Bettina Pelz discussed the local art scene in Sfax with Aida Zaha, Meriam Gaied, Aymen Gharbi, Mouna Jemal Siala, and Hanen Mahfoudh. Published on 30 May 2022.
Aida Zahaf is one of the dedicated professionals who nurture the contemporary art scene in Sfax. She is the president of the ‘Friendship Association of the Fine Arts’ which has been working for more than 30 years in the Sfax region. “We have the ambition that our association fully contributes to the popularization of the arts and to make art a vector of development for the region,” said Aida when I was talking to her some days ago. It seems that she spends more time at Borj Kallel than at home. The historic 19th-century home has been turned into an art and culture space. The socio-cultural center is producing all kinds of activities and cultural events, open to all audiences. Aida Zahaf is dedicated to creating open spaces for the dialog of contemporary art and cultural heritage, fostering art and cultural mediation, and featuring women artists in her longstanding engagement.
To present the local art scene Sfax in an international event in the city of Marburg in June 2022, Aida curated a series of postcards by Sfaxian artists that will be published on the occasion of the joint activity of the twin cities Marburg and Sfax. When I asked her to explain the choice, she answered that she advocated for including fine arts in the upcoming conference in Marburg. “We have been cooperating since 2012 with the city of Marburg on art exchanges and I am very happy to share some insights of the present scene … I am bringing a mix of academic and non-academic artists because we are open to both _ professional ones and amateur ones. Over the years and in many ways, we cooperate closely with the Higher Institute for Arts and Crafts _ the selection reverberates that.” Participants of the conference will get to see artwork by Saida Arous, Najwa Abdelmaksoud, Lobna Abdelmouleh, Ghada Benameur, Feten Bouhaha, Yesmine Hadhri, Fatma Ezzahraa Hajji, Mouna Jemal Siala, Nihel Lahyeni, Intissar Zribi. The series is a rare opportunity to get an idea of the vivid contemporary art scene in Tunisia.
I included the artist Mouna Jemal Siala, who has strong links to Sfax, and the curator Aymen Gharbi, my partner in the artistic direction of several projects to join as well: What do you know about the art and culture scene in Sfax?
Starting the discussion on the local art scene, Hanen said: “Nothing special comes to our minds when we talk about contemporary art in Sfax, maybe the apartment exhibitions, a series of exhibitions in private places … but maybe that was more because of the unusual spot where it was presented. I think that it is a good example to see how we work in a country where we are still waiting for the national museum of contemporary art to open and where we must be experimental in our presentations and displays.” Aymen adds: “ There have been two or three art initiatives that were quite successful but Sfax wouldn’t be the first place that we would think of when looking for interesting art activities or possible cooperations. There is a lack of cultural and art institutions. Personally, I know some activities by Maison de France working closely with Institut Français in Tunis. Also in the Tunis-based community, we have several artists and cultural actors from Sfax or family relations to Sfax, but they are rarely active there.” These views mirror the Tunis’ perspective, compared to the range and variety of art activities in Tunis, those in Sfax are few. They are centered around Borj Kallel and the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts, but their amount and diversity are good indicators of an active and productive local art scene, often not visible to those living in the capital.
Too Few Exhibitions Places
Hanen recalls that the gallery of the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts in Sfax is one of the few gallery spaces in town. It is dedicated to students and teachers of the academy, and she is in sync with Aida who confirmed: “Galleries dedicated to contemporary art are only two, Borj Kallel and the ISAMS Gallery. Contemporary art can become costly if they are ephemeral artworks or events that are difficult to finance. Sometimes events are canceled last minute due to the missing support.” The lack of exhibition spaces and opportunities, missing resources for experimental displays, documentation, and debate are key obstacles for contemporary artists in Tunisia, but they are not a Sfax-specific issue. Meriam reminds us that artists in Tunisia mostly make their living through teaching at art schools. Some can make a living by constantly applying for grants, occasional commissions, and sales. Artists, curators, art mediators, and critics are not recognized as professions that provide a well-supporting source of income. The combined effect of lack of exhibition opportunities, exhibition fees, and an art market describes the vicious circle of the missing professional perspective in the country, shifting only slowly towards more recognition, more options, and opportunities.
In the Context of the Tunisian Contemporary Art Scene
“Regarding the art scene in Tunisia, I would qualify it as a very shyly emerging scene centralized in Tunis the capital, and almost absent in the other less major cities in Tunisia. A contemporary museum is yet to open and the already established galleries, projects, and initiatives are only active in Tunis without necessarily being open to the other regions of the country”, Meriam synopsizes the basic coordinates. And Mouna labeled the contemporary scene in Tunisia as ‘rich but fragmented’, both answers echoed my experiences. I have been working in Tunisia since 2014 on curatorial projects such as INTERFERENCE International Light Art Project (since 2016) or SEE DJERBA International Media Biennial (since 2017) as well as with programs fostering young artists to work in public space (since 2019) and heading the curatorial study program TASAWAR CURATORIAL STUDIOS on art-in-context in Tunis (since 2019). By now, I haven an idea, that more than 10 years after the Arab Spring, the contexts of the arts with frameworks for research and production, display, and debate are far and few; the legal framework to make a living as an artist or curator, art mediator or art critic is complicated, and sufficient payments are not included in programing and planning; funding structures are rare, and most of the public projects would not be possible without the support of the international partners such as the Institut Français, the Goethe-Institut or the Heinrich-Boell-Foundation; private collections, galleries, and the art market are hard to find.
Only selectively, Tunisian artists are visible nationally or internationally, with better chances when living outside the country. Let me provide a few examples: When I think of artists from Sfax, I start to think of works from Fatma Charfi, Mouna Karray, Nicène Kossentini, as well as of Mouna Jemal Siala, and Wadi Mhiri, because I have worked with them. Let me make them my random samples: For visibility, I will check the websites and social media channels, wikipedia.com entries, and artnet.com entries. The platform artnet.com is an international platform promoting contemporary art galleries, artists, auctions, and a price database that is very successful in networking across the world. Fatma Charfi (1955-2018) was born in Sfax and lived in Lausanne.ch, Wadi Mhiri (*1965) from Sfax is living in Tunis, Mouna Karray (*1970) is born in Sfax and lives in Paris.fr, Nicène Kossentini (*1976) from Sfax lives in Tunis. Fatma Charfi and Mouna Karray, both have wikipedia.com and artnet.com entries. Nicène Kossentini is represented by Selma Feriani Gallery, based in Sidi Bou Said and in London, present at international art fairs. Nicène has no wikipedia.com entry, but an artnet.com entry. Wadi Mhiri and Mouna Jemal Siala, both internationally active for centuries, both active on websites and social media accounts, have no entries and almost no visibility in international contexts of the arts.
With Mouna, I discussed whether there is a difference between the professional situation of male and female artists, and she has stated: “ … not really! I would say it is difficult for both! It is difficult for the artist all short. But it seems that women are more committed to the profession of being an artist and take more of a risk from the beginning. But to make it in the arts, you need to struggle to develop a standing.” Aida, Hanen, and Meriam, all agree. “The arts’ community is quite young”, said Aymen, “for INTERFERENCE we work with a community that is between 19 and 39 years old, we all profited already from what has been achieved by the women’s movement of our mothers and grandmothers. We know that there is still some work to be done for gender balance, but we are all in. We also see a steady workflow from the queer community to feed their visibility as a cultural actor, we can cite CHOUFTOUHONNA and SHIFT but as well as the recent queer play FLAGRANTI by Essia Jaaibi.”
There is a definite desire to establish art events and to attempt to build new structures that raise the visibility of the contemporary art scene and recognize it as a pivotal element in fostering democratic culture. Meriam adds: “From our activities and networks, we know, that all the art professions, be it curators, art mediators, art writers or critics are not yet well-known professions in the country. Often exhibitions are curated by artists and only in the recent years, and as well with the TASAWAR CURATORIAL STUDIOS, we can see more differentiation, recognition, and payment coming. The art market is not exactly active as there are not many collectors of contemporary art in Tunisia and most of the buyers are foreigners. As for public art projects, there are a few like INTERFERENCE and DREAM CITY and UTOPIES VISUELLES in but I think there’s more ground to develop in this sense.” Aymen agrees, “ … there has been a boom in the last ten year in terms of contemporary art projects, we don’t oversee fully the impact of the activities but slowly we see some projects turning into institutions, project spaces are opening, galleries are starting, most of them still struggling to find their way but existing. All is still experimental and also on uneven grounds. Other than the intensive care we do for cultural heritage, contemporary art has not been part of the Tunisian culture for a long time. Most of us active in the field, are still very excited about all the steps we are moving forward, even though it is just slower than we all thought. There is a rising number of artists and curators but we still lack the infrastructure of producers, mediators, critics, and researchers. Still, though, there are new ways of doing things. And maybe it’s good that we have a lack of tradition of contemporary art, this allows us to find our own way as a North African Country, being a meeting point of the African, the Arab, and the Mediterranean cultures. So maybe it is good that it takes some time until we can see the full image.”
Publishing on Contemporary Art
In 2019, the book “Artistes de Tunisie” by Elsa Despiney et Ridha Moumni was published by the Kamel Lazaar Foundation with a great mission: “Artistes de Tunisie is a manifesto, a tribute to a generation of artists and creators who have often been forced to work in the margins of society, with scant recognition. It is a non-exhaustive compilation, the first beginning of a reference work destined to be developed further. It is an attempt to fill a gap in the literature on Tunisian artistic culture.” The statement resounds the situation of lacking situations, frameworks, and institutions to foster contemporary art in the country. The initiative and the book were celebrated in the community and the press: “Artists of Tunisia” by Elsa Despiney and Ridha Moumni, the first book that brings together over 200 Tunisian artists, was the title of an article by Edia Lesage, summarizing well the overall enthusiastic response to the effort. ‘Artistes de Tunisie’ is dedicated to drawing, painting, and sculpture works but what about the productive scene in photography, film, animation, projection mapping as well as intervention, performance, and public art?
When we tried to research experimental art forms, digital media, and performative or participative art projects in Sfax, we didn’t find any publications. One more time, we encountered that art magazines or dedicated platforms, art publications, conferences, and dedicated research on contemporary art are still to come. Meriam named some initiatives that indicate the shift that is still to come: ”… there are only some punctual initiatives regarding writing about art in Tunisia like the initiative started by artist and teacher Oussema Troudi and Mohamed Ben Soltane but the articles that appear in the newspapers are not very critical per se they’re mostly informative. Some researchers are doing a bit of writing but again they’re very shy initiatives. I can cite Arij Messaoudi in this framework. And not to forget the TASAWORAT Experimental Publishing Platform by the TASAWAR STUDIOS.”
We promise each other to rethink the idea of exchange and cooperation because there is more to find than we thought when starting to discuss. “I will be very happy,” and Mouna summarizes the spirit of the moment: “The best thing to strengthen the links between the cities is culture, … public art projects reach a general audience as we can see that with DREAM CITY and INTERFERENCE in Tunis, UTOPIES VISUELLES in Sousse and SEE DJERBJA in Houmt Souk.” And there it is again, the ambition to create new frameworks of display and the attempt to design new organizational models rendering visible the contemporary art scene and acknowledging it as a key factor of public life.
Mouna Jemal Siala: Le regard de Halima (2019)