Women of Tunisia's Sejnane keep pottery tradition alive

The challenge remains to hand down the skills. Sejnane has plans to build a museum and training centre to preserve its local knowledge.
Saturday 18/05/2019
Sabiha Ayari works in the village of Sejnane in the northern Tunisian province of Bizerte, west of Tunis. (AFP)
Generational skills. Sabiha Ayari works in the village of Sejnane in the northern Tunisian province of Bizerte, west of Tunis. (AFP)

SEJNANE - With bucket and spade in hand, Sabiha Ayari from Sejnane in northern Tunisia is among the women keeping alive an ancient tradition of creating pottery with natural materials.

Using skills handed down from generation to generation, she extracts red and white clay from local wadis to craft terracotta artefacts, such as dolls and animal figurines as well as cooking utensils.

The pottery, mostly cream-coloured with black and red motifs, was added in 2018 to the "Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" of UNESCO.

"These are Berber motifs, the same as those found on traditional outfits and tattoos," said Ayari, a respected potter in her 50s committed to preserving the ancestral tradition.

The women of Sejnane make and decorate their artisan pottery with natural elements from the agricultural region.

Seated in her lean-to overlooking the family lands, Ayari scoops up clay and spends most of her time fashioning utensils and stylised tortoises and horses. She mixes the clay with crushed brick, prepared by her sister-in-law, to strengthen the raw material.

The bricks are a rare nod to modern methods. In the past, shattered pot shards were used.

After a days-long drying process, the pots are varnished with a thin coat of white clay. Some are decorated with red-ochre earth.

Ayari's mother, with her well-worn hands, joins in by polishing the plates. They must be smoothed several times to achieve a glazed look.

No sophisticated tools are used, no modern ovens, just the sole of a shoe for the burnishing process and a stick for decorating the pieces with the juice of leaves from mastic trees.

The items are heated on an open hearth fired with dried dung, turning the juice from green to black.

"This is how all kitchen utensils were made when I was little," Ayari said. "They didn't realise the value of these objects."

She shows off a large earthenware jar modelled by her grandmother. Other ancient objects have been shattered to make new items.

Her pottery handicraft, dating to 3,500BC, has remained intact "without great technical or aesthetic changes," explained Naceur Baklouti, a researcher into Tunisian heritage.

Changing lifestyles and the availability of low-price kitchen and household items over the past 50 years, however, led artisans "to switch production from utensils to the decorative," Baklouti said.

Potters sell their wares from roadside shacks. The best of them are invited to display at exhibitions in Tunis -- a two-and-a-half-hour drive away -- and in Europe.

As for Ayari, she may not know how to read or write, apart from signing her work, but her pots are in demand and her flow of orders keeps her household going.

"I'm an ambassador for Tunisia," said the proud potter, who wears a traditional red costume and flowery scarf at her sales.

Her status is fairly unique among the hundreds of potters in the green valleys surrounding Sejnane. For most, it's only a secondary source of income.

Young Tunisians do not have the patience to learn and perfect the art, Ayari said. They prefer to use black ink and chemicals, rather than take the time to collect and extract natural materials.

The challenge remains to hand down the skills. Sejnane plans to build a museum and training centre to preserve its local know-how.

Ayari has trained her sister-in-law Khadija and given courses to several other local women. Also, to keep it in the family, the plan is to pass her skills to her nephew's future wife after she quits her factory job.

The future is not assured, however. "You have to be passionate about the work. You can't force it, you have to want it," Khadija said.

(Agence France-Presse)