Here in Tunis, portraiture is virtually non-existent. People are depicted as types rather than as individuals. At the same time lofty concepts such as caring, love, the forces of nature, and the insignificance of man, find their way into the popular arts.
In the early days of Islam, paganism was a threat. Arab theologians feared that the faithful might come to venerate pictures of Mahomet, as the Christians had done with effigies of Jesus, Mary, the Prophets, etc. It would, they thought, be an insult to try to accurately depict the Deity.
Figurative arts thus became banned here — particularly the illustration of animate creatures which had been such a feature of Greco-Roman art. Historically Muslim artists were able to get around this stricture by using stylized and abstract forms. They banned everything that gave the idea of reality, — perspective, depth, shadow, modelled form.
Today, Tunisian art, while often attempting realism is practically always standardized with modernist clichés. Remarkably, these works are “contemporary” and “conforming” at the same time. On the edge of the great desert, art deals with the unimaginable.
But it’s in calligraphy that the current art shines brightest. Writing, says the Koran (Sura 96.4), is divine. This art has become established on the basis of the characteristics unique to Arab writing — each letter of the alphabet taking on a specific form according to its position in the word — initial, median or final. Today Arab calligraphic art has become a wholly decorative art form, independent of literal meaning. In its most beautiful and ornamental forms, Arab calligraphy is illegible.
PS: “There is nothing like the elemental forces of nature to make us realize that man is puny.” (Field Marshall Earl Alexander of Tunis)
Esoterica: Travelling and moving daily in places like this, one tends to experience a variety of plumbing. It’s a minor irritation, almost hardly worth mentioning, but when I return home and have the time, I intend to found a society for the standardization of hotel bathtub faucets.
For more information about Mohamed Zakariya, visit: Zakariya Calligraphy
For more information about the following two Tunisian artists, visit Raken Art
Humankind and art
by Christa Gautschi, Basel, Switzerland
When I reflect on humankind I come to the final conclusion that art is the only ‘thing’ that makes human existence a bit more worthwhile and adds a sense to it. Often I am much struggling with myself and my paintings — hours and days may go by without getting a good result. But then I know that at least I have not done anything worse or destructive to the world and I keep working on it and walking the path of my philosophy no matter how complicated and without apparent results or sense it can be at times. May all artists never lose their muse’s love to provide them with spiritualnouriture! Vive l’art!
Controlling art is the key
by Jan Zawadzki, Ontario, Canada
If one makes a study of ancient history one inadvertently begins to understand those levels of inspired thought and art many cultures have become known by. That which leaves little to the imagination is contrasted by that which nurtures the imagination. Whether it be the human appetite or the human spirit it nevertheless becomes a platform for coercion of one form or another — spiritual, political or otherwise. Controlling art is the key. One may argue whether contemporary thought is license enough to undo those traditions which hold back expression or whether those same traditions are to remain as archaic fabrications, the defining principal of which is no less than fundamentalism accommodates. Feed the soul or kill the spirit? When all is said and done in the forever scale of things… what is there left to talk about? One man’s rapture becomes another man’s hammer… same goes for those ‘graven images’ …proportional only to those who would think likewise.
Progression of Islam
by Vickie Nadolson, California, USA
latest comments of Greece. The progression of Islam is to me an affront to Christianity that I find increasingly abundant around the world and I find it depressing. The fact that Islam is interesting to you disgusts me. These are people that make women cover themselves so that men cannot be held accountable for their actions. These are people that would love for the world to be sent back to the Middle Ages of which they belong. The world is much more than they can imagine and they have not been a contributing factor. Muslims have not contributed anything to mankind ever, period. They have only tried to set the world back to their own timetable. Please try to see the real reality here, the real history of the wonderful places you visit. And see the re-creation of these same places by Muslims. After all, they destroyed the statues in Afghanistan as you must be aware. Those statues represented centuries of art that have been destroyed forever.
People of Scripture
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
Usual interdiction of work above a portrait in Islam does not concern to a photo and work of the professional artist — these are fields, which more concern to a science, than to application of art for religion. And Islam, at all severity, never interfered with a science, we do not know cases similar with Galileus or Bruno from Islamic history. But, we know as chemistry, algebra and astronomy came in Europe from Islamic countries. When we have woven the carpet portrait of Sheik A. H. Saeed, first of all, customer was convinced of professionalism of the artist possibly remembering about that good idea as to interdiction to make not qualitative pictures at all. We live in Russia, where we have practically all religions and we communicate more closely. Islam appears is not so far from the European religion. Even the Angels in Islamic scripture are the same. When Islam was introduced at the territory, also other religions that came from Jerusalem were recognized related and the followers of that religions were named the People of Scripture (Ahl Al-Kitab). It appears, that our religions enter in uniform Scripture also are uniform whole macro-philosophy.
Looking on a photo of the artists from Tunis I saw the people absolutely similar on some people from Russia. Obviously, West Euro-Asia and North of Africa are all relatives and are very close connected generically — the obvious proofs of relativity of human races are found too, so all people the relatives. But, the largest relatives in the mankind are the artists — they, in addition, are spiritual relatives and speaking on same language of fine art.
Tunisia in memory
by Liz Reday, California, USA
How wonderful to remember Tunisia! Years ago we had a sailboat and we sailed all around the coast of North Africa, starting in Morocco, across Algeria, the top of Tunisia, down to Tunis harbor. At that point the name of Sidi Bou Said stuck in my head, and we sailed up the coast to this charming little town of pale blue doorways adorned with decorative latticework. We then sailed over to Malta for boat repair, and around the wonderful outer islands of Sicily guided by some charming Italians who rented out our boat and taught me how to cook pasta. After picking up a couple of friends back in Malta, we headed back toward Tunis. Our pals had trouble sailing close to the wind and when we woke up the next morning we were headed straight for Libya! (this was in the ’70s) As luck would have it, we managed to make landfall on the then relatively undiscovered island of Pantelleria (this was before Armani built his villa), before sailing for the coast of Tunisia. In Bizerte, we met a couple of Frenchmen on an eighty-foot yacht accompanied by a dozen very beautiful young women! They insisted we drink absinthe before heading out into a major gale! In the port of Algiers, a few guys swam out to our boat with a solid silver ice bucket filled with ice — a small gift in exchange for whiskey!
What is ugly?
by Arthur Neri, San Francisco, CA, USA
I shared your response to “Aesthetics of Ugly” with a small group of artists who meet regularly for coffee. The response was spirited as we tried to discern exactly how Robert was using the term “ugly.” We all agreed he certainly did not mean content or subject matter since some of the most powerful paintings deal with the ugliness of death and destruction. Thus, we moved to style, but this, too, did not seem to fit. What we ended up with as our best guess was “laziness” — the lack of attention (due to a lack of knowledge?) to craft and the process of painting. Any additional comments from Robert about “ugliness” would be greatly appreciated.
Touched on many levels
by Linda Saccoccio (Radha), Santa Barbara, CA, USA
“The layered day” clickback touches me on many levels. It brings about nostalgia forwhen I visited Morocco and experienced the mix of cultures now rooted there, the souks and the background of prayer five times a day. I have other memories of Morocco such as the ever-present smell of smoke, I assume things being burned or cooked. The mystery and possible danger in the desert and the persistence of begging people. I have a clear recall of a man stopping his car on the side of the road, moving his body to the earth to bow and acknowledge the sounding prayer. An image also of a young African girl, in a semi-silhouette on the top of a hill, swaying in a dance of life, arms extended toward the sky as the wind blew her dress to one side of her with its own expression of life. I was inspired by her spontaneity of life force in motion as other women in the foreground tended chores with large bundles of sticks balanced on their heads.
As the Muslims heed the sound of prayer five times a day, we as artists have a life of opportunity to awaken and honor through the experience of living with openness. Painting manifests through inspiration. Inspiration is like traveling on a magic carpet/prayer rug that enlivens individual awareness to vast possibilities. Creativity parallels or embodies prayer or meditation. Painting is a meditation that allows me to process the awe I feel for life and offer some expression of beauty to honor that. How fortunate we are to make our life’s work centered on experiencing life with depth and creating a soulful response to it. It is a wonderful circle that sustains me in joy and continued reverence.
by Gerti Hilfert, Langenfeld, Germany
Today I want to show you something I am questioning about for a while. It shows nature and I found this piece after our house was built. I picked it up from a layer of gravel that was put around our house. I am still guessing if there ever has been a human manipulation on it to make it look like it appears now. I just found it and kept it — in case I do some new carving I’ll have it integrated and shown as an object. The stone I found is about 4 inches high — quite a small one — and it would have been quite difficult to work on it like that. I still believe that it is a face formed from nature. Maybe there will be one of your friends who can find a right idea about it whether it was treated by human or by nature…
Worked out her grief
by Pat Palmer
I used to paint realistically but I have grown and changed. However, not one of those changes ever inspired my interest in painting people of any kind. I might incorporate the suggestion of a human form once in a while but that was the extent of my interest. However, at one time I was suffering emotionally as a result of a family crisis that I was helpless to do anything about. I was deeply depressed. I continued to paint/collage when I could force myself. At that time I was interested in ‘pouring’ and letting the result tell me what my subject would be. The subjects that repeatedly presented were people! I couldn’t avoid them and the unplanned series that resulted was filled with personality. They weren’t realistic folks. One of them turned out to be my daughter, the central focus of my depression and emotional upheaval. It wasn’t her physically but the emotion and feelings this painting exhibited was uncannily her. Another one talked to me the entire time I was creating her and stood at my shoulder with her hand on her hip snapping her gum loudly while dressed outlandishly for the beach! She was a lively one. Then one of Jesus appeared. This one was nearly complete including the crown of thorns and the droplets of blood just the way the paint and inks hit the paper. They have all been sold — it was too painful a time for me to keep them around but no people have since appeared in my work. This was my soul’s way of working out my grief. By the way, I’m no longer a basket case and the problem has been resolved for the most part.
bronze piece by
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.
That includes Antoinette Ledzian, Stonington, CT, USA who wrote, “Your letters are a blessed, endless supply of wisdom, history and inspiration… our behind-the-scenes travel guide. The thoughts and images you share and the way you bring all of us together behind this screen with your worldly slide show is phenomenal. You open our eyes, hearts and pores. I breathe easier every time I view one of your treasured e-mails.