Jessica Gerschultz, Decorative Art of the Tunisian École: Fabrications of Modernism, Gender and Power (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019).
[This review was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]
Jessica Gerschultz’ meticulously researched and lavishly illustrated volume on the decorative arts in mid-20th century Tunisia is torn between two intellectual yearnings. One is the desire to elevate artistic practices that are all too often dismissed as mundane or feminine. The other aims to provide a detailed account of the institutions dealing with Tunisian aesthetic identity after the country’s independence in 1956. In the gap between her epistemological and empirical arguments, Gerschultz suggests that artists and craftspeople in Tunisia viewed the decorative arts as an arena of integrating ‘native’ art with modernist avant-garde tendencies gleaned elsewhere. She argues that this imaginative work was feminist because it gave women access to educational and exhibition opportunities and, at a deeper level, because it undermined the supremacy of Eurocentric modernism as a masculinist discourse.
There is no question that Gerschultz’s work is groundbreaking, because little has been published on Tunisian modernism in the visual arts. The legendary Tunisian art critic Dorra Bouzid (born 1933) Ecole de Tunis: An âge d’or de la peinture tunisienne (1995) and painter and former director of the École des Beaux-Arts in Tunis Naceur Ben Cheikh (born 1943) Peindre à Tunis: pratique artistique maghrébine et histoire (2006) are two notable entries in an otherwise open field. The broader deployment of her contribution is reflected in the work being done across the discipline to decenter European aesthetic history, such as Elizabeth Harney’s work on the Senegalese avant-garde and Iftikhar Dadi’s work on modernism in South Asia. Gerschultz’s volume is a milestone in this broader effort to broaden the geographic focus of art historical analysis, particularly in the sense that it destabilizes the distinctions between tapestries, pottery, and painting as defined by a Eurocentric canon.
Decorative arts of the Tunisian École is divided into six chapters, each devoted to an infrastructural aspect of the decorative arts. In the first, Gerschultz positions the decorative as part of Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba’s state feminism in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. The second argues that a “percent-for-art” initiative (programs in which a percentage of new public building costs are devoted to commissioning works of art), launched before independence in 1950 and reintroduced in 1962, encouraged artists and craftspeople instrumental in rethinking the hierarchy they binary separate their own work from that of their peers and all their collective work from everyday Tunisian society. The life and career of Safia Farhat forms the basis of Gerschultz’s analysis of the specific role played by elite women early in their studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in the third chapter, while the fourth focuses on initiatives to empower economically disadvantaged women disadvantage through weaving and textile production; Her prime examples are the Cité Artisanale in Den Den and the National Textile Office, organizations appointed by the state during the country’s socialist era to train and employ Tunisia’s rural and working-class women. This period is usually dated from the start of major public works programs in 1961 to the early 1970s. The fifth chapter examines a range of clients for public installations of decorative arts in the early to mid-1960s, including the Société Zin and the Tunisian Tourist Hotels Company, among others, and offers an impressive and formally rigorous overview of works designed for “spaces of the Occupy power’ in Tunisia (189). In a sixth and final chapter, Gerschultz analyzes a series of monumental tapestries from the workshop of Safia Farhat. Her analysis crystallizes a debate about the contribution of the decorative arts to the development of a Tunisian art scene. She also sees the diminished fate of these magnificently executed large-scale works as symptomatic of the eventual marginalization of the more radical revision of the modernist canon proposed by the decorative arts in Tunisia.
The book’s empirical focus on institutions is its strength, as it allows Gerschultz to remain close to vivid historical and archival detail as she weaves a portrait of the decorative arts’ place in the fabric of the mid-century Tunisian art scene. For example, their exhibition of the pedagogical experiments designed by Farhat and Abdelaziz Gorgi during their tenure on the faculty of the École des Beaux Arts in Tunis offers a glimpse of how these two key figures actively created spaces to explore the decorative arts can imagine expression of Tunisia—such as workshops in the southern interior with experienced weavers, developed in collaboration with the National Office of Artisans. (103-104)
Her fidelity to historical trifles also prevents Gerschultz from examining political contradictions, which she repeatedly casually notes, in more detail. For example, Gerschultz praises the decorative arts as an expression of the contemporary Tunisia strong enough to oppose Eurocentric formulations of modernism (Chapter 1) and criticizes them for their service to paternalistic politics aimed at promoting and protecting authentic (largely female) expressions of Tunisian cultural heritage (Chapter 4). Both views have intriguing political implications, but Gerschultz fails to analyze the contradiction between them. A more specific example is the way Gerschultz treated French artist Jean Lurçat, who is known for his significant contribution to the revival of tapestry as an art form in the first half of the 20th century. Lurçat was officially invited to help with the “restructuring of the nation-state”. Handyman‘ by Bourguiba’s son and the Tunisian ambassador in Paris. Gerschultz also shows Lurçat’s adherence to Orientalist worldviews, which is evident in his statement: “The art of Islam, whose place in general art history is undisputed, has evolved little since its heyday. We must recognize that it tends to repeat itself indefinitely” (123). Gerschultz does not shy away from presenting the problematic nature of Lurçat’s ideas, but neither does he discuss their impact on the scene at the time or the long-term development of tapestry and the École de Tunis. If the ambition of this volume is to challenge art history to “reconsider the uses of the decorative arts for modernism overall,” as Anneka Lenssen notes in her review on the back cover, Gerschultz could delve deeper into the Orientalist ambivalence that Lurçat as shows one of the most important architects of the revival of decorative arts in Tunisia. Detailed formal analysis and lavish illustrations of individual works by Farhat and others make it clear that Gerschultz views the decorative arts as a robust field of aesthetic experimentation, even when his large-scale works have been commissioned to decorate tourist site walls. Gerschultz pursues a field of craft experimentation against several overlapping, problematic political backgrounds, but takes no position on whether aesthetic production is compromised by the ideological positions of the scene’s architects.
The critical point here is not that the notion of decorative in Tunisia must be shown to dismantle orientalism, authoritarian tendencies in post-colonial nationalism, and class-based sexism to be valuable in the field of decolonial feminist art history. But Gerschultz places the decorative arts in Tunisia at the center of debates about postcolonial aesthetics and competing articulations of modernism, without making a clear synopsis of this position’s broader interests within critical studies of craft or decolonial aesthetics. There is no bridge between formal analysis and archival documentation on the one hand, and the argument that the Tunisian École contributed to decolonial feminism – bottom-up feminism – on the other. This bridge requires a more consistent theoretical postcolonial or intersectional feminist framework. To take an example from a related discipline, Manthia Diawaras African Cinema: Politics and Culture (1992) also focuses on the development of nationalist aesthetic programs in postcolonial contexts as infrastructure for radically reinterpreting the relationship between “local” and “international” formal codes, albeit not explicitly from a feminist perspective. His position is clear: Nationalist cinema without infrastructure for local production and distribution is critically limited in its response to neocolonial interests. The example is not perfect, as Diawara’s aim was not to depict a single nationalist scene or to trace the intricacies of its development, as Gerschultz did. But without a critical stance on the interdependence and tension of the decorative arts with Burgubian nationalism and its instrumentalization of rural and working-class women, she risks diminishing the relevance of the evidence she brings to support her argument about the decisive role of decorative arts in the project of decolonization of the art-historical canon.