Through portraits, Bettaieb draws faces of contemporary Tunisia

The painter did not study art, but her talent exudes experience and beauty, bringing out small details with an excellent choice of colour.
Friday 21/08/2020
Portrait of Muhammad Seghir Ouled-Ahmed. (Amina Bettaieb's Facebook page)
Portrait of Muhammad Seghir Ouled-Ahmed. (Amina Bettaieb's Facebook page)

TUNIS - Tunisian artist Amina Bettaieb embodies the saying: “creativity has no age.” She only began painting, with a focus on portraits, after she retired from her lifelong job as a professor.

Bettaieb did not study fine art, but her talent exudes experience and beauty, bringing out small details with an excellent choice of colour, brush movement and intelligent use of space on the canvas.

I have seen Bettaieb’s skill personally, not only in attending various exposes put on by the Tunisian artist but also in her work painting the cover of a book that held a collection of poems written by my father, Abdelhamid Khraief.

From an old photograph, without further personal details, Bettaieb succeeded in capturing his personality and presented a portrait one would assume was made by one of his old close friends. She managed to achieve this impressive result without ever meeting the late poet, having only an old picture as a starting point.

Amina Bettaieb presents her portrait of Tunisian poet Abdelhamid Khraief. (Amina Bettaieb's Facebook page.)
Amina Bettaieb presents her portrait of Tunisian poet Abdelhamid Khraief. (Amina Bettaieb's Facebook page.)

With the same spiritual depth, Bettaieb has painted Aboul-Kacem Chebbi, Habib Bourguiba, Chokri Belaid, Mohamed Brahmi, Muhammad Seghir Ouled-Ahmed, Maya Jribi and other prominent Tunisian figures.

However, she does not only focus on the faces of the famous. People who visit her exhibitions see many beautiful portraits of unknown people. Women are noticeably present in her work -- from the rebellious young women to the activists and everyday workers.

Each of her drawings reflects the defiant look of an old Tunisian woman who does not let age break her spirit. Her wrinkles add to her strength, while the tattoo on her face reveals the beauty that refuses to fade despite difficult times.

​​​​Amina Bettaieb's portrait of a Tunisian woman.(Amina Bettaieb's Facebook page)
Amina Bettaieb's portrait of a Tunisian woman.(Amina Bettaieb's Facebook page)

A portrait titled “My freedom” (Hurriati) is of a young Tunisian rebel who refuses to give in to the oppression she faces. Drawn in shades of brown that meet purple and yellow, the colours seem to express the girl’s desire to break free.

Different faces of Tunisians blend reality and imagination, writing another page showcasing events and carrying history.

Assassinated political leader Chokri Belaid appears almost real with his sharp gaze. The voice of Ouled-Ahmed rises from the portrait, praising the country he loves in the "morning, evening, and on Sunday."

A strange force is emitted by the portrait of Lina Ben Mhenni, who passed away on January 27 this year at the age of 36 after a brave battle with illness.

Bourguiba appears in more than one work, reflecting Tunisian women’s loyalty to the founder of the modern state. 

​​​​​​A portrait of former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba by Amina Bettaieb. (Amina Bettaieb's Facebook page)
A portrait of former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba by Amina Bettaieb. (Amina Bettaieb's Facebook page)

In a painting of Noura Borsali, the eyes of the Tunisian activist are absent behind her glasses, giving a realistic and deep reading of the late figure, with a clever gesture from the painter represented in the small Tunisian flag on the collar of her shirt.

Bettaieb spoke with The Arab Weekly about her experience as an artist. She said: "I am a self-made artist. I have not grabbed a brush since my high school years. I never imagined that I would join this world of paintings." She noted that her studies in the field of philosophy influenced her.

Amina Bettaieb with her "women" portrait during an expedition celebrating International Women's Day at Tunisia by ‎Club Culturel Taher Hadded. (Amina Bettaieb's Facebook page)
Amina Bettaieb with her "women" portrait during an expedition celebrating International Women's Day at Tunisia by ‎Club Culturel Taher Hadded. (Amina Bettaieb's Facebook page)

When first searching for a way to express her thoughts and perceptions, she opted to write, but eventually that path left her psychologically exhausted, she said.

January 14, 2011 marked a turning point in her career. Like other Tunisians, Bettaieb was strongly influenced by the uprising in her country and the developments it witnessed. She was unable to remain silent during these changes, and felt the need to express what she had witnessed — from terrorism, violations of human rights to the rise of Islamists. This time, she decided to draw.

Bettaieb transformed pain into hope through her portraits, whether of well-known figures or regular Tunisians.

Amina Bettaieb shared a picture with a comment "My moments of pure happiness."
Amina Bettaieb shared a picture with a comment "My moments of pure happiness."

"It is not easy to make a portrait,” says Bettaieb. "It is not just transferring a face from what I see, but how to transfer the image in my head about that face." She talks about her muses, saying she only paints those whom she admires.

She adds: "I tell stories through my works. I try to showcase the hidden and silent aspects of the character I am trying to portray."

Bettaieb imagines a scenario linking her to the character to come up with final forms of bodies and faces she pours a part of her soul into. This gives her art a touch of realism, hope and life, which is evident in the number of colours used in one portrait. Even the paintings that appear dark emit some light that gives the viewer hope.