Tunis exhibit celebrates long tradition of plastic art, highlights challenges
In celebration of Tunisia’s national heritage month, the Union of Tunisian Plastic Artists inaugurated an exhibition featuring more than 450 works from 265 Tunisian artists.
The exhibition runs through April 4 at the Art Gallery of the Palace of Kheireddine and three other galleries around Tunis.
“The annual exhibition takes place in different galleries to showcase the works of Tunisian artists,” said Wissem Gharsallah, secretary-general of the Union of Tunisian Plastic Artists. “It is also a meeting forum for more than 265 Tunisian artists that aims to celebrate and present a comprehensive picture of contemporary Tunisian art.”
Plastic art, including painting, sculptures and installations, has a tradition in Tunisia dating to 1936 with the founding of the School of Tunis by Pierre Boucherle. Other prominent Tunisian painters, such as Zoubeir Turki and Ammar Farhat, joined the movement after the second world war.
Focused on perfecting technique and style rather than substance, the School of Tunis was known for its annual exhibitions, a tradition that the Tunisian Union of Plastic Artists has kept alive.
“There will be an academic conference as part of the month of heritage and traditions to reflect on the state of plastic arts as we will be dealing with the impact of the virtual world on art,” Gharsallah explained. “There will be different reflections on digital art.”
Tunisian painter Sami Sahli said the Union of Tunisian Plastic Artists served as a voice for Tunisian artists struggling to find exposure for their work.
“The Union of Plastic Artists was formed to strengthen the voice of the artists who had no support.” Sahli said. “The idea was to protect the image of the artists and to speak for their rights and to fight for their issues.”
He added: “This exhibition is not only a space to showcase our work but also a much-awaited opportunity for all these artists to exchange their ideas on how to improve the state of the artistic scene.”
Sahli said Tunisian plastic arts were an important part of the Tunisian art scene, displaying elements of both modernist movements and Tunisian heritage.
“In Tunisia, plastic art first began with artisanal works on carpets or on glass. These materials were the origins of Tunisian plastic arts. Later, plastic arts drew inspiration from Tunisian and Arabic culture,” Sahli said, adding that “Tunisian plastic artists are famous for their skilled and complex artistic techniques.”
Despite the important role in preserving Tunisian culture, artists said they lacked funding and exposure for their work.
“The number of art exhibitions is alarmingly small,” said Gharsallah. “Plastic artists cannot find spaces places to exhibit their work. We are trying to help the artists find the place to showcase their work by holding our annual exhibition in state-owned art galleries.”
“These art galleries that belong to the government should provide a space for any Tunisian artist to have their work exposed.”
Sahli said the issues facing artists of visual and plastic arts reflected a crisis in the industry.
“Tunisian artists face many obstacles, especially as it is hard to make a living on art. There are few names that are famous. There is no market for artists, especially given that those exploring new styles that are not welcomed,” Sahli said.
“Unfortunately, in Tunisia, artists are only those who sing and act. Tunisians do not realise that the artist means the plastic artists and so the audience does not follow the scene of plastic and visual arts.”
Part of the solution for artists could be bringing traditional forms of art into public spaces, such as the streets, Sahli said.
“Art should not be isolated from the people since the artist can speak to them through colours. The sensitivity of the artist to its surrounding is the essence of his art and this could create a beautiful relationship once the artist is working in a space open to people. The artist’s dream will always be to touch people.”
Roua Khlifi a regular Travel and Culture contributor in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.