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Volume 54, Number 2March/April 2003

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Tunisia's Center of Ceramics

Written and photographed by Charles O. Cecil

In Nabeul, even the butcher shops are decorated with multicolored tiles. A hugely oversized, colorfully glazed jar rises in the center of the city's main traffic circle, making it clear that Nabeul is all about pottery. Walk the streets and you'll think you've stumbled into an outlet mall devoted to pottery and ceramics.

As in much of the Mediterranean, the ceramic arts in Tunisia are old traditions. The people of this part of North Africa have always been active in commerce and it was only natural that in Nabeul, a port city, the trade in goods would bring with it an exchange of cultural ideas and values. Berber, Egyptian, Punic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Andalusian, Ottorman and European influences have all passed through Nabeul over the centuries, each offering another rich vein of inspiration.

Even within the kaleidoscope of Mediterranean cultures, Tunisia has a complex heritage when it comes to ceramics. Tunis's Qallaline quarter, the island of Jerba, the towns of Moknine and Sejenane and the ninth-century Aglabite site at Raqqada, near Kairouan, have all been centers of distinctive ceramics. Moknine, for example, was famed for the unglazed jars that were essential for cooling water before the days of refrigeration. The Berber women of Sejenane produced a unique line of figurines, including dolls, birds and camels, as well as pots, goblets and small jugs, all with designs in red, ochre and black on tan or buff surfaces. Jerba is the country's oldest pottery center.

When the Romans defeated the Punic inhabitants of the site of today's Nabeul in 148 BC—two years before the fall of Carthage—the town was already a center of pottery craftsmanship and used the potter's wheel, which the Phoenicians had carried to North Africa toward the end of the second millennium BC. A century after its destruction by the Roman sword, Julius Caesar authorized the creation of a new town on the site, named Colonia Julia Neapolis ("New City"). The town was rebuilt, granted autonomy by Caesar Augustus and subsequently flourished before virtually disappearing toward the end of the sixth century. But its nearby clay deposits were far from exhausted.

A thousand years were to pass before Nabeul's rebirth in the 15th or 16th century, depending on which Tunisian authority you accept. Potters from Jerba, attracted by the accessibility of high-quality surface clay deposits, settled near the ruins of Neapolis. Linguistic terms of Jerban origin, still used in Nabeul today, attest to these Jerban roots, notes Tunisian art historian Naceur Baklouti, an important contributor to Couleurs de Tunisie: 25 Siècles de Céramique. (This book, published in 1994 by the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and now apparently out of print, is the best modern reference work on Tunisia's long ceramic history.) A century later, Andalusian emigrants brought new techniques for the application of enamel that were first adopted by the potters of Qallaline and, by the 17th century, by those of Nabeul as well. During this time, Nabeul's pottery was utilitarian, created to satisfy local domestic needs. It was not decorative work aimed at display or collection.

In 1898, early in the period of French colonial rule that began in 1881 and ended with Tunisian independence in 1956, two French artists arrived in Nabeul. Named Louis and Lucienne Tissier, they gave a new creative impetus to Nabeul's artistic traditions. The Tissiers focused their efforts on the production of wall tiles and panels, turning for inspiration to the complex geometric and floral patterns in deep-hued enamels that characterized the Tunis-based Qallaline style of the 17th century.

At the same time, Tunisian demand for utilitarian ceramic objects was declining due to the increased availability of cheap, European, mass-produced alternatives. A number of Tunisian potters, some of whom later became internationally known, turned to the Tissiers for employment, driven by the desire to go beyond quotidian production and resurrect the artistic qualities of centuries past.

In 1908, another French-owned workshop called Qallaline opened, similarly dedicated to artistic production—objects intended for display rather than use—followed in 1918 by the workshop De Verclos. Subsequently, Tunisian families such as Kharraz, Kedidi and Ben Sedrine also opened workshops. Their work, and that of other Tunisian artists such as the twin brothers Abdelkader and Mohamed Abderrazaq, went on to win international awards in Europe. Tunisian tiles were soon much sought after in Algeria, Libya and Egypt, and were exported to the United States in the late 1920's to decorate a number of California mansions.

But these artistic efforts were shortlived. In the years before World War II, "the high price of enamel, and of labor, and consequently the scarcity of buyers of high quality tiles or beautiful pottery made by hand by talented craftsmen accelerated the decline of this important art form," wrote Alain and Dalila Loviconi in their 1994 survey, Les Faïences de Tunisie: Qallaline et Nabeul. As these workshops closed, modest production to meet utilitarian needs continued, bolstered, after the war, by the proximity of the town of Hammamet to the south, which became a popular vacation spot for European writers, artists and the well-to-do.

By the 1970's, when Tunisia began to target the European package-tour market, both visitors and pottery sales were rising. With the construction of large beach hotels, Nabeul became a tourist destination in its own right, and the pottery industry began to flourish yet again.

Having visited Nabeul frequently in the 1980's, I recently had an opportunity to return, and I found that the town remains the center of most of Tunisia's current production of pottery and ceramics, with more than 350 factories and workshops. Ceramics is the largest employment sector—though embroidery, lace and perfume production are not far behind, and the tourism industry is a leader too. Use of the potter's wheel for commercial production remains almost exclusively man's work, though more women are now employed to decorate items by hand than when I visited 15 years ago.

Today's ceramics fall into four main categories: plates and pottery items for sale to tourists; utilitarian tableware and enameled flowerpots for the domestic Tunisian market; decorative tiles for the construction industry; and undecorated terracotta items such as flowerpots, water jugs and covers for indoor and outdoor lights.

In its neat, clean appearance, the town gives off an energetic aura of success. Only an hour east of Tunis and 10 minutes from Hammamet, Nabeul today benefits from a nearly constant stream of European visitors searching for souvenirs and gifts. Americans come, but in smaller numbers; Algerian tourists come too, mostly in August, and they are renowned in Nabeul for their large purchases.

Today's market is highly competitive. Anthropologist Sophie Ferchiou, who studies the social practices of traditional industries, summed it up succinctly: "Artistic skill is being sacrificed for the benefit of profits gained through mass production." Much of today's production is now mechanized. Large ceramics firms such as Kedidi and Kharraz serve the local construction industry, responding to Tunisian tastes for tiles to decorate residences and public buildings. Factories—no longer just small workshops—produce pallet-loads of tableware for Tunisian homes, some of it meeting uniquely regional needs, such as the conical tebsi used for couscous presentation.

When I found a small producer, Lotfi Zine, painting English-language labels on several dozen one-liter jugs made to hold Tunisian olive oil, I asked him if such mass-produced tourist items represented the future of Nabeul's industry. He shrugged in a "business is business" kind of way, but then showed me a set of dinner plates with fruit and vegetable designs, each one of which was hand-painted, marked for export to an outlet in Seattle. "Pottery has been good business in Nabeul for centuries," he said. "Why should it be any different in the 21st?" As proof of his optimism, he pointed out that he had recently been able to buy his present shop after having rented a workshop for a decade.

Exports, mainly to Germany, France and Spain, today account for some 60 percent of the city's pottery business. A few producers deal worldwide via the Internet, and China is being developed as a market by others, observes businesswoman Latifa Ladjili, whose husband is president of the Nabeul Regional Chamber of Potters. Plates decorated with traditional or contemporary designs are one of the most common export items today. The designs may be geometric or calligraphic, or show human figures, birds, fish, fruit, flowers or other motifs. Blue-and-white is the most common modern coloration, supplemented often by black and green, with many variations and other polychrome combinations. In addition to decorative and utilitarian plates, other common glazed items are candlesticks, flowerpots, bowls and vases. Fountains are also popular items for Tunisian homeowners.

Naceur Baklouti, writing in Couleurs de Tunisie, illustrated the strength of the tradition by the story of what happened when municipal authorities, citing environmental and health concerns, forced producers in the center of Nabeul to move to a new industrial quarter on the outskirts in the early 1990's. "We noted, not without some surprise, the potters' attachment to their traditional practices in their newly constructed workshops, notably in the design and construction of the kilns. They built kilns almost identical to those in the ancient jraibiya quarter." While many producers still use olive wood, the traditional fuel, to fire large vases, jars and flowerpots without enameled designs, manufacturers of decorated pieces are mostly converting to gas and electric kilns, whose temperature controls guarantee a uniform product.

Tiles are still important, and the majority made in Nabeul are for the domestic market, where doors and windows are often lined with a border of tiles both indoors and out. Park and garden benches are often covered with tiles; decorative tile bands around the fronts of houses are common, and gardens, rooftop terraces and balconies sometimes display decorative panels of 20 to 80 individual tiles. Additionally, Tunisians often use tiles indoors the way westerners use wallpaper. Nizar ben Hedi Chargui, a sales representative for the Kharraz firm, says that even though hand-painted tiles are four times as costly as machine-produced ones, they still represent 20 percent of his firm's tile production. Tiles are exported too, but in Europe they face stiff competition from Spanish and Italian producers.

Both Andalusian and Ottoman influences stimulated Tunisian tastes for tiles in home decoration. It is to the Andalusian refugees, whose emigration began in the 13th century, that we trace the rich cobalt blues and the geometric and star designs that distinguish the ceramics of the Hafsid period (1229–1574). Over the next four centuries, Tunisian ceramic art repeatedly benefited from infusions of Andalusian designs and techniques. (That many Andalusians also settled in Fez, Morocco, accounts for similarities between Tunisian and Moroccan ceramic arts, noted Abdelaziz Daoulatli, former director of the Tunisian Institut National du Patrimoine.)

In the 15th century, the Andalusian ceramic artist Sidi Kacem El-Jellizi introduced cuerda seca (literally, "dry string"), a technique for the manufacture of multicolored enamel tiles that uses fine lines drawn with a mixture of oil or wax and manganese to isolate areas of color from each other. The mixture is consumed in firing and leaves a dark "dry line" between adjacent colors in the final product.

The last great Andalusian infusion occurred immediately after the final expulsion of Muslims from Spain in 1609, when more than 80,000 settled in Tunisia. The Kharraz family claims to have come at this time, bringing their knowledge of artistic ceramics with them. At that time, Ottoman tastes were coming into vogue as Tunisia reoriented itself eastward following the Turkish victory over the Hafsids in 1574.

Today,Tunisia’s freshest, most creative artistic impulses are in Tunis. There, artists like Khaled Ben Slimane are nourished by their multiple heritage of ceramic traditions. Born in Nabeul in 1951, Ben Slimane is internationally recognized for his creations, which draw not only on Andalusian themes, but also on the Berber tradition of Sejenane and that of Jerba as well. Following study in Tunisia, Spain and Japan, Ben Slimane in 1990 became the first Arab to be invited to join the Academic Internationale de la Céramique, headquartered in Geneva. In May last year he won the International Grand Prize for Ceramics given by Vietri Sul Mare, the Italian ceramic center, and his works are in many museums, including the British Museum.

Somewhere between Nabeul's industry and Tunis's individualism is the work of artist, entrepreneur, collector and antiques restorer Mohamed Messaoudi. He showed me a small part of his collection of tiles, including early examples of cuerda seca. Messaoudi and artist-engineer Patrick Cali have developed a resin-based process to produce lightweight panels that replicate the appearance of worn, traditional antique tiles. Although they are easily distinguished from real tiles up close, from a distance they appear weathered and aged—faux antiques. Messaoudi plans to go commercial with the process to serve those who prefer the appearance of aged tiles but can't afford them. It will also, he hopes, stimulate a renewed interest in the history of Tunisian tile craft.

Other efforts to ensure growth and creativity include the Centre National de Céramique in Tunis. Under the direction of Faouzi Chtioui, artists work here independently and in informal collaboration. Fees are modest and the only admission test is a love of ceramics. Chtioui is always available to advise; Khaled Ben Slimane is one of the instructors. In Nabeul, there is Le Centre des Traditions et des Métiers d'Art ("Traditions, Arts and Crafts Center"), a crafts "village" with vendor outlets open to visitors.

Today's ceramic industry and ceramic arts seem as vibrant and varied as the designs that the artists and factories are producing, and all is founded on a heritage of more than a millennium's duration. Nabeul's place in Mediterranean cultural history is already assured; through the increase in awards, tourism and the continued local demand for decorative and daily items, the future of the town's ceramic traditions seems assured as well.

Charles O. Cecil lived in Tunisia while directing the Arabic Language Field School for the US Department of State. He later served as deputy chief of mission in Côte d'lvoire and as ambassador to Niger. He retired in 2001 to devote himself full-time to photography and writing, and lives in Alexandria, Virginia, where he can be reached at [email protected].

This article appeared on pages 18-25 of the March/April 2003 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 2003 images.