Fabrications of modernism, gender and power

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Jessica Gerschultz, Decorative arts of the Tunisian school: fabrications of modernism, gender and power (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019).

[This review was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Arab Studies JournalFor more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]

Jessica Gerschultz’s meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated book on the decorative arts in Tunisia in the mid-twentieth century is torn between two intellectual desires. One is the desire to revalorize artistic practices too often rejected as everyday or feminine. The other aims to provide a detailed account of institutions grappling with Tunisian aesthetic identity after the country’s independence in 1956. In the space between his epistemological and empirical arguments, Gerschultz proposes that Tunisian artists and artisans imagined the decorative arts as an arena for integrating ‘indigenous’ art with avant-garde modernist tendencies gleaned elsewhere. She argues that this imaginative work was feminist because it granted women access to training and exposure opportunities and – on a deeper level – because it undermined the supremacy of Eurocentric modernism as a masculinist discourse. .

There is no doubt that Gerschultz’s work is groundbreaking, as little has been published on Tunisian modernism in the visual arts. The legendary Tunisian art critic Dorra Bouzid (born in 1933) School of Tunis: A golden age of Tunisian painting (1995) and painter and former director of the School of Fine Arts in Tunis Naceur Ben Cheikh (born in 1943) Painting in Tunis: North African artistic practice and history (2006) are two notable entries into what is otherwise an open field. The broader issues of his contribution resonate with work across the discipline to decenter European aesthetic histories, such as Elizabeth Harney’s work on the Senegalese avant-garde and Iftikhar Dadi’s work on modernism in South Asia. South. Gerschultz’s volume is an important step in this broader push to broaden the geographical scope of art historical analyses, particularly in the sense that it destabilizes the distinctions between tapestry, ceramics and painting as they have been defined by a Eurocentric canon.

Decorative arts of the Tunisian school is organized into six chapters, each devoted to an infrastructural aspect of the decorative arts. In the first, Gerschultz positions the decorative under the state feminism of Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. The second argues that a percentage for art initiative (programs in which a percentage of the new costs of public construction is devoted to the commissioning of works of art) launched before independence in 1950 and reinstated in 1962 provided crucial support for artists and artisans to rethink the hierarchy. binary separating their own work from that of their peers and all their work together from the fabric of everyday Tunisian society. The life and career of Safia Farhat are, in the third chapter, the framework for Gerschultz’s analysis of the specific role that elite women played when they began to be trained at the École des Beaux -Arts, while the fourth focuses on initiatives to empower economically less advantaged women. through weaving and textile production; its main examples are the Cité Artisanale de Den Den and the National Textile Office, which were state-appointed organizations to train and employ Tunisia’s rural and working-class female population during the country’s socialist period. This period is generally dated from the launch of major public works programs in 1961 until the early 1970s. The fifth chapter explores a series of sponsors for public decorative arts installations in the early to mid-1960s, including the Société Zin and the Tunisian Society of Tourist Hotels, among others, and provides an evocative and formally rigorous study of the works produced to “occupy spaces of power” in Tunisia (189). In a sixth and final chapter, Gerschultz analyzes a series of monumental tapestries produced by the workshop of Safia Farhat. Her analysis crystallizes an argument about the contribution of the decorative arts to the development of a Tunisian art scene. She also sees the diminished fate of these beautifully executed large-scale works as symptomatic of marginalization. possible of the more radical revision of the modernist canon proposed by the decorative arts in Tu nisie.

The book’s empirical focus on institutions is its strength, as it allows Gerschultz to stay close to vivid historical and archival detail as she weaves a portrait of the place of the decorative arts in the fabric of the Tunisian middle art scene. of the century. For example, his exhibition of educational experiments devised by Farhat and Abdelaziz Gorgi throughout their tenure on the faculty of the École des Beaux Arts in Tunis offers insight into how these two key figures actively created spaces for imagining the decorative arts as an expression of Tunisianness—such as workshops in the southern interior of the country with seasoned weavers developed in collaboration with the Office National des Artisans. (103–104)

Yet her fidelity to historical minutiae also prevents Gerschultz from exploring more deeply the political contradictions she repeatedly notes in passing. For example, Gerschultz touts the decorative arts as an expression of modernity tunisianity strong enough to counter Eurocentric formulations of modernism (chapter 1) and criticize them for their service to paternalistic policies aimed at fostering and protecting authentic (largely female) expressions of Tunisian cultural heritage (chapter 4). Both views have fascinating political implications, but Gerschultz fails to analyze the contradiction between them. A more specific example is the way in which Gerschultz positions the French artist Jean Lurçat, recognized for his significant contribution to the revival of tapestry as an art form in the first half of the 20th century, as an essential player in the elevation of the arts. decorative in Tunisia. . Lurçat was formally invited to participate in the “reorganization of the Arts and craftsby Bourguiba’s son and the Tunisian ambassador in Paris. Gerschultz also shows how Lurçat clung to Orientalist worldviews, as is evident in his statement: “The art of Islam, whose place in the general history of art has not been contested, has evolved little since the time of its development. It must be recognized that it tends to repeat itself indefinitely” (123). Gerschultz does not hesitate to present the problematic aspect of Lurçat’s ideas, but she does not expand either on their impact on the scene of the time or on the evolution of tapestry and the School of Tunis. on the long term. If the ambition of this volume is to challenge the history of art to “rethink the stakes of the decorative arts for modernism in the broad sense”, as Anneka Lenssen notes in her review on the back cover, Gerschultz could do better apprehend the orientalist ambivalence displayed by Lurçat as one of the main architects of the revival of the decorative arts in Tunisia. Detailed formal analysis and lush illustrations of individual works by Farhat and others make it clear that Gerschultz viewed the decorative arts as a robust field of aesthetic experimentation, even when his large-scale works were commissioned to adorn the walls of tourist resorts. Gerschultz follows a field of artisanal experimentation in several overlapping problematic political contexts, but takes no position on whether aesthetic production is compromised by the ideological positions represented by the architects of the scene.

The critical point here is not that the notion of decorative in Tunisia must be shown to dismantle Orientalism, the authoritarian tendencies of postcolonial nationalism, and class sexism to be valuable in the field of decolonial feminist art history. But Gerschultz positions the decorative arts in Tunisia at the center of debates over postcolonial aesthetics and the competing articulations of modernism without a clear synthetic statement about the broader issues of this position within critical studies of craftsmanship or aesthetics. decolonial. There is a lack of bridge between, on the one hand, formal analysis and archival documentation and, on the other hand, the argument that the Tunisian School contributed to decolonial feminism – feminism from below. This bridge requires a more coherent postcolonial or intersectional feminist theoretical framework. To take an example from a related discipline, the work of Manthia Diawara African cinema: politics and culture (1992) also focuses on the development of nationalist aesthetic programs in postcolonial contexts as the infrastructure for the radical reimagining of the relationship between ‘local’ and ‘international’ formal codes, but decidedly not from a feminist perspective. Its position is clear: nationalist cinema without local production and distribution infrastructure is extremely limited in its response to neocolonial interests. The example is not perfect, for Diawara’s aim was not to present a single nationalist scene or trace the intricacies of its evolution as Gerschultz did. But without a critical stance on the interdependence and tension of the decorative arts with Bourguibian nationalism and its instrumentalization of rural and working-class women, she risks diminishing the importance of the evidence she gathers to argue about the crucial role of the arts. decorative in the project of decolonization of the historical canon of art.

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