I’m sitting in the shade of a courtyard in the medina of Tunis, and Aïcha Snoussi is telling me how she identifies with the octopus. “I love all the limbs, the ink, and how they release it to hide themselves with clouds,” she says. The artist’s fascination comes as no surprise. Snoussi’s work is alive with gothic visions. She conjures illustrations of crazed, bionic-anthropomorphic creatures, sometimes powered by a medusa’s head of cables, whose brains are exposed to the viewer. She says she always liked to draw “ugly, destroyed characters. Excluded characters.”
Snoussi grew up in Hammamet, near to Tunis. She studied in Tunisia before moving to Paris, where she is currently based. The fact that as a Tunisian woman she is able to exhibit such graphic images may reflect a more liberal Tunisian attitude towards art and the artist. This permissiveness was also indicated by her 2016 exhibition at the Tunisian Embassy in London, where she covered the interior with red ink drawings of vegetated, mechanic, sexual beings. “With red everywhere, it felt like being inside a body.” And this, perhaps, is Snoussi’s aim: to leave our heads, and be with our bodies, in all their instinctive, unspeakable, irrational ways.
Sabrine Jenhani and Ramy Zoghlemi are sitting opposite, posing with plates of fruit in Duken, a new gastro-café in the medina. Quick to laugh, playful, and on the cusp of stardom, they are Yuma, Tunisia’s vivacious folk music duo. On stage, Jenhani’s voice can be heart-wrenching, powerful yet fragile, while Zoghlemi accompanies in harmony, singing with a deep, breathy intensity, as if to himself, while playing acoustic guitar. Their melodies are intimate in themselves. But sung sincerely, in Tunisian dialect, across themes scarcely addressed by other artists, they are reaching a young generation eager to express themselves.
“People are making declarations of love after our concerts. Maybe they wouldn’t have before. We are addressing taboos and influencing changes,” Jenhani tells me. There is an implication that they may inadvertently be challenging familial traditions of arranged marriages. “Our songs are focusing on metaphors of love and emotion that are more real to people’s lives,” she adds.
At this point, a giddy adolescent girl rushes into the café to ask if she can have a photo with them. Yuma’s first album, Chura, and their second, Stardust, are pushing boundaries artistically. Their fanbase is growing fast, and they were awarded the ‘Public Vote’ at the Journées Musicales de Carthage in April 2017.
“For a long time creativity was not encouraged in Tunisia,” says Yasmine Sfar, manager of Tinja, a homeware hub. But this, she adds, is changing. “Design is being born,” she tells me. “There is a real wave of desire to do things, different things.”
Named after a little town in northern Tunisia, Tinja’s work evokes the colours and materials of that region. The boutique is filled with wicker lamp shades, rusted clay pots, blown-glass gourds, and pale yellow, grey and lime-green cotton cushions. The style is artisanal chic; hand-crafted, with modern, clean designs. “All our pieces are made in Tunisia, using local materials,” says Sfar.
Since it began in 2007, Tinja’s basic model remains the same: working with locally-crafted artisanal products, such as pottery from Sejnane, they then develop the designs from their workshop in Tunis. Success arrived after the Office National de l’artisanat invited them to exhibit at the Salon Maison et Objets, a major design fair in Paris. From 2012 they began producing a proper catalogue and exporting to clients all over the world. Despite acknowledging that they “offer a more avant garde vision” than most, Sfar says that their “inspiration still comes from meetings with artisans around the country.”
Fashion designer Salah Barka also recognises the influence of Tunisia’s artisans. “Our culture is very much based around clothing,” he tells me from his home in Menzah, a green neighborhood in the west of Tunis. “In each town in Tunisia people had to have five to ten outfits; for the day, the night, as well as for social and religious ceremonies and festivals. There used to be local artisans making those clothes.” He still derives inspiration from these old Berber communities’ ethnic outfits.
Black Africa is clearly important to Barka, too. “The first time I went to Africa, to Niger, I cried. It was a dream. I felt I was with family. I loved the energy of the people, the simplicity, and the poverty, which is actually a richness, une richesse humaine.” It was 2009, and Barka won second prize at the International Festival of African Fashion (FIMA). Today his work often draws on the motifs, colours and history of sub-Saharan African cultures.
A black, gay man, Barka has had to overcome a latent racism and homophobia that lurks among a minority of more traditional Tunisians. The youngest of 12 siblings, his family, and mother in particular, were supportive. “If you respect yourself, people respect you,” he says. “This has really helped me with my work.”
It is sunset, and film director Sélim Gribaa is animated. We are chatting on a rooftop in the medina, not far from where his last film, Passicalme, was shot. The settings could not feel more different. Passicalme is strange and tense, a surreal, nightmarish sequence of individuals preparing to send two people through a shadowy gate (the medina’s Bab Jedid). Gribaa tells me his head has always been filled with abstract scenes. He says it was “after watching Mulholland Drive that I decided I wanted to make films”.
Yet Gribaa’s first award-winning short film, The Purple House, produced in 2014, was more conventional. The story centers around Hsan, a naïve old man who spends all his money painting his house purple, the colour of the national political party, believing this display of loyalty will yield advantages. But the party is ousted from power in a popular uprising. As the tragi-comedy reaches its climactic end, Hsan burns himself. It is an ironic nod to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose dramatic suicide sparked the beginning of the 2011 Tunisian revolution. Given its success, I ask why Gribaa chose such a new genre with Passicalme. “I wanted to evolve. Since I’m an autodidact, I didn’t go to film school, I need to try new styles to keep learning,” he replies.
Photography by Christopher Wilton-Steer