En venant du quartier résidentiel de La Marsa situé dans la banlieue nord face à la mer du Golfe de Tunis, il faut rouler presque trente minutes, traverser la vaste périphérie, passer au large du magnifique musée National du Bardo (fermé depuis les attentats de 2015 mais finalement réouvert depuis presque 6 mois), traverser le quartier de La Manouba situé au nord-ouest de la capitale tunisienne, arriver jusqu’au quartier de Denden, pour enfin découvrir l’exposition Hirafen qui nous convie à un voyage artistique magnifique où l’artisanat traditionnel rencontre la créativité contemporaine.

When Tunisian craftsmanship and contemporary art come together in a single word: Hirafen

Coming from the residential district of La Marsa in the northern suburbs facing the sea on the Gulf of Tunis, you have to drive for almost thirty minutes, cross the vast outskirts, pass by the magnificent Bardo National Museum (closed since the 2015 attacks but finally reopened almost 6 months ago), cross the district of La Manouba in the north-west of the Tunisian capital, arrive in the district of Denden, to finally discover the Hirafen exhibition, which invites us on a magnificent artistic journey where traditional crafts meet contemporary creativity. 

Hirafen is the brainchild of an international consultancy group specialising in innovation and transformation through technology, based in both France and Tunisia, which has already produced four previous editions: Circumambulation in 2014, Reminiscence in 2015, 3ajel-Le Temps Réel in 2016, all three presented at Talan’s headquarters in Chari’a. Then Gorgi Pluriel in 2018 presented at the Kheireddine Palace not far from the Hafsia district in downtown Tunis. It is with Hirafen at the C3T in Denden that the creation of Talan l’expo celebrates its 10th anniversary with its 5th edition. In the space of a decade, the Franco-Tunisian patronage group, eponymous with the exhibition’s name, will have presented no fewer than ninety artists and over a thousand works of art under the executive direction of gallery owner Aïcha Gorgi, daughter of the famous Tunisian painter Abdelaziz Gorgi. From one edition to the next, the event has gone from strength to strength, aiming to have a major impact on Tunisian society. 

Hirafa and Fen, which mean craftsman and art, are two Arabic words that have been deliberately intertwined to create Hirafen, a name that sounds like a rallying cry, and to give title to a free exhibition that has been on show since it opened at the beginning of November and will run until the end of March, in a location unexpected by the general public in the heart of the Tunisian capital. For five months, this ambitious event will showcase a unique dialogue between nineteen artists and masters of thread or fibre, demonstrating a harmonious fusion between past and present, and a surprising creativity showcased in works of generous dimensions that wonderfully inhabit the space. Their work shows us the heritage, social, economic and environmental importance of craftsmanship in Tunisia. Drawing on this precious heritage, the organisers have created a concept that aims to support and promote contemporary creation and enable young artists of enormous talent to express themselves freely by putting them in the spotlight alongside renowned foreign artists.

As soon as you enter the La Station complex, while the traditional crafts of thread and fibre are presented in the first building, contemporary art has taken over the other two. The huge industrial buildings with metal frames and concrete floors built in the 1970s, remarkably renovated for the occasion by the Dzeta agency, repainted in immaculate white and contrasted with Raqqada yellow doors and windows (a symbol of light, energy and carefree spirit), hosting a unique dialogue between contemporary art and local crafts. Formerly a wool spinning complex and then a carpet washing station, once owned by the Office national de l’Artisanat tunisien (ONAT), the 2,000 m2 of workshops have been transformed into a temporary exhibition space, now part of the Centre technique du tapis et du tissage (C3T), and are enjoying a new lease of life.

Room by room, we discover works and installations specially created for the occasion by nineteen invited multidisciplinary artists from different backgrounds and generations, the fruit of a subtle dialogue between contemporary artistic practices and local textile crafts. The nine Tunisian designers and the ten from other countries have displayed their creations with scope and elegance, using bright colours, natural fibres and multiple materials to amaze and surprise us through an artistic experience orchestrated by two curators, one Tunisian, Nadia Jelassi, and the other French, Ludovic Delalande.

The nineteen Tunisian artists are Asma Ben Aïssa, Meriem Bouderbala, Mohamed Amine Hamouda, Sonia Kallel, Aymen Mbarki, Aïcha Snoussi, Ali Tnani, Najah Zarbout and Aïcha Filali. And Majd Abdel Hamid (Syria), Joël Andrianomearisoa (Madagascar), Dora Dalila Cheffi (Finland), Binta Diaw (Italy), Jennifer Douzenel (France), Abdoulaye Konaté (Mali), Chalisée Naamani (France), Sara Ouhad Dou (France), Zineb Sedira (France), Moffat Takadiwa (Zimbabwe), for the foreign artists.

Each of them was invited to draw on the crafts of thread and fibre to create a specific work as part of a research and production residency in Tunisia. Each artist was given the opportunity to approach local crafts from a variety of points of view: political, economic, territorial, artistic, geographical and aesthetic. Each artist, with his or her own practice, has developed a particular approach that delves into the many dimensions of an intangible heritage that is all too often overlooked, forgotten or even disappearing, particularly as a result of global warming and pollution. While Tunisia had some 700,000 craftspeople in the 2000s, the country now has just 200,000.

“Through this project, I’ve noticed that Tunisian artists have a total lack of knowledge of their own culture, in other words their own crafts. Craftsmen worked with artists for a very long time, but that’s no longer the case today. So, it’s interesting to bring these two worlds together to rediscover the know-how of both sides”, explains Aïcha Gorgi.

And yet, from the north to the south of the country, in towns and in the countryside, in the public spaces of the medinas and in the intimacy of private homes, women and men have been weaving, embroidering or braiding thread or fibre for centuries. Their age-old gestures, backed by ancestral know-how and a variety of techniques perpetuated over time, have given birth to objects whose rich materials and diversity of colours and motifs are there to dazzle us.

“I realised that craftsmanship, Tunisia’s intangible heritage, goes beyond the idea of an object or a material. It’s more a way of living, feeling and thinking about the world. Here, it’s something that’s done in the family, amongst women, in the community, that’s intimately linked to daily life and the current context. What’s interesting is that the question of ecology is very much present. How can we work, weave, embroider or braid if people no longer have access to the materials of yesteryear?” says exhibition curator Ludovic Delalande.

Monumental works of art, spools of thread laid on the floor and recounting a pan-African utopia, conceptual and visual installations, a sewing workshop, a forest of dried trunks, a reconstruction of a retro and kitsch interior, floating root lungs, animal tapestries, psychedelic underwater diving, recycled plastic waste in the shape of doors or totems made of plant fibres are all on show.

“This exhibition is there to ask us questions about the sustainability of our environment, our collective memory, our cultural heritage, and certain trades, techniques and skills that are gradually becoming extinct. It will make us realise that precious things are disappearing and what this will mean for our lives. Because tradition and modernity are not opposites; on the contrary, they feed off each other”, explains Mehdi Houas, CEO of the Talan Group and former Tunisian Minister of Trade and Tourism.

In short, the road was long and the access not easy, but the Hirafen exhibition is definitely worth the diversions!

Hirafen, Expo Talan, from 4 November 2023 to 20 March 2024, Ateliers du Centre Technique du Tapis & du Tissage (C3T) Denden, Tunis, Tunisia.


Text by Christine Cibert.

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