed 5 June 2023).
L. Yakoub, ‘Abdelaziz Gorgi, Tunisia (1928 – 2008)’, in Dalloul Art Foundation, Beirut, n.d., https://dafbeirut.org/en/abdelaziz-gorgi (accessed 10 June 2023).
Roberta Marin ha conseguito la laurea in Lettere Moderne con indirizzo storico-artistico all’Università di Trieste ed ha completato il suo corso di studi con un Master in Arte Islamica e Archeologia presso la School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) dell’Università di Londra. Ha viaggiato a lungo nell’area mediterranea e il suo campo di interesse comprende l’arte e l’architettura mamelucca, la storia dei tappeti orientali e l’arte moderna e contemporanea del mondo arabo e dell’Iran. Collabora con la Khalili Collection of Islamic Art e insegna arte e architettura islamica in istituzioni pubbliche e private nel Regno Unito e in Italia.