Tunisia Talents

Aïcha Snoussi
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.

Portrait of the Tunisian folk duo in Tunis, Tunisia

Yuma

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.

Yasmine Sfar
“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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salah Barka
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.”

Portrait of the film director in Tunis, Tunisia

Sélim Gribaa
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.

Nataal

Photography by Christopher Wilton-Steer

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Six Authors in Search of Justice

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Book Review for the Times Literary Supplement

 

Michael Newman traces the lives and works of six politically engaged writers “in search of justice”: Victor Serge, Albert Camus, Jorge Semprún, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ariel Dorfman and Nadine Gordimer. They wrote journalism, novels, histories, plays and essays, and adhered to Bertolt Brecht’s notion that, as intellectuals, they could “turn the struggles into the spheres of common knowledge and, above all, justice into a passion”.

All six writers were committed to a tradition (pursued previously by Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill) that seeks to answer the question “how can justice be advanced?” rather than engaging in the more celebrated “contractarian” tradition of considering “what would be perfectly just institutions?” (as examined by Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls).

In their pursuit of justice, the authors made “compromises of various kinds”. Camus, for example, opposed though he was to the Vichy government and its racial laws against Jews, continued to write for Paris-Soir, despite it “carrying pro-Vichy propaganda and anti-Jewish articles”. He only left the paper when they made him redundant at the end of 1941. No doubt threats and the traumas of imprisonment and torture influenced these authors’ decision-making. Newman believes that Ngũgĩ, “partly as a result of his own brutal incarceration”, began to see “democracy and legal justice” over armed insurrection as the means to achieve “social justice” in Kenya. This idea was reflected in his novel Matigari (1987) and conveyed satirically in Petals of Blood (1977) and The Devil on the Cross (1980).

All the authors initially identified with socialism of various persuasions – what Newman refers to as a “Marxist conception of justice”. Yet their commitment to socialism was always relegated beneath “liberal”, “legal” or “historical” notions of justice. The former Bolshevik Serge, for example, “increasingly stressed the realms of liberty, free speech, artistic creation, democratic representation, and legal justice” over communist revolution. The one-time French Communist Party member Camus famously renounced his commitment to the ideology. He later shifted his focus, opposing Charles de Gaulle’s use of capital punishment following the Second World War. Dorfman similarly illustrates the trend: a former Marxist party member in Chile, aware that Pinochet’s brutal regime was dictatorial, he engaged in an opposition that eventually amounted to mere “recognition of, and justice for, the survivors and victims of the dictatorship”. Semprún also abandoned socialism, acknowledging that Spain’s transition “offered great continuity to the economic, political, judicial and military elites” yet supported the centre-right coalition as necessary to establish democracy.

Through her fiction, Gordimer also privileged “historical” justice. Her novel The Conservationist (1974), for example, portrayed apartheid as an unjust anachronism through the wealthy industrialist Mehring, a character “embodying the system of racial and socioeconomic domination”, whose world falls apart.  Like most of the authors, Gordimer supported conciliation, or “transitional” justice: after apartheid, she championed South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As a meditation on the shifting moral, intellectual and artistic compass of writers confronting oppression, Six Authors in Search of Justice is illuminating.

Times Literary Supplement

Joseph Cornell

It’s hard to know where to begin, reviewing this Joseph Cornell exhibition. There are so many themes, ideas, and fascinating paradoxes running through his work. Cornell’s objects and assemblages – recalling sixteenth-century Wunderkammer (Cabinets of Curiosity) – are endlessly surprising, curious and intriguing.

Initially there’s that flea market feeling; what you experience among antiques and bric-a-brac, the gazing over ephemera. But soon you start to glimpse the depth and grasp of Cornell’s art.

In Cornell’s world we traverse eras, from ancient Egypt to Renaissance Italy to New York City in the 20th century. We see moonscapes and spectral nights. We marvel over exotic birds and ballerinas. We are captivated by the imagination, and the imagination is captured, and framed, in cases and cabinets.

Cornell is the archetype of an urban solitary, a flaneur of the 20th century. Despite his poor upbringing, living most of his life with his mother and disabled brother in a clapboard house in Flushing, Queens, he was able to satisfy his immense curiosity by visiting the public library, museums, bookstores and junk shops – places that could be visited by anyone. In these places he escaped. Then later he would return, to the kitchen of his house, to ply together his poetic fantasies, his visions of wonder.

And what visions they are. Early on in the exhibition we get a measure of Cornell’s early surrealist aesthetic, his perfectionism, and the attention to minutae. In Soap Bubble Set (1941), we see a box with a black background. There is a pipe, with wooden stem and ceramic white chamber blowing “bubbles” – a cluster of glass discs – within which are x-ray images of white shells. It is intricate, startling and suggestive, evoking transience; momentary and deep time framed together.

JC PharmacyLater we see Pharmacy (1943), a glass cabinet that resembles other works from the exhibition in sharing the same grid form. Cornell’s piece was referenced by Damien Hirst in his enormous Pharmacy installation produced fifty years later. Hirst used his piece to question belief in science over art. But whereas Hirst’s installation is clinical, presenting lots of clean shelves of medicine packets, Cornell’s little case contains misty glass bottles, which enclose crêpe and tissue cuttings, translucent crystals, a paper butterfly wing, golden paint, copper and sulphate. Unlike Hirst’s piece, which speaks blandly to a single abstract idea, there’s an intrinsic appeal, a tangible and personal quality to Cornell’s work.

Cornell reveled in the idea of discovery and travel. Works contain old 19th century maps and cut up pages of Baedeker, the Victorians’ guide book of choice. Cornell stunned Marcel Duchamp with his knowledge of Paris’ streets, despite never having visited the city. His box Naples (1942) uses a sepia photograph of a Neapolitan street as its backdrop with a local wine glass, shell and tag labeled ‘Naples’ dangling suggestively within the glass.

Cornell’s Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery (1943) reveals the artist’s passion for parrots.JC Shooting Gallery There’s a taxonomic aspect to
this box, as the colourful birds are numbered.  Yet the birds and the bare backdrop are splodged with paint drops. These were designed to represent bullets and blood. Deeply troubled by the war, the piece suggests how our Enlightenment ideals of discovery and learning were messed up by the idiocy of war.

JC Towards BlueTowards the end of the show we see his memorial box for Emily Dickinson, Toward the Blue Peninsula (1953). It was inspired by the Amhurst bedroom where the American wrote her poetry. Cornell’s box is all white, partly caged, with a window looking onto a blue sky. It’s a sympathetic metaphor for Dickinson’s life. Both Dickinson and Cornell were introverted artists who travelled little. Both, however, were fervent believers in the world outside.

One of the last pieces that struck me was Hölderlin Object (1944-46) in which a small wooden box encases a book set beneath a sheet of blue glass. The book is wrapped in what appears as cobalt blue velvet, tied up with a lighter blue string. Embedded in the box’s lid is a large blue oak leaf, a traditional symbol of power, majesty and the German nation. It is a symbolic homage to the great German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. The blue glass brings a mysterious otherworldly quality to the work, a sense of what Hölderlin would have called Sehnsucht, or longing.

Throughout Cornell’s work we sense nostalgia, “the light of other days”, as he called it. As the world war raged and a standardizing Fordism exploded across America, Cornell yearned for elsewhere – for the dancer Tamara Toumanova, for the grace of historical figures, for flights unto the stars, for moonlit nights. His art was escapist, child-like, humble. Out of the great tragedies of the last century, he created a world that saw wondrous beauty in small things, and for that he was essentially optimistic.

The Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy, “Wanderlust”, ran from 4 July – 27 September 2015.

Baroque in Rome

Review of the exhibition at the Palazzo Cipolla

As someone who has lived in Rome on and off over the past seven years, I found this exhibition on the Baroque in Rome particularly enjoyable. It helped me gain a greater understanding of this city whose history is so woven into the surfaces of its streets and squares, the facades of its buildings and their interiors.

The sculpture, paintings and architecture of the 17th century form some of Rome’s most characteristic sights. The Piazza Navona, for example, was transformed during this time. The Palazzo Pamphilj, the Church of Sant’Agnese and the Fountain of the Four Rivers, comprising the piazza’s most dramatic architecture, were all either completely re-designed or constructed at the height of the Baroque period. All are found within the same photo taken by millions of tourists each year.

My reference to photography is deliberate. These tourists are unwittingly perpetuating a practice that was heavily pursued through works of Reni, da Cortona, Rubens and Bernini: the dramatic potential of capturing the moment. This was one of the key ideas of the Baroque movement.

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The drama of the moment is paramount throughout the exhibition at the Palazzo Cipolla. In the first room we stand before energetic scenes such as Guido Reni’s Atlanta and Hippomenes, floundering mid-race, yet frozen in time. Reni depicts the image with extraordinary grace: the protagonists’ skin and shadows are softly rendered yet prominent against the dark backdrop. Through the angles of their limbs, the artist cleverly carries the viewer’s eye in an arc across the canvas.

But above all we see biblical stories reflected dramatically through the Baroque art on display. Da Cortona’s Angels Scaling the Foreheads of the Children of Israel, for example, is viewed from the surface of the sea, at night, a confused sight of angels flying above the boats that contain the children of Israel, marking crosses upon the desperate passengers’ foreheads. The painting represents a vision of the Apocalypse, with the division of risen souls on the Day of Judgment. The chaotic scene is illuminated by a glowing crucifix held aloft by an angel.

Another sensational moment is captured by the Bolognese sculptor Alessandro Algardi with his bronze statuette, Saint Michael Overcoming the Devil. Saint Michael, sporting feathered wings, stands over the Devil. His right arm is raised. His left holds a chain fixed to a manacle that clasps the arm of the devil that is in flames beneath, writhing, mouth and eyes open, frantic.

Baroque artists were encouraged to captivate their audiences. They were expected to capture all the drama of the Christian narrative in order to draw crowds into the churches that fell under the papal domain. Politics demanded it. Luther’s damning theological critique of Catholicism provoked the Council of Trent, which led to the Counter Reformation. Consequently, art had to persuade: it invoked drama, magnificence and the intense spiritual expression of Caravaggio.

Together, this movement created what the art historian Robert Hughes has described as “the last great universal language of spirituality”. This language can be clearly understood at the Palazzo Cipolla exhibition.

Catholic Herald

Venice Biennale: The Pavilion of the Holy See

“The Encyclopaedic Palace” was the title of this year’s Venice Biennale. It was taken from Italian-American artist Marino Auriti’s 1950s model for a 136-floor Encyclopaedic Palace, intended to house all humanity’s achievements. Curator Massimiliano Gioni described it as the fulfilment of his aim for an exhibition to be about “the desire to see and know everything”.

I had assumed this label to be expedient; a name which would allow the show to accommodate the vast array of art shipped-in from the four corners of the world. And, in many ways, the biennale was no different from previous years. There was an absolute abundance of art. As a collection, its diversity and seeming incoherence was matched only by its size. It continued to surprise until my senses could no longer respond. To the cynic, or the plain lazy, it could feel as if the exhibition is merely a reflection of our era; excessive, disparate, grabbing, elitist.

But the assembled work at the Arsenale was actually very different. Firstly, it appeared close to a unified whole. While their form varied immensely, and the origin of the art too (such incongruence perhaps being a truer representation of modern societies, as bound by the sum of their distinct parts) they shared an altogether more profound commonality: Most of the artists shared a desire to generate knowledge.

Auriti’s model was a towering aspiration, but other art, such as the philosopher-educationalist Rudolf Steiner’s cryptic sketches or Ivorian artist Frédéric Bouabré’s colourful pictograph drawings from his own “World Knowledge” series, are an exuberant and optimistic attempt to build and sustain human knowledge.

This earnest connection between artistic expression and the creation of knowledge was unusual, in an era when contemporary art is so often ironic. The exhibition subverted Enlightenment ideas in which human knowledge must be the product of scientific rationalism. Much of the art was Outsider-ish; childish, playful, narrow and folkish, exemplified by Patrick Van Caeckenburgh’s photorealistic trees.

The other affront to traditional Enlightenment ideas was that knowledge generation must somehow be a secular domain: for the first time ever the Vatican hosted a pavilion.

It was curated by Micol Forti, who curates 19th-century and contemporary art at the Vatican museums. “It’s very important for the Holy See to be here”, she said. “It’s a different situation where you can create a space for a dialogue with different ideas, different ideological thinking, different religions. Here at the biennale, it is not important where you are from: the only important thing is that there is a place where you can speak.”

The idea was the brainchild of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, an enthusiastic polymath who, as president of the Pontifical Council for Culture since 2009, has often tried to build bridges between the Church and contemporary culture.

In this market-place of ideas, the Vatican was actively promoting its role in furthering human consciousness, if not esoteric knowledge of the kind exhibited in the open-plan rooms of the Arsenale. Their three rooms covered three themes. Intense, large-screened interactive videos by the Milanese collective Studio Azzurro focused on creation. These were followed by stark black and white photographic images of man’s destructiveness, by Czech photographer Josef Koudelka. American artist Lawrence Carroll completed the narrative with his hopeful paintings, hinting at restoration and renewal.

The pavilion successfully conveyed these themes, as well as the underlying notion that the Roman Catholic Church remains central to the story of human knowledge. As such the biennale argued convincingly that the sources of human knowledge have always breached the Enlightenment ideal; knowledge has always derived from hermitic outsiders and centralized religions as much as from secular rationalists.

Lawrence Carroll
Lawrence Carroll

 

The Catholic Herald