Jessica Gerschultz, Decorative Arts 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’s meticulously researched and gorgeously illustrated volume on the decorative arts in mid-twentieth century Tunisia is torn between two intellectual desires. One is the desire to revalorize artistic practices too often dismissed as quotidian or feminine. The other aims to provide a detailed account of the institutions grappling with Tunisian aesthetic identity after the country’s independence in 1956. In the space between her epistemological and empirical arguments, Gerschultz proposes that artists and artisans in Tunisia imagined the decorative arts as an arena for integrating “indigenous” art with modernist avant-garde tendencies gleaned from elsewhere. She argues that this imaginative work was feminist because it granted women access to training and exhibition opportunities and—at a more profound level—because it undermined the supremacy of Eurocentric modernism as a masculinist discourse.
There is no question that Gerschultz’s work is groundbreaking, as little has been published on Tunisian modernism in the visual arts. Legendary Tunisian art critic Dorra Bouzid’s (b. 1933) Ecole de Tunis: Un âge d'or de la peinture tunisienne (1995) and painter and former director of the École des Beaux-Arts in Tunis Naceur Ben Cheikh’s (b. 1943) Peindre à Tunis: pratique artistique maghrébine et histoire (2006) are two notable entries in what is otherwise an open field. The broader stakes of her contribution resonate with work being done across the discipline to de-center European aesthetic histories, 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 more expansive push to widen the geographic focus of art historical analyses, especially in the sense that she destabilizes the distinctions between tapestry, ceramics, and painting as these have been defined by a Eurocentric canon.
Decorative Arts of the Tunisian École is organized into six chapters, each devoted to an infrastructural aspect of the decorative arts. In the first, Gerschultz positions the décorative as part of Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba’s state feminism in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. The second argues that a percent-for-art initiative (programs in which a percentage of new public construction costs are devoted to the commission of artwork) launched before independence in 1950 and reinstated in 1962 provided crucial support for artists and artisans to rethink the hierarchical binary separating their own work from that of their peers and all their work together from the fabric of everyday Tunisian society. Safia Farhat’s life and career are, in the third chapter, the armature for Gerschultz’s analysis of the specific role elite women played as they began to be trained at the École des Beaux-Arts, while the fourth focuses on initiatives to enfranchise economically less advantaged women through weaving and textile production; her main examples are the Cité Artisanale in Den Den and the National Textile Office, which were organizations designated by the state to train and employ Tunisia’s rural and working-class female population during the country’s socialist period. This period is usually dated from the launch of major public works programs in 1961 through the early 1970s. The fifth chapter explores a range of commissioning bodies for the public installations of decorative arts in the early to mid-1960s including the Société Zin and the Tunisian Tourist Hotels Company, among others, and provides an evocative and formally rigorous survey of 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 Safia Farhat’s workshop. Her analysis crystallizes an argument about the contribution made by the decorative arts to the development of a Tunisian art scene. She also sees the diminished fate of these gorgeously 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 stay close to vivid historical and archival detail as she weaves a portrait of the place of the decorative arts in the fabric of Tunisia’s mid-century art scene. For example, her exposition of the pedagogical experiments designed by Farhat and Abdelaziz Gorgi throughout 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 in which to imagine the decorative arts as an expression of tunisianité—such as workshops in the southern interior of the country with seasoned weavers developed in collaboration with the National Office of Artisans. (103–104)
Yet her fidelity to historical minutiae also keeps Gerschultz from more thoroughly exploring political contradictions she notes repeatedly in passing. For example, Gerschultz lauds the decorative arts as an expression of contemporary tunisianité strong enough to counter Eurocentric formulations of modernism (chapter 1) and critiques them for their service to paternalistic policies aimed at fostering and protecting authentic (largely feminine) 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 Gerschultz positions French artist Jean Lurçat, recognized for his significant contribution to the revival of tapestry as an art form in the first half of the twentieth century, as a critical player in the elevation of the decorative arts in Tunisia. Lurçat was formally invited to help with the “reorganization of the national artisanat” by Bourguiba’s son and the Tunisian ambassador in Paris. Gerschultz also shows how Lurçat held on to Orientalist worldviews, evidenced clearly 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 flowering. We must recognize that it tends to repeat itself indefinitely” (123). Gerschultz does not shy away from presenting the problematic aspect of Lurçat’s ideas, but neither does she elaborate on their impact on the scene at the time or on the development of tapestry and the École de Tunis over the long term. If the ambition of this volume is to challenge art history to “rethink the stakes of the decorative arts for modernism at large,” as Anneka Lenssen notes in her back-cover review, Gerschultz could grapple more thoroughly with the Orientalist ambivalence displayed by Lurçat as one the key architects of the revival of the decorative arts in Tunisia. Detailed formal analysis and lush illustrations of individual works by Farhat and others make clear that Gerschultz considers the decorative arts a robust field of aesthetic experimentation even when its large-scale works were commissioned to adorn the walls of tourist resorts. Gerschultz tracks a field of craft-based experimentation against several overlapping, problematic political backdrops, but takes no position on whether aesthetic production is compromised by the ideological positions represented by the scene’s architects.
The critical point here is not that the notion of the décorative in Tunisia must be shown to dismantle Orientalism, authoritarian tendencies in postcolonial nationalism, and class-based sexism to be valuable to the field of decolonial feminist art history. But Gerschultz positions the decorative arts in Tunisia at the center of debates about postcolonial aesthetics and competing articulations of modernism without a clear synthetic statement about the broader stakes of that position within critical craft studies or decolonial aesthetics. There is a bridge lacking between, on the one hand, formal analysis and archival documentation and, on the other, the argument that the Tunisian École contributed to decolonial feminism—feminism from the bottom up. This bridge requires a more consistent theoretical postcolonial or intersectional feminist framework. To take one example from an adjacent discipline, Manthia Diawara’s African Cinema: Politics and Culture (1992) is also focused on the development of nationalist aesthetic programs in postcolonial contexts as infrastructure for the radical reimagination of the relationship between “local” and “international” formal codes, though decidedly not 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 present a single nationalist scene or to trace the subtleties of its evolution as Gerschultz has done. But without a critical stance on the decorative arts’ interdependence and tension with Bourguibian nationalism and its instrumentalization of rural and working-class women, she runs the risk of diminishing the importance of the evidence she musters to make her argument about the crucial role of the decorative arts in the project of decolonizing the art historical canon.