Tunisia’s artisans and designers teaming up on the old and new

Sunday 22/01/2017
Members of collective of Be Tounsi at traditional carpet fair

Tunis - The old Medina of Tunis is the site of many architec­tural gems but it is often the artisans’ markets that fill visitors with wonder as they stroll the alleys looking for a chechia (traditional hat), djebba (traditional Tunisian dress), or shopping for original jewellery.

Tunisian artisans, designers and civil society organisations have been concentrating on forging partnerships and being more crea­tive to revive the country’s heritage after the protests and unrest of re­cent years.

For Sami Dhehbi, crafting tradi­tional jewellery saved him from unemployment as he set up a small workshop near the Zitouna mosque where he and fellow artisans work on their products.

“I have been working on making jewellery for ten years,” he said. “At the beginning, I was jobless and started working at a jewellery shop and that is how I became interested in developing my own work. Many clients were impressed by the way my designs brought back the old jewellery lines and features…

“The fine lines are what interest me the most. The old fine lines that are used in old Tunisian jewellery are in demand again as more and more Tunisians are trying to revive those old styles.”

Dhehbi is among Tunisian arti­sans whose passion for hand-made crafts prompted them to innovate and work with designers in com­bining traditional and modern lines by using long-practised sewing and manufacturing techniques.

Sofian Fantar specialises in de­signing products inspired by Tu­nisian heritage. In his workshop, Fantar creates products that draw on traditional graphics and meth­ods while promoting Tunisian identity and culture. He said his designs strike a balance of fashion and tradition

Fantar advocates that Tunisian artisans incorporate elements of the country’s traditional garments and accessories in their work.

“There is a symbiotic relation­ship between both artisans and designers in the sense that each de­pends on the other for the success of the product. Artisan products are portraits of identities as they translate the beliefs and thoughts of our grandparents. They stand for the rich tradition that the country has to offer,” Fantar said.

“Yet this does not mean we should not adapt to the new identi­ties of the world around us today. Identity is ever evolving and needs to be adapted to new techniques and methods. Artisan products are products that carry identity. We need to help artisans make the best of their products.”

Salah Barka, a renowned Tuni­sian fashion designer, has been working on projects combining appealing designs of traditional clothes and current fashion trends.

“Artisans today should involve young designers to give a fresh perspective of their work. There is an attempt to delete the history of artisans by ignoring their efforts. They even ignore the history of the details and the work that has been put into the fabric and jewellery and that is why they need design­ers to bring their collaboration to the front. They create projects that are not too different from what de­signers create,” Barka said.

“It is a completely new world that needs to be reintroduced and that is only achieved through merging it with designer’s vision. Artisanal products need recognition. We are thinking of creating a mobile mar­ket that introduces people in the regions to the work of artisans.”

Civil society organisations have taken on a significant role to pro­mote Tunisian traditions and herit­age. A collective of Tunisian wom­en, under the name Be Tounsi, began a campaign to promote the work of Tunisian artisans and de­signers. The collective showcases young artisans’ creations, includ­ing jewellery, artefacts, garments and scarves online.

“Tourism was badly affected by terrorism, which damaged the ar­tisans’ market. We wanted to start a small campaign that urges Tuni­sians to dress Tunisian especially and it worked more than we ex­pected. There were so many people who liked the idea and committed to the initiative to promote Tuni­sian artisans and designers who are inspired by Tunisian tradition,” said Faten Abdelkefi, one of the founders of the collective.

“The success of the campaign drew the attention of Tunisians who showed that they are faithful to Tunisian outfits. We organised our own fair and we provided free stands for young artisans. The idea was to promote the work of these young artisans by providing them a space where they can display their work.”

In addition to organising fairs, the collective uses Facebook to en­courage Tunisians to use tradition­al Tunisian garments and jewellery in their daily outfits. One of their success stories was the promotion of the traditional knitted garment Maryoul Fadhila that Tunisian women used to wear.

“Maryoul Fadhila, for instance, is an old piece of our heritage. We can appropriate it to our modern style and this gained success as people started wearing the T-shirt again, attending festivals, wearing it casu­al and even formal,” Abdelkefi said.

“We want to promote Tunisian outfits and show people that ar­tisans are very talented. It is an opportunity to help the sector of artisans which is in crisis. Go back to dress in Tunisian clothes. Just include little details like a scarf, the hat, the coat and something to encourage the young artisans and designers.”