Decorative Arts of the Tunisian École

Fabrications of Modernism, Gender, and Power

By (author) Jessica Gerschultz

Hardback - £79.95

Publication date:

31 October 2019

Length of book:

272 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271083186

The arts drove a seismic cultural shift in mid-twentieth-century Tunis, as women entered ateliers and workshops previously dominated by men and as collaborations across art schools destabilized the boundary between art and craft. This volume uses the “Tunisian École”—a configuration of artists, art students, professors, and artisans from the Tunis School, the School of Fine Arts, and the National Office of Handicraft engaged in the unity of “fine” and “decorative” art—to explore the ways in which these forces reworked colonial concepts to reimagine artistic categories and integrate feminized art forms in a program of social uplift.

Focusing on the gendering of tapestry and “decorative” arts, Jessica Gerschultz investigates how art and feminism were entwined with socialist modernizing projects, from the relationship between Tunisian nationalist discourses and the figure of the woman artist to the role of art education and industry in transforming and institutionalizing hierarchies among women. In doing so, she positions women’s weaving in the context of state feminism and Tunisian socialism, arguing that a shared aesthetic and political philosophy oriented toward female creativity not only underpinned multiple forms of art and textile production but also stood as a potent metaphor for statecraft.

Important and wholly original, this study of the artist-as-craftsperson, told from the standpoint of artists in an Arab African country, recuperates a feminized, marginalized category within aesthetic modernism and furthers our understanding of the relationships among labor, gender, and artistic and creative practices in modern Tunisia.

“Gerschultz provides an in-depth study of the École de Tunis and Safia Farhat that probes into issues of gender, class, nationalism, and cultural notions of the arts at an important moment of change in Tunis. Her book contributes to a much-needed critical and nuanced context that constructs a sociopolitical discourse in which fresh understandings of the region and modernism writ large can be explored. A significant addition to the scholarship on North African and Middle Eastern art.”

—Nada Shabout, author of Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics