Safia Farhat

19242004 | Tunis, Tunisia

Tunisian painter, decorator, editor, and teacher.

Safia Foudhaili grew up in France and Tunisia. In 1944, she married Abdallah Farhat, a socialist politician involved in the fight against colonial authorities. When Tunisia gained independence in 1956, he became president Habib Bourguiba’s private secretary and later occupied various ministerial positions. That same year, the Code of Personal Status (CPS) was promulgated with a view to improve the social status and education of women. This provided S. Farhat with a favourable context within which to found the country’s first magazine addressed specifically to women, Faïza, which would last until 1967 and publish 62 issues, and in which she displayed her talent for drawing and graphic design. Her involvement in political and artistic fields also manifested itself through her campaigns for women’s rights and the preservation of cultural heritage. Her focus on teaching through art was put to use when she was appointed the Republican era’s first director of the Tunis Institute of Fine Arts in 1966.
In 1949, she was the only woman to take part in the École de Tunis movement, which comprised French, Italian and Tunisian artists who sought to distance themselves from colonial art by reconnecting their practice with Roman archaeological history, Islamic architecture and traditional crafts. However, their goal was to shape a new, modern form of “Tunisianity” rooted in North African, Arabic, and African foundations. They contributed to the construction of the new nation’s image. Using very bold black outlines, S. Farhat depicted women wearing kohl or henna, men in jebbas, local animal and plant life, and everyday objects, in a coarse and colourful style with abstract backgrounds.

The movement prompted many collaborations between artists and artisans in response to public commissions. In particular, S. Farhat worked with the artist Abdelaziz Gorgi and collectives of weavers to create monumental tapestries. In these works, she explored the story of Ulysses and Penelope, as well as the epic of the Banu Hilal, a confederation of Arabian tribes that emigrated to North Africa in the 11th century. The techniques that S. Farhat highlighted ranged from decorative arts to ceramics, and from stained glass to Chebka lace, with some of these mediums inspiring her to develop purely geometrical forms. She also created mural bas-reliefs.

In 1982, she and her husband founded the Centre des arts vivants (Centre for living arts) in Radès, where the Safia-Farhat Museum was later inaugurated by her niece Aïcha Filali in 2016. A. Filali is also an artist who teaches at the Institute of Fine Arts in Tunis and is now its director, in which role she perpetuates S. Farhat’s legacy and exhibits the works of other contemporary artists.

Caroline Hancock

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