Zeineb Kaabi, Hayfa Ouerfelli – Tracing Our Heritage

Written by Bettina Pelz. Published on 16 December 2022.

Hayfa Ouerfelli and Zeineb Kaabi have been actively involved in public art projects in recent years. First time, working as artistic tandem, they contributed to the MISE EN LUMIÈRE project in November 2022 in Tunis. Here, their artworks aimed to puzzle with fragmented narratives of outstanding Tunisian women, highlighting their importance and contribution to the Tunisian culture and identity.

Both Hayfa and Zeineb are pathmakers, they developed their artistic practice in unique ways. They explored projection tools, learned imaging software, and pursued their personal interests rather than adhering to academic categorization. In their continuous experimentation in their studios and in their quest to push the boundaries of artistic expression, Zeineb Kaabi and Hayfa Ouerfelli embrace the latest digital technologies as essential tools in their creative arsenal. These serve as gateways to new realms of exploration and enable them to craft transformative experiences.

Hayfa Ouerfelli is known for her experimentations in video and animation, ofter as projections set in interaction with reflective materials such as glass and mirrors. She took part in the YOUNG MASTERS PROGRAM of SEE DJERBA in 2019 and subsequently joined projects in Tunis and abroad. Zeineb Kaabi developed an artistic practice encompassing drawing, painting, photography, videography, analog, and digital animation. She experimented with analog and digital projection tools and first participated in the INTERFERENCE YOUNG MASTERS PROGRAM in Tunis in 2021, subsequently she joint projects in Tunisia and abroad.

Their experiences working in public spaces allowed them to develop a keen awareness of the natural and urban settings, architectural features, and contextual connotations of given sites. When asked to join the MISE EN LUMIERE project, both artists were immediately enthusiastic. They each contributed to different sites of the public art project with their distinctive approaches. Their unique spirit led them to experiment with dynamic visual compositions.

Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor.

At the National Theater

Part of the project’s commission was to refer to selected pioneering women that made history and are iconic to Tunisia’s identity. Fadhila Khetmi1Fadhila Khetmi (1905 – 1992) was a renowned Tunisian actress and singer. Born in 1890 in Tunis, she began her career at a young age, performing in various theatrical productions. Fadhila Khetmi gained popularity for her powerful voice and emotive performances, becoming one of the leading figures in Tunisian theater. She played significant roles in both comedic and dramatic plays, captivating audiences with her talent and stage presence. Fadhila Khetmi’s contributions to the performing arts in Tunisia made her a beloved icon of her time., Habiba Msika2Habiba Msika (1903 – 1930) was an influential Tunisian actress and singer. She started her career as a performer in the early 1920s and quickly rose to fame with her exceptional vocal abilities and captivating stage presence. Habiba Msika became known for her performances in musical theater, particularly in the genre of operetta. Her ability to effortlessly transition between singing and acting made her a sought-after artist in Tunisia and beyond. Habiba Msika’s talent and contributions played a vital role in shaping the performing arts scene in Tunisia during her era., and Saliha3Saliha (1914 – 1958) was a talented Tunisian singer and actress who made significant contributions to the performing arts. Born in the 1920s, Saliha showcased her vocal prowess through a diverse range of musical genres, including traditional Tunisian music and contemporary Arabic melodies. Her ability to convey emotions through her voice, combined with her captivating stage presence, earned her a devoted following. Saliha’s impact on the music and theater industry in Tunisia during her time was considerable, making her a respected figure in the country’s performing arts community. were influential figures in the performing arts in Tunisia, each leaving a significant impact on the country’s cultural landscape. Zeineb Kaabi and Hayfa Ouerfelli hand-drew portraits of Fadhila Khetmi, Habiba Msika, and Saliha, in the follow-up they were digitalized to experiment with overlays and colorings and develop visual compositions to be projected at the theater’s facade.

Photos: Sabra Achour, Ouafa Ben Amor, Karim Ben Halima, Gudrun Barenbrock.

For a second sequence, the two artists developed “digital tiles” weaving a tapestry of graphic patterns. Ceramic tiles, with their intricate patterns and mesmerizing repetitions, served as inspiration for this captivating journey. Tunisia has a rich tradition of ceramic tiles, which hold significant cultural and historical importance in the country4The art of ceramic tile making in Tunisia has roots in its diverse historical influences, including Islamic, Arab, Berber, and Andalusian cultures. Tunisian ceramic tiles are known for their vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and geometric designs. Their designs is often draw inspiration from nature, Islamic calligraphy, and geometric motifs. Floral patterns, interlacing stars, and intricate geometric shapes are commonly featured in tilework. Throughout history, ceramic tiles have adorned various architectural structures in Tunisia, including mosques, palaces, mausoleums, and private homes. The tiles are used to decorate walls, floors, fountains, and other surfaces, adding a touch of elegance and artistic beauty to these spaces. As raw material of the “digital tiles”, they recorded footage following the motion of their pens while drawing. Each stroke, each line, became a tile in a larger mosaic, animated in a seamless loop.

Photos: Sabra Achour, Ouafa Ben Amor, Karim Ben Halima, Gudrun Barenbrock.

At the Cathedral St. Vincent de Paul

At the Cathedral St. Vincent de Paul, the artists worked on the graphical features of the cultural-historic building. Starting from the architectural drawing of the façade, they developed an animation of white lines and fields. They created a dynamic animation of architectural features, employing abstract patterns and high contrast to engage the viewer’s eye, effectively creating virtual space.

Photos: Sabra Achour, Ouafa Ben Amor, Karim Ben Halima, Gudrun Barenbrock.

A second sequence was based on the colors of the stained-glass windows of the cathedral. Their animation was inspired by wandering colorful spots caused by light falling through colored glass windows, changing along with paths of the sun. In a puzzle-like animation the color-light-fields were programmed and sequenced to cover the entire façade

Photos: Sabra Achour, Ouafa Ben Amor, Karim Ben Halima, Gudrun Barenbrock.

The same approach as for the theater, was applied to the cathedral, forming its own “digital tiles”.

Photos: Sabra Achour, Ouafa Ben Amor, Karim Ben Halima, Gudrun Barenbrock.

With every project, the two artists ventured into the realm of the unexpected. Their journey contained the obvious and the less obvious, inspecting architectural surfaces, understanding their intentions as well as detecting traces of time and remnants of use. From these unconventional angles, they unraveled new potentials of how to see the iconic facades.

The artistic approaches of Zeineb Kaabi and Hayfa Ouerfelli can be compared to the work of archaeologists in their shared endeavor to uncover and restore fragmented narratives from the past. Just as ancient heritage sites have undergone transformations over time, resulting in fragmented archaeological remains, wokring for MISE EN LUMIÈRE, the artists faced fragmented stories and cultural references to be relinked through their artistic practice.

Archaeologists face the challenge of incomplete monuments and artifacts, which hinder their ability to fully understand and study them. Similarly, the artists encounter fragmented elements of cultural history, be it the career highlights of pioneering Tunisian women or the architectural features of historic buildings. Both groups face the task of reassembling these fragments to shed light on the narratives and contexts that have been obscured by time. Zeineb Kaabi and Hayfa Ouerfelli tap into visual cues, graphic highlights, and architectural features to rewrite narratives through their compositions. While archaeologists delve into physical artifacts and historical records, artists like Zeineb Kaabi and Hayfa Ouerfelli explore the visual and emotional dimensions of cultural heritage, inviting viewers to engage with the past in new and profound ways. Both disciplines contribute to our collective understanding of the human story, enriching our cultural tapestry.

Zeineb Kaabi and Hayfa Ouerfelli embarked on a profound conversation between contemporary art and the rich tissue of cultural history. Their artistic endeavors became a bridge, spanning the chasm between the past and the present. Their creations transcended mere aesthetics, becoming conduits for reflection, introspection, and the celebration of human creativity across time. It was a testament to the enduring power of art to connect us to our roots, while simultaneously propelling us towards new horizons of imagination and understanding.

About the MISE EN LUMIÈRE project

The MISE EN LUMIÈRE project marked a significant milestone as it interwove women’s empowerment, iconic locations, experimental artistic approaches, and innovative digital technologies. It provided a groundbreaking framework for honoring the women who have transformed Tunisia’s political, scientific, technical, and socio-cultural landscape. With a seamless fusion of creativity and technology, this extraordinary project captivated audiences, celebrating the extraordinary achievements of these exceptional women while illuminating the enduring power of their legacies.

The public art project was commissioned as a tribute to the pioneering women who have shaped Tunisia’s history. From November 16 to 18, 2022, the initiative unfolded at six iconic sites across the city, ranging from Bab Bhar to the City Hall, encompassing the City Museum, the City Theater, the Zitouna Mosque, and the Cathedrale St. Vincent de Paul.

Highlighted personalities spanned from Elyssa, the founder of Carthage in the 9th Century BC, to contemporary figures such as politicians Najla Bouden and Souad Abderrahim. Along the remarkable list, the names of Arwa La Kairouanaise, Aziza Othmana, and Om Millel resonated as influential figures who have left an indelible mark on the Tunisian mentality with their open-mindedness and their caring approach. The text celebrated personalities like Tawhida Ben Cheikh, the first Arab woman physician, and Alia Menchari, the first Tunisian woman pilot. It also acknowledged the achievements of remarkable athletes like Ons Jabeur and Raoua Tlili, and acclaimed artists such as Safia Farhat, Fadhila Khetmi, Habiba Msika, and Saliha from the performing arts. These remarkable women were not only celebrated as individual role models, but also recognized as representatives of the countless female pioneers who have shaped Tunisia’s culture and identity.