The blue colour of the forged metal grills, omnipresent in a traditional Tunisian house, is what immediately catches one’s eye. Made to fit windows, serve as garden gates, or awning support, cast and forged iron grills provide lining for windows and air vents for kitchens and bathrooms. Their interlacing metal designs contrast starkly with the sobriety of the whitewashed façades of private houses. They are designed for practical purposes and to preserve the intimacy of the people, yet their artisanry embellishes homes with their peculiar beauty.
In the conservative Muslim tradition of the local past, these grills were often complemented by sculptured wood panels–the craft of which is still practises to realise garden gates and garage doors –that allowed women to see onto the street without being seen themselves.
Even in cities like Sidi Bouzid, a rather ordinary town that only most recently gained a place in the records of history since it is where the Tunisian revolution ignited, one finds a substantial number of houses with carefully forged metal window grills and studded wooden doors, decorated with nails to form stylish geometrical or floral designs. It feels though as if, when it comes to wood and metal crafting, there is more to this ‘everyday’ aspect of Tunisia than what meets the eye.
In craft disciplines such as pottery, ceramics, weaving, or rug making, a clear segregation between utilitarian products made by women, and decorative items made by men distinguishes since centuries between what is inherently valuable and what is less so. Metal forging, the carving of olive wood and the crafting of utility objects from metal, however, are the only three utilitarian crafts disciplines that always have exclusively been practised by the men of a household.
Over the centuries, the skills required for what once was a domestic necessity have evolved. And what the current generation of artisans produce, many of whom have started in their trade when they were in their teens, is both: practical on the one hand, and a rather intricate body of work on the other.
One of these artisans is Mohamed Lidarssa. Now in his 40s, he has been introduced to the art of Dinanderie – the making of utilitarian objects from copper, silver, gold or other metal – when he was in his early teens. Born in one of the alleys of the Medina of Tunis, he early joined one of the Souk merchants as an apprentice, and discovered what he himself describes as his very own version of 1001 nights. Thirty years later, his experienced hands carefully direct every beat of the hammer onto the chisel, and plates of brass, copper, and silver bend, contort and finally miraculously emerge as decorative panels, plates with intricate sceneries, or lamps that seem taken from a medieval serail.
The art of working metal to create durable household utensils is the result of the arrival of the Ottoman empire in the sixteenth century, and the fact that the area of present day Tunisia was absorbed into the empire as one of its provinces. The crafting of copper spread from its birthplace Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, where in the palaces of the sultans and the villas of the nobles innumerable utensils where used in the kitchens on ceremonial occasions and festivities. Commercially, the golden age of the metal craft in Tunisia was during the 18th century where cities like Kairouan or Sfax accommodated within their walls a large Souk where all the metal artisans–at one time a few thousand of them–worked as members of a guild.
To the day, all the crafted utensils reflect their provenance with pride, and no two geographical areas produce the same outcome: There are substantial style differences in objects stemming from rural areas as opposed to cities, the country’s shores in contrast to the areas bordering on the desert, and the island of Djerba yet again has its very own distinguished style.
The carving of olive wood, after metal forging and dinanderie the remaining third among the principal utilitarian Tunisian crafts disciplines, is probably the least talked about. A fact that is probably due to objects made from olive wood are so firmly embedded in the citizen’s everyday life, that the craft often–wrongly–is seen as a mere necessity.
In the old days, olive trees were but grown in a very confined area within Tunisia, and as a consequence olive wood used to be considered rare, and objects made from it where only produced in tiny quantities. Even then demand outgrew the availability of Tunisian olive wood, and much of the wood had to be shipped in from southern Spain. It goes without saying that only the wealthier nobles and successful merchants could afford to use it as the material for furniture, mirror frames, or chests. Like copper utensils, bowls, plates and serving cutlery made from olive wood bore proof to the social status and establishment of a family within society, and were only used for important or festive occasions.
In the case of copper, the degree of detail and quality of its engraving is vital to its value. Likewise, it is a subtle combination of the “right” choice of pattern and colors displayed by the virgin wood, and an elegant, simple, and elaborate shape that characterize a master piece made from olive wood. It amounts to irony that in the age of the Tunisian revolution a women is considered the country’s most accomplished master of this traditionally male trade: Hager Harrabi and her company ‘Bois d’Olivier’ have been decorated in 2010 with the “National Work Medal” for their exceptional achievements in fostering and promoting the olive wood craft in Tunisia and abroad.
Pamela Ravasio is an ethical fashion journalist and consultant, and the publisher of the research based eco fashion Blog ‘Shirahime 白姫’ (http://shirahime.ch).
ITC’s EnACT programme partners with the Tunisian National Craft Office to foster the export of Tunisian artisan and craft products, and to create new jobs in the country. For details, please visit: http://www.intracen.org/enact/about/about.htm