Pottery of Tunisia’s Sejnane receives international recognition

The clay in the pottery is from Sejnane — the land is more favourable for clay than agriculture — and the decorative colours are extracted from plants.
Sunday 03/03/2019
Pottery figurines on display in Sejnane.(Facebook)
Pottery figurines on display in Sejnane.(Facebook)

SEJNANE, Tunisia - Celebrations erupted in the small northern Tunisian town of Sejnane when Tunisian Minister of Cultural Affairs Mohamed Zine El Abidine inaugurated an event to honour the Berber tradition of artisan pottery.

“The Pottery of Sejnane, Our Pride” took place February 18-22 and is the most recent show of recognition for the Berber pottery of Sejnane, which, despite generations of heritage, was only recently placed on a list of the intangible cultural heritage of the UNESCO.

Sejnane, in Bizerte governorate north-west of Tunis, is famous for its unique pottery style and colours. Crafted mainly by women artisans, the pottery exhibits intricate Berber detail through a unique fabrication method. Sejnane pottery is made and decorated with natural elements from the immediate area.

“The artisans of this region have sacrificed a lot for the survival of the pottery despite their difficult working conditions,” Zine El Abidine said. “Today is an opportunity to celebrate hard-working women of Tunisia and also to celebrate the recognition of Tunisian artisans on an international level.”

Zine El Abidine said the Ministry of Cultural Affairs would allocate a budget for Sejnane pottery to incentivise the artisans. It would also dedicate a week to Sejnane artisans at the City of Culture in Tunis. The event is to include exhibitions of Sejnane pottery as well as photography and art exhibitions showcasing intricacies of the craft.

“The pottery of Sejnane is different from other types in Tunisia. It is made of all-natural elements and does not contain any chemical components,” said Sabiha Ayari, one of the few remaining artisans of Berber pottery. “It’s all manual work and no piece looks like the other. All the pieces are unique.”

The 56-year-old said she inherited the craft from her ancestors who kept the Berber tradition alive for thousands of years

The clay the artisans use comes from the ground of Sejnane, which is more favourable for clay than agriculture, and the decorative colours are extracted from plants.

The pottery is usually decorated with traditional Berber symbols and reflects the origins of the tradition that dates back 3,000 years, archaeologist Adnan Louhichi said. He emphasised the cultural significance of Sejnane’s pottery.

“There is continuity along the Maghreb when it comes to pottery, and the ceramic artwork of Tunisia is similar to other North African countries,” Louhichi said. “They all have Berber roots and origins. Sometimes, they have a certain narrative to them, using animal and human symbols.”

Pottery is a family business in Sejnane. Originally, it was a part of the daily lives and culture of the families. Today the pottery serves many modern purposes.

Ayari said people can use her pottery for daily use or for decoration and it is all natural. The clay comes from the earth and the colours come from a plant.

“I have been working in pottery since I was eight years old. I was born into this,” she added. “My mother and my grandmother used to make it for their own daily use in their houses. We didn’t use the dishes we have today.”

Ayari lamented that the main issue facing the culture is funding and distribution. Many struggle economically, which drives them to leave the craft.

Sejnane pottery has been the focus of the collective “Sejnane, Human Wealth,” which has been trying to alert authorities to the importance of preserving the cultural heritage of the region.

After receiving recognition from UNESCO, the collective released “The Pottery Artisans of Sejnane: Women and the Know-how,” a book that tells the story of the artisans. The book was primarily the work of Louhichi and ethno-anthropologist Neziha Skik.

“This pottery is old. It is different from the pottery of other regions,” Skik said. “It is made manually from the material of an ecological nature, from the clay, from elements of the environment that are unique to Sejnane.”

“It is impressive that women are the driving force behind the survival of this craft,” he added. “They are creative in using the elements from their natural surroundings. The decorations are simple but specific, which distinguishes their work from other kinds of pottery.”

While acknowledging the importance of recognising Sejnane pottery as part of UNESCO’s list of the intangible cultural heritage, Skik and Louhichi emphasised the importance of providing the ground for the craft to develop.

“It’s a great recognition for the country because it was the product of years of work. It is also a first for our country,” Skik said. “This shows the importance of the work of the women artisans. This recognition should help establish sustainable development projects as it will bring visibility to this poor region.”

A Berber pottery plate.(Facebook)
A flower pot on display in Sejnane. (Twitter)