As in much of the Mediterranean, the ceramic arts in Tunisia are an old trade, and modern Tunisian pottery is a melting pot of various influences: Terracotta was introduced abundantly through amphoras and relief pottery by the Grecian and Phonetician merchants that stopped over at the country's Mediterranean ports. Local, often nomadic, tribes adapted it in vibrant colours to their own needs, cultural context, decorative and usage traditions. In the Medieval, tile making was introduced by immigrants coming from Andalusia (Spain) extending the reach of pottery into architecture, followed later by Ottoman Islamic influences in the eighteenth century, and Italian styles in the nineteenth century.
The result of such an intensive cultural exchange is well visible in towns such as Nabeul or Sejnane, located at Tunisia's northern and north-eastern coast respectively, that specialised over many generations on this one industry: The streets are flooded with industrial ceramic and pottery products, the vast majority of it either targeting tourists or simply producing crockery suitable for common house hold use. The need to survive in a modern world has led to artistic skill being sacrificed for the benefit of profits gained through low quality mass production.
Nevertheless, there remain a few important traditional expert craftsman families, who have carefully handed their expertise on from fathers to sons. Modern life styles however, with the seemingly more comfortable, less demanding income options, increasingly prompt the young generation to leave their craftsman roots behind. And as a consequence, the number of highly skilled artisans is plummeting. Unknown and invisible to all but the skilled craftsmen themselves, Tunisia is facing the very real risk of losing its high quality traditional ceramic and pottery techniques for good.
The loss of some is the gain of others. Despite the dwindling numbers, the contemporary Tunisian ceramic industry and ceramic arts seem as vibrant and varied as the designs that the artists and factories are producing. Traditionally there were two types of pottery: one “turned” by men and the other “modeled” by women, with the latter confined to rural areas, essentially utilitarian and considered inferior to the first. But in families where the sons rejected following in their father's footsteps, suddenly the daughters step in to mark their terrain and uphold the family tradition.
And: more and more women artisans set up workshops independently and make a name for themselves by fusing their local roots with modern and global influences. In absolute terms their numbers are still tiny as of yet, but this is a development that is not going unnoticed by the art experts and those at the core of the industry. Three women artisans who bear proof to this ongoing change are Dorra Mselmani, Ichraf Hichri and Samia Achour.
Dorra Mselmani graduated in 2000 from School of Fine Arts and initially continued to train with several renowned pottery artisans until she finally decided to set up her own workshop in the city of Nasr. With a passion for the traditional style of Berber nomads, her unique signature style mixes their colourful and figurative designs with contemporary oriental as well as western influences. She perceives her creation as one piece of a larger whole, and her oeuvre now expands to include rather unusual uses of pottery across the entire sphere of interior decoration.
Ichraf Hichri, too, a native from Cape Bon, capitalises on her traditional heritage which combines utilitarian pottery with decorative attributes made from vegetable fibres such as rush and straw from the palm tree (called Zaaf). Her creations are a homage to the seemingly zen-like simplicity of ceramic everyday items, not the least those of nomadic origins. The choice of low key and natural colour tones, which are in striking contrast to Tunesian traditions, are an intended reference to the historically humble reputation domestic ceramics have up until the present day.
Her own interpretation of her Berber heritage unites Samia Achour with her peers. A native of Djerba, North Africa’s largest island located in the south east of the country, she grew up immersed in a culture characterised by pottery. Yet it was not until her mid-20s and halfway into a traditional office career that she only found her medium of expression. Her signature design are creations that are minimalistic, nearly utilitarian in style and with a preference for colours inspired by the desert and the deep sea, both of which were, and still are for many of her fellow Djerbians, the ultimate embodiment of alienation from home but also the link to foreign parts of the world.
These three women are nationally among the most recognised pottery artisans, and as such have already left their mark on an industry that is approaching the tipping point: will it manage to survive or will the experts’ skills fall into oblivion? The growing importance of women in Tunisian pottery hints at that there may still be a promising future in store. One that will build upon and continue the century old tradition with a contemporary nuance.
The Tunisian pottery sector, and specifically women artisans, is supported through a program by the International Trade Centre. For details, please visit: http://www.intracen.org/enact/about/about.htm
Pamela Ravasio is an ethical fashion journalist and consultant, and the publisher of the research based eco fashion Blog 'Shirahime 白姫' (http://shirahime.ch).