Sonia Kacem at Selma Feriani Gallery – Tunis

Judging by the title “Jelliz et Gestes(Zellij and Gesture), it’s easy to assume that the focal point of Sonia Kacem’s latest exhibition is zellij, the tradition of enameled ceramic tiles associated with the western Islamic world. And yet the Swiss-Tunisian artist’s inquiry is more cunning than that. Since Tunisia gained independence in the 1950s, numerous classically trained artists have devised strategies to integrate vernacular craft techniques into their production process. In doing so, they have checked all the right boxes, addressing their place within both the specificities of their local contexts and the greater modernist project. It is not surprising, then, that many contemporary artists continue to see the appeal of pottery or weaving as tools to address their hybrid identities or cultural inheritance. What is different this time? Is there more to this exhibition than the outdated clash of modernity and tradition?

Jelliz et Gestes” is the culmination of Kacem’s recent residency in Tunis, as well as her ongoing records of particular visual elements within the urban milieus, which she started in Cairo in 2019. From these observations, the artist compiled a lexicon of forms, palettes, and materials that she incorporated into her own visual language. Working together with Tunisian zellij masters, Kacem designed ten unique ceramic panels (all works 2023), each composed of ninety-six tiles. She hung these works atop vibrant geometries painted directly on the wall. The titles of these murals—N (Astral: W8.28.34), Vague Horizontal (Astral: C4.45.51)_—_refer to distinct patterns and color codes, providing glimpses into the artist’s peculiar taxonomies. Kacem thus fashions imaginative modes of diasporic expression, staging a visual score in which multiple motifs, styles, localitiesand artistic traditions converge.

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