Sunday, May 30, 2010

North Africa: Art Nouveau Jewelry Gets a Rebirth in Tunis

Think of Tunis, and Art Nouveau may not spring to mind, yet this North African city has its very own Art Nouveau tradition, combining the influences of the European arts and crafts movement and Tunisian folk art. The French colonial presence from 1881 to 1956 marked the local architecture, design and jewelry with the European styles of the time, reinterpreted in an Arabian mode.

Memories of that intricately hybrid style are re-emerging now in modern designs, as a generation of young jewelers turns to 1900 Tunis for inspiration, while demonstrating a novel interest in the technical know-how and customs of their country.

“Art Nouveau comes from the idea that straight lines in nature don’t exist — and this works particularly well with our tradition of nonfigurative, organic design, and of repetition and arabesque,” said Sarra Jawaher Soussi, a professor of fashion and art history, with specialization in jewelry, in the design section of Collège LaSalle in Tunis.

“The idea of flora and fauna is present, but local flowers were used, and animals were chosen according to various propitiatory and prophylactic beliefs, their power to protect, to bring luck and prosperity,” Ms. Soussi said. “In other words, it is typically Art Nouveau in principle, but definitely North African in its interpretation.”

The same mix of Art Nouveau aesthetics and Tunisian tradition informs the work of the new generation of designers. Aycha Ben Chérif is one. A self-taught jeweler, she learned the trade by watching artisans and goldsmiths in the souks, the ancient and still-thriving markets in Arab cities.

Her work juxtaposes an Art Nouveau sensitivity for curves and materials with Berber references. For example, she uses local symbols of luck — such as the fish or the khamsa, the hand that protects against the evil eye — reinterpreting them, true to the early 20th-century style, in natural materials and semiprecious stones such as coral or turquoise, delicately inserted into gold frames and chains.

“My discovery of South Tunisian traditional jewelry was a revelation,” Ms. Ben Chérif said in an interview. “I like to reinvent elements of the local heritage so they can be worn today.” In some pieces, she uses elements of traditional bridal wear, with a neo-Art Nouveau twist. “These traditional pieces cover the entire chest with filigree, semiprecious stones and engraved coins,” she said. “I keep the shape and some of the elements, but I give them a new meaning.”

Her technique remains close to the ancient ways of cutting and using diamonds and other precious materials. “Aycha makes flowers set with chichkhan, diamond chips cut in an artisanal technique that was used before today’s modern carving methods,” Ms. Soussi said.

Neila and Meriem Sherif are an aunt-and-niece design duo whose work finds a starting point in family jewels inherited from Neila’s grandmother, dating to the 1900s. Those typical Tunisian Art Nouveau pieces, with their use of drop shapes and other natural forms, are redolent of the European fine jewelry of the time — from Tiffany, Fabergé and Lalique, among others. But they also incorporate local, traditional emblematic elements, such as bees, spiders, snakes, dragonflies, turtles, birds and indigenous flowers.

“This is part of our patrimony,” Meriem Sherif said. “Each has its own story. We’re very superstitious here.”

Yet the pieces are updated by a choice of nontraditional materials and finishes. “The original models used to be made on red, blackened gold, with precious stones,” Neila Sherif, the aunt, said. “We now use different stones, with newer colors that weren’t available back then, on yellow gold.”

In technique, too, their work is inspired by the precision characteristic of 1900s jewelry. “Rings today are much more simple, with only four claws,” she said. “Traditionally, Tunisian rings were a lot more intricate, with a bigger, more chiseled frame and a large cabochon. That is something we kept in our design.”

The pair often designs traditional crowns and headpieces for brides to wear at their weddings. “There is a definite return to tradition,” she said. “There has been an overflow of Europeanization. The girls all used to want Western-style weddings, but now traditional weddings are in again, and that’s why they are turning to us for classical pieces.”

For Dorra Sassi, a Tunis-born designer who trained in Paris and worked in a studio that designed jewelry for Chanel, Tunisian Art Nouveau has a more subliminal influence. Ms. Sassi, who returned to Tunisia last year to set up her own brand, D.S., has produced a collection that offers a baroque take on Art Nouveau, with gold bows and pearls. Although she says that she does not recognize any direct reference to her Tunisian heritage, she also says she senses the influence in her work.

“If you ask me, my inspirations are totally Parisian,” Ms. Sassi said. “Yet the only time I feel truly Tunisian is when I start making bigger pieces. Girls here like jewelry to be highly visible.”

Ms. Soussi, the art history professor, has a psychological explanation for the fashion shift. “The recurring reference to Art Nouveau is due to the fact that it was ‘la Belle Époque’ for Tunisia, which everybody subconsciously would like to relive,” she said. “The current neo-Art Nouveau jewelry scene, like the original one, is a melting pot of many different influences, and this is in the image of our country.

“You can detect Ottoman, Hispano-Moorish influences, and thousands of years of civilizations, and that’s Tunisia in a nutshell.”

Source: The NY Times

By: Alice Pfeiffer

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