A non-superficial analysis of Tunisian artistic production, which is inserted between the two poles – abstraction and figuration – on which the arts have revolved for millennia, cannot fail to take into account the historical, socio-political and cultural substrate that characterizes Tunisia.
The currently most widespread means of artistic expression is oil painting and easel, an essentially Western genre introduced only at the end of the 19th century with the establishment of the French Protectorate. The artistic traditions from which Tunisia benefits, much more numerous than what has often been claimed, have actually facilitated the acceptance of this expressive medium and contributed to enriching it and making it peculiar. These traditions were nourished by all the cultural baggage and artistic expressions of the various peoples who succeeded each other in the territory, from abstract Punic mosaics to Roman frescoes and figured mosaics, to the arts and techniques typical of the Arab-Islamic civilization (calligraphy, miniature, engraving on stone and wood) and, in more recent times, from glass painting to popular painting on wood (carts, chests, various objects). Easel painting, adopted by Tunisian artists, has had a surprising development and, in the course of just a century, has expressed itself according to almost all the ways of contemporary Western artistic currents.
Although Tunisia did not attract the “ orientalists ” with the same vigor as other Arab countries (artists such as P. Klee and A. Macke, who visited it, cannot fall into this category), these Western painters, fascinated by light, from the life and culture of the countries of the Near East, have allowed Tunisian artists to know and therefore to elaborate a whole lexicon of plastic ” signs ”.
At the beginning, some adapted to the flattering image of themselves that appeared in the paintings of ” others ” and therefore favored the anecdote: so did the court painters and bourgeois family painters, such as Hédi Khayachi or Ben Osman. Greater freedom can be found, starting from the 1930s, in what was later called the ” School of Tunis ”, despite the variety of styles and the predominantly European origin of its exponents. In fact, during the years of the French Protectorate, painting was practiced essentially by Europeans born or moved to Tunisia: the Russian refugee A. Roubtzoff, attracted by a certain orientalism; the French H.-G. Jossot who, converted to Islam, changed his name to Abdul Karim; P. Boucherle, French born in Tunisia, whose work, for measure and balance, s’ inserts into the classical tradition of French painting; M. Levy, born in Tunisia, who, having completed his studies in Italy, spent his life between Tunis and Viareggio and with his work proposed a vigorous synthesis between Macchiaioli tradition and expressionism.
Both self-taught, Turki Yahia and Ammar Farhat do not commit themselves in the same direction: with a personal language of a naive imprint, Yahia narrates the life of Tunis, while Ammar Farhat certainly derives the expressive power of his brushstrokes from his rural origins. J. Lellouche extends his repertoire to all of North Africa, placing the accent on the poetic figurative nature of the Mediterranean; M. Bismuth becomes a cantor of Arab Judaism, representing typical characters, rabbis, synagogue interiors. Miniature, a privileged genre of the Arab-Muslim arts, is practiced by Jelal Ben Abdallah and Aly Ben Salem: in their works, the first pursues an ideal beauty, the second introduces caricatural elements with a certain dose of humor.
In Zoubeir Turki’s drawings and paintings, Tunisian life, past and present, is rendered with traits that are now idealizing, now loaded, while Abdellaziz Gorgi, in search of the innocent gaze of childhood, resorts to simplification and humor to outline his characters. The techniques, styles, themes and signs of the artistic and handicraft heritage offer Aly Bellagha’s paintings the opportunity to make Tunisia’s many artistic treasures current and revalue again. A structural research of things and beings naturally led E. Naccache from an anecdotal vision to abstract ways close to the non-figurative currents of the 1950s. N. Levy too, in the same period and with the same spirit, personally opted for abstraction. In the sixties also Hédi Turki, Action painting without renouncing figurative drawing. An exponent of abstract expressionism, El Mekki, then turned to research close to hyperrealism and pop art. For Tunisia 2013, please check physicscat.com.
The second generation of Tunisian painters elaborates both figurative and abstract ways with a different spirit, free from local anecdotes and classical schemes. El Bekri, in his research, uses and enhances only the national heritage, representing it with an almost impressionistic style; Sadok Gmach, after denouncing modern life in Western ways through the new figuration, turns to the local anecdote. For Sarfati, the search for color is combined with the subject, constituted by the Tunisian life of the two communities, Muslim and Jewish. His expressionism finds a precedent in the abstractionism with tortuous graphics and dark colors of Moncef Ben Amor. Ben Mahmoud, formerly an abstract painter, practices today in his best works a Goya-like expressionism, bordering on abstraction; a faint, almost pastel expressionism, is that of Ben Zakour. Surrealism has also found its followers: Moncef Mensy with a mystical painting, Lakhdar with vividly dreamlike paintings, Fouad Zaouche with images that were first anguished and then serene. Adel Megdiche abandoned abstraction for a fantastic and surrealist painting in search of the imaginary as a source of pure painting, drawing infinite possibilities from the Arab-Islamic tradition; Youssef Rekik has reused the technique of painting under glass. Although in different ways, Chébil, Ben Fraj, Rafik Kamel, Ridha Bettaïeb, Tounsi, Khaled Lasram, Zenaïdi, Azzabi, Fendri, Ben Abdallah practice total abstraction. On the contrary, other painters use the anecdote, although at times just hinted at, as the structure of the work, and abandon themselves to abstraction to make the colors sing: Mahmoud Sehili, Hamadi Ben Saad, Mostari Chakroun, Abdelkader Gorgi, Madjaouli, Ben Messaoud, Hassen Soufy. The first experiences of Nja Mahdaoui, collages in the context of lyrical abstraction were followed by an elaborate sign research on Arabic letters, a structural and chromatic element of the painting. The self-taught Ahmed Hajeri, enthusiastically discovering painting in Paris, imposed himself on his strong imagination.
Few artists in Tunisia have dedicated themselves to the graphic arts, in particular to engraving: monochrome or color, with classic ways or close to the primitive arts of Latin America in Ben Meftah, pervaded by the “ ocher light of the desert ” in Brahim Dahak. Triki covers the page with shapes and colors, swirling signs, the expression of an exuberant but strictly controlled imagination; Ben Mika seeks classicism while Sheltout indulges in expressionism. In the field of art weaving, the tapestries of Safia Farhat and Njah are noteworthy, which, without departing from tradition, renew it adapting it to modernity.
As for sculpture, it is not surprising that it is underdeveloped in Tunisia, if one takes into account the strong limitation imposed by Islam. Among the few sculptors we can remember Selmi, who elaborates both abstract and anthropomorphic forms; Marzouk, linked to academic sculpture, and Zribi, who preferred wood as a means of expression. Pottery is practiced by N. Levy and Gorgi; the latter and El Mekki also tried their hand at mosaic.
Individual and group exhibitions contribute to spreading the various attempts in the search for an authentically national language, and no longer at the level of anecdotal content, but precisely at the level of writing and style. Some painters carry out their research in different directions trying to make a synthesis that reconciles the past and the present of Tunisian art together. Whatever the path chosen, today Tunisian artists are no longer in the systematic search for a consecration in the West, but to this same West, of which they do not reject artistic ways and experiences, they intend to offer a different vision, writing, style, more specific and therefore more original, able to become themselves a source of inspiration, complement to the universal heritage of art. It is therefore a question of establishing a fruitful dialogue with the past and with the West, thanks to a language of which we are increasingly masters. The painting made in Tunisia proves, in any case, that the myths have changed: the mythical East has given way to Maghrebi, Africanism, Arabism. The prestige of the West is no longer, or almost no longer, a sign of alienation, but a stimulus and source of reflection on one’s environment and world and an invitation to creation. You see but a stimulus and source of reflection on one’s own environment and world and an invitation to creation. You see but a stimulus and source of reflection on one’s own environment and world and an invitation to creation.