Prize-winning Tunisia’s Memoir evokes beauty and brutality
Washington - With its natural beauty, rich history and democratic transition, Tunisia has everything going for it. Yet, its progress belies simmering pockets of dissent; more than 3,000 young Tunisians are said to have joined the Islamic State (ISIS) and terrorists have attacked tourists at the Bardo Museum and in Sousse.
After launching the “Arab spring”, which withered everywhere else, Tunisia, the poster child for progress, now grasps tightly the reins of forward momentum.
Before the terrorists struck, ISIS brazenly tweeted “two lions are on the attack”. Indeed, lions starred in some ugly ancient Tunisian history; 72 kilometres south in the coastal town of El Djem, third-century Romans released lions to kill each other or gladiator slaves for sport in an amphitheatre that seated 35,000 people.
This vast venue of ghoulish entertainment remains largely intact and is a World Heritage Site. In heraldic decor worldwide, lions convey bravery, strength and royalty. Indeed Tunisia’s coat of arms features a lion holding a sword representing order. And so, the lion’s image conjures both positive and negative connotations.
Tunisia’s Memoir, a stunning work by glass artist Corinne Whitlatch, has just been awarded third place in the 2015 Juried Regional Exhibition at the Hill Center Galleries in Washington. The judge was Mark Leithauser, senior curator and chief of design at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, who selected Whitlatch’s work out of 100 pieces on show.
“Corinne’s work is inspirational,” said Hill Center Director Nicky Cymrot. “It reflects not only her exquisite artist’s sensibility but impressive craftsmanship to use minute pieces of glass and other materials and make it look seamless.”
At about 80 centimetres and framed in interlocking 8-point stars, Tunisia’s Memoir features an imposing mosaic lion as the focal point, based on one Whitlatch saw years ago at Tunis’s Bardo Museum. “The lion is a powerful symbol,” she said. “Of all the incredible mosaics I saw in Tunisia, this image struck me as so evocative of both the beauty and brutality of Roman rule in Tunisia, so I knew I needed to build this composition around it.”
The hammered and pierced brass and copper are characteristic elements of her work. Whitlatch explained that carved plaster in the Mausoleum of Sidi Sahbi inspired the interlaced Islamic design. The indigo pigment acknowledges the indigenous Tuareg Berber people. The pressed plants were preserved in her guidebook, and she collected the gypsum, metal trinkets and ceramics. Other shards are from Turkey and Jerusalem. She found the aqua slab glass, ingeniously attached to a “hand of Fatima”, on a beach near Caesarea and guessed it may be from ancient glass-making along the Lebanese coast.
The materials’ origins offer surprising stories: the coral came from a necklace given to her by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, whom she met in Tunis in 1987 when travelling with a peace activist group. Whitlatch visited Tunisia again in 2010. “When the ‘Arab spring’ started,” she said, “I thought that given the level of education of the people we’d met, political reform had the greatest chance to succeed in Tunisia, and I still haven’t given up hope.”
Whitlatch worked for 21 years as director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). Representing numerous Christian denominations, she promoted awareness about Middle East issues and advocated CMEP’s policy platform: justice for Palestinians, a shared Jerusalem and comprehensive peace.
Whitlatch led delegations to Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia and Turkey to meet religious and political leaders, including Syrian President Bashar Assad at the request of Syria’s Christian community. Beyond the agenda, she ensured that members experienced the national culture, through home-stays, day-trips and museum visits.
In 1998 she also spent a two-month sabbatical in Bethlehem, teaching adult students to craft items for the tourist market using broken bottles and glass.
Whitlatch’s artwork reflects her study of Islamic ornamentation, appreciation of Middle Eastern culture and a deep sadness about the region’s intractable turmoil. She brilliantly weaves “found objects” into her artwork, evoking the region’s diversity, conflicts and cultural heritage.
Damascus Inflamed is a dramatic interpretation of Syria’s wartime violence and destruction. Whitlatch celebrates Syrian marquetry and brass arts with the 12 points representing different communities and the focal point celebrating the old city’s architecture.
Hebron Architecture of Fire and Water evokes the story of God saving Abraham from Nimrod’s pyre by transforming fire into water and embers into fish; fruits signify hope for abundance. The outer white arches reflect old city architecture. Scraps of broken cobalt, cast medallions and fish were gifts from local glassblowers.
Beit Jala Besieged memorialises the destruction of homes during fighting across the West Bank’s Gilo ravine in 1991 including shards of a broken vase from the floor of the Orthodox Youth Centre.
Jerusalem addresses Israel’s sovereign claim. The blue surrounding the Star of David symbolises the Dome of the Rock and the diminutive lamb represents the shrinking Christian community as flames leap from the rose medallion.
Whitlatch’s artwork appears in numerous juried exhibitions. She accepts private commissions. Her work can be seen online at www. corinnewhitlatch.com.