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Can a contemporary art project rescue a dying art handcraft? Can it liberate a region’s people from poverty and lack of prospects? Selma and Sofiane Ouissi are convinced it can.
Embedded in a hilly landscape in rugged northeastern Tunisia is the village Sejnane [Seschnae:n]. Sejnane is famous for two things: its many stork nests and its unique ceramics. Each year in spring several dozen pairs of storks arrive and like to breed on the roof of the abandoned railway station building or on the neighboring mining facility, which was also shut down long ago.
What is special about the pottery of Sejnane is that it is modeled and painted with a fine graphic design solely by Berber women. The production is based on ancient knowledge supposedly stretching back to the late Stone Age and today is still passed on from one generation to the next.
The mineral-rich earth of Sejnane is poorly suited for farming, but provides various clays of the highest quality. After the clay is dug, the women use their bare feet to stomp and knead it and add water to prepare it for further working. Then hollow vessels or figures are formed and fired in open flames fueled by dried cow dung and later adorned with the characteristic Berber motifs in rust-brown and black color. Originally, the women made primarily objects for their own everyday use, like bowls, drinking vessels, or spoons. Unfortunately, this craft is increasingly being supplanted by cheaply produced plastic ware. Things are different with the figurative objects, primarily female statuettes and stylized cats, dogs, turtles, and birds, whose abstracted forms recall cave paintings or the idols of primitive peoples. What makes these clay figures so interesting is their pleasing reduction and astonishing expressive power.
The choreographers and founders of Dream City , Selma and Sofiane Ouissi, recognized the unused potential for this unemployment-plagued region in the country’s northeast, and they initiated one of the most remarkable art projects in Tunisia: Laaroussa (which means "doll" and "bride" in the Berber language). The siblings’ projects always take place in public space; their ambition is not to "commemorate" artistic achievements, but "to inscribe oneself into the future".
Selma and Sofiane Ouissi have the noble goal of using their art projects to exert a beneficial influence on the further development of a city or region; they thereby go far beyond the interactive Happenings of the Fluxus movement. They act more in the sense of Josef Beuys’ Social Sculpture (1967), whose theory is that creative activity can contribute to the welfare of the community and thereby have a "sculpturing" effect on society. Nicolas Bourriaud’s Esthétique relationelle (1996), too, according to which the totality of human relationships and their social context should be taken into account in the practice of art, is implemented in Sejnane with Laaroussa.
In February 2011, a collective was founded consisting of ten contemporary artists and about sixty potters from the area around Sejnane. Its goal is to achieve autonomy and higher valuation for the women’s craftsmanship. Believing in the energy and positive change that can be generated in the framework of a joint art measure, this collective lived and worked together closely in the subsequent time.
After four months, the 75-year-old master potter Om Jemâa and the artist collective received guests from the city on her homestead. Lined up in their colorfully patterned clothes and brilliant headscarves, they formed a living sculpture.
Dazed by the scent of wildly burgeoning peppermint, the art-loving audience strode cautiously across the barren, almost impassable fields to finally arrive before the gigantic collier by Tobi Ayedadjou. Artist Sonia Kallel wanted her headless bust beside it to be understood as "the dress of Laaroussa". Like a necklace of huge ceramic beads, this clay piece of clothing consists of many individual, differently shaped mosaic tiles, expressing the plurality and individuality of the various participants. Both objects give visual expression to the project’s basic idea: to achieve the extraordinary in an artistic collective.
The artists’ group La Luna built a hut of foliage, a sacred art space made of branches and leaves. A video projected onto a loose pile of bricks the artists’ joy over a never-before-experienced collaboration: a new experience for the ceramicists, who until then had worked in complete isolation at home. Recognizing the advantages of the collective now leads the women of Sejnane to dream of an ideal micro-society without hierarchy in which all areas of life (pottery, marketing, child care, food preparation, farming, and transport) are covered by the assignment of individual competencies. The project Laaroussa helped them to define these desires and to request support for their realization from various offices.
A poetic video work by Selma and Sofiane Ouissi pays honor once again to the ceramic art of Sejnane. The process and the techniques and abilities, ritualized and with thousands of years of tradition behind them, with which the raw material is transformed into desirable objects is the basis of the choreography of a dance performance that allows viewers to experience the material clay anew at the beginning of the 21st century.
Art historian, specializes in contemporary art from South Asia, Middle East and North Africa. Lives in La Marsa,Tunisia.
Social art project in northeastern Tunisia
February - June 2011
Selma and Sofiane Ouissi
Selma & Sofiane Ouissi
Om Jemâa and 59 other women potters with their children from Sejnane and surroundings
Slah Ben Ayed
Saloua Ben Salah