Decorative Arts of the Tunisian École: Fabrications of Modernism, Gender, and Class in Tunisia, 1948-1972


ACLS Fellowship Program


African and African-American Studies


This inquiry into tapestry and the decorative arts examines the fabrication of artistic modernism as articulated in Tunisia, as well as its entwinement with the fraught modernizing projects of former president Habib Bourguiba. The study positions women’s weaving in Tunisian socialism, showing that a shared aesthetic and political philosophy toward female creativity not only underpinned multiple forms of textile production, but also stood as a potent metaphor for statecraft. The central focus is Safia Farhat, the sole woman in the École de Tunis, an elite group of French, Italian, and Tunisian artists, and then opens up to an investigation of how Tunisian nationalist discourses deployed the figure of the female artist. Art education and industry transformed and institutionalized hierarchies among women. These power differentials were materialized in more than fifty decorative programs—the very nexus of art and “artisanal” works. This study recuperates a feminized, marginalized category within aesthetic modernism.