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The Selma Feriani Gallery ushers in a new chapter of art in Tunis

Art has always been a powerful medium of expression, evoking a myriad of emotions in its audience. It has often been a refuge during times of turmoil, a handmaiden of revolution and activism and a reflection of society and its norms and values at quieter times. It can capture the public mood and stimulate ideas, debates and innovations.

Tunisia has a long and distinguished history of art and the appreciation of art. Young artists are exploring new visions and building bridges to the rest of the world through a growing proliferation of art spaces. Omar Ben Yedder visits the Selma Feriani Gallery in Tunis, one of the latest to open.

Selma Feriani’s eponymous art gallery, which opened on 25th January 2024, is one of the growing number that have sprung up in Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring which also ended the dictatorial rein of Zine El Abedin Ben Ali in 2011.

Feriani says this reflects not only a change in the cultural climate, but also that there are fewer logistical barriers. “What really changed after the revolution [of 2011] was the use of public spaces, which was not possible before the revolution.

“That allowed for a lot of interesting projects sourced from outside galleries and outside institutions. There is also an emergence of art project spaces like La Boite Contemporary Art Centrale,” she explains.

Increased access to the city’s spaces for the artistic community has allowed greater forms of self-expression, she says. “For me, one of the most important festivals in Tunisia is Dream City, “she says.

The 9th edition of the Dream City festival took place in Tunis’s old town, the Medina from 22 September to 8 October 2023. The programme for this unique festival of Art in the City includes numerous works by artists from over 18 countries Tunisia, Morocco, Democratic Republic of Congo, France, Portugal, Lebanon, Egypt, Belgium, Syria, United Kingdom, Palestine, United States, Kuwait, Nigeria, Haiti, Turkey, Mali, and Argentina), with creations, concerts, debates and immersive projects.

“The festival has expanded a lot after the revolution because they’ve been able to use the Medina and downtown Tunis in a very efficient way….

Art has always been central to Tunisia, which in the 16th century was one of the centres of Arab culture and learning. Its artistic heritage bears influences from the Levant, Italy, Spain, Persia and the Near East, resulting in a distinctive Arabesque style.

Tunisian artists have long been recognised for their expertise in creating captivating mosaics and pottery which not only provide mesmerising decorative designs, but also narratives around the culture and history of the people.

She wants the space to be a hub for international collaborations and artistic conversations. “So we will create this bridge and foster these conversations which, for me, are very important.” She has a schedule of events already planned for the next two years.

Feriani’s desire for international cooperation is mirrored by international interest in the artists that she is curating, some of whom have been associated with her gallery for over a decade and have really matured in their output over the period.

She expects that some of the artists will have the opportunity to showcase their work at the next Venice Biennale, for example, while globally renowned galleries such as the Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim in New York, US.

A lot of institutions globally are looking at us as a result of the work we have done to promote our artists. I think curators and institutions are definitely looking at what’s happening here. Undoubtedly, we are on the map for them now.”

Will local collectors be able to make her venture viable? Despite the growth of the local art scene and collectors in Tunisia, Feriani says she doesn’t anticipate commercial success in the near term, especially given the economic downturn the country is facing.

“Commercially, the domestic market alone will not make [the gallery] necessarily viable. I think that’s the case for most of the commercial galleries and tours because there are very few domestic collectors and they are very price sensitive as well. And I don’t think it’s going to get better anytime soon.” she reports.

However that has not deterred her. “It looks complicated right now but we have a vision and we have a strategy, so there is no way for us to go backwards. We will continue to develop things back home. It’s in the DNA of the gallery. It’s my vision, my strategy, and it’s important for me to do it in Tunisia and to have a voice from Tunisia to the world,” she says.

It surely also helps that as an international gallery, the works are displayed elsewhere (in Western cities), enabling them to reach a wider audience and potential buyers.

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