Hirafen Exhibition: Bridging Traditions and Contemporary Art – An Exclusive Interview with Curator Ludovic Delalande

Image of Ludovic Delalande, Credit: © Valentin Le Cron

In a celebration of the intersection between contemporary art and traditional craftsmanship, the Hirafen exhibition has emerged as a groundbreaking initiative fostering a unique dialogue between these two realms. Curated by Ludovic Delalande and Nadia Jelassi, the exhibition spans from November 4, 2023, to March 20, 2024 and brings together nineteen multidisciplinary artists who have embarked on a journey to create bespoke artworks inspired by Tunisian weaving and braiding expertise.

Africans Column had the privilege of interviewing Ludovic Delalande, delving into the inspiration behind the exhibition, the collaborative process between artists and traditional artisans, and the broader impact on the preservation of Tunisian weaving

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Abdoulaye Konaté, Tunisie, 2023, Textile (bazin et fouta) , 280 x 784 cm © Nicolas Fauqué pour Talan L’Expo

Crafting a Dialogue Between Art and Tradition

Africans Column: The exhibition “Hirafen” seems to foster a unique dialogue between contemporary art and traditional craftsmanship. Could you share the inspiration behind bringing together nineteen multidisciplinary artists to create bespoke artworks inspired by Tunisian weaving and braiding expertise, and how did you approach curating this diverse group of artists?

Ludovic: As I began to explore craftsmanship, I quickly realized that this intangible heritage is not limited to techniques and savoir-faire but opens up a wide range of approaches. Beyond a repertoire of shapes, colours, and materials, it’s a question of transmission and memory, of bodies and gestures, but also of time, geography, and nature. Craftsmanship isn’t outside the world, it is as much about art as it is about social, historical, economic, political, territorial, environmental, and ecological considerations. In my opinion, it’s a way of thinking, feeling, and experiencing the world, in other words, a way of being in the world.

 Gathering artists using different kind of mediums and coming from different generations and seemed essential to enrich the exhibition’s narrative. The majority of the artists had never collaborated with craftspeople and probably had little knowledge of craft practice but I was convinced that the challenge would be stimulating and produce something rich and fertile to draw new narratives.

For both artists and artisans, this project was an opportunity to take a step aside, break with their habits, and explore new ways of thinking and producing.

 

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Zineb Sedira, Fragments d’un papier peint tissé (Way of Life), 2023 , Papier peint, tissage, objets divers, Dimensions variables, Tissage : Zohra Benothmn (Seliana), Raja Ferjani (Medenine), Mabrouka Laajari (Gabès)

Diverse Perspectives and Collaborative Efforts

Africans Column: The collaboration between artists and traditional artisans is a central theme in the exhibition. How did the participating artists, who come from diverse backgrounds and generations, engage with the embroiderers, weavers, braiders, and textile artisans during the research and production residency? Could you share insights into how the collaboration process unfolded, and were there any unique challenges or breakthrough moments that occurred in exploring Tunisian weaving and braiding expertise?

Ludovic: When Aïcha Gorgi, executive director of Talan L’expo, invited me to curate an exhibition based on this theme, I immediately felt the need to create a suitable context for the artists, and the principle of a residency in Tunisian territory became obvious. Each residency has been specific to each artist/project. It’s impossible to understand craftsmanship from a distance, and books can’t show you the reality of craftsmanship, its richness, and its stories. You have to go out and meet the craftsmen and women who make them, in their homes, on their land, in their intimacy. Craftspeople are not accustomed to collaborating with artists and can be wary. A mediation work was therefore required to ensure that everyone could understand each other or at least talk to each other. I was fortunate to collaborate with Laurence Touitou and Olfa Trabelsi, two specialists whose in-depth knowledge of today’s crafts and expertise facilitated exchanges and collaborations. Nothing was a foregone conclusion, and it sometimes took some convincing to get them out of their comfort zone. For example, Joël Andrianomearisoa worked with Tunisian tapestry weavers using the Aubusson technique. Through his work, he urged them to reappropriate their gestures, and their hands, freeing themselves from the constraints usually imposed on them. As for Sara Ouhaddou, she has revived an ancestral weaving technique that has all but disappeared, the flip, traditionally used for the tents of desert nomads.  

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Jennifer Douzenel, Mirage, 2023, Sérigraphie sur verre, 15 x 10 cm chaque. © Nicolas Fauqué pour Talan L’Expo

From Tradition to Innovation: Aesthetic, Ecological, and Political Dimensions

Africans Column: Each artist in the exhibition has developed a unique approach by exploring multiple dimensions linked to an intangible heritage. Can you elaborate on how the artists delved into aesthetic, ecological, political, geographical, economic, and social dimensions in their distinctive artistic practices?

Ludovic: Depending on their artistic practice and interests, the artists have appropriated craftsmanship through different dimensions. For example, Chalisée Naamani explored the link between craft and industry, while Asma Ben Aissa was interested in transmission, linking savoir-faire and savoir-vivre. For his part, Mohamed Amine Hamouda imagined the future of craftsmanship by experimenting with other materials. Sonia Kallel, for example, sought to trace a silk weaving technique that has now disappeared, and that no craftsman has been able to reproduce, which is why she turned to mechanical weaving.  This question of memory, disappearance, history as well as the hand is at the heart of the artists’ works.

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Chalisée Naamani, Rouge le pompon qui terminera votre natte, heureuse fille aux cheveux longs, 2023 (détail) © Nicolas Fauqué pour Talan L’Expo

Preserving Collective Memory and Inspiring Future Exploration

Africans Column: In the context of the exhibition’s focus on traditional craftsmanship, how does “Hirafen” contribute to the preservation of Tunisian weaving and braiding expertise, and in what ways do the artworks showcase a commitment to maintaining and celebrating the collective memory embedded in these age-old techniques?

Ludovic: Hirafen is first and foremost a contemporary art exhibition on the theme of craftsmanship, which is de facto the starting point of the project, but not necessarily an issue. The aim is not to preserve craftsmanship through contemporary art, but rather to show the possible points of encounter between sometimes distant practices, to create links between past and present, tradition and innovation.

This exhibition has been an intense and highly enriching human experience, offering every one of us the chance to risk the unknown, the other, the world.

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Binta Diaw, Kham Kham, 2023 , Jonc de mer, 240 x 360 cm, Tissage : Anouar Sfia, Nabeul, © Nicolas Fauqué pour Talan L’Expo

Embracing Innovation Within Tradition

Africans Column: The exhibition highlights that artisans haven’t hesitated to depart from their usual practices, embracing a shift and asserting renewed creativity. Could you provide examples of how artists and artisans addressed new challenges, and what kind of innovative and creative outcomes emerged from this departure from tradition?

Ludovic: Absolutely! The artisans were so open-minded, inventive, and generous! They all played the game to brilliantly meet the challenges proposed by the artists. In some cases, they went further than they could have imagined, which is why it was so important to work with the artisans to help them understand what the artists were trying to achieve. And I think they got into the spirit of the project, even coming up with new ideas, as in the case of the Tili Tanit embroidery workshop created by Neijb Bel Hadj in Mahdia, which collaborated with Ali Tnani, Meriem Bouderbala or Aymen M’barki. For Moffat Takadiwa’s works, artisans wove from plastic bags. I don’t think, however, that it’s a question of making a complete break with the past. Everyone will no doubt continue to do what they’ve always done, but with the conviction that other things are possible, and with an awareness of their ability to reinvent and surpass themselves.

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Moffat Takadiwa, Golden doors (a) & (b), 2023, Sacs plastique, brosses à dents, bobines, matériaux divers. Environ 480 x 360 cm chaque. Collaboration : Aymen Koundi, Aziz Hamlia, Aziz Rakm, Lotfi Hrizi, Adem el Ayeb, Ghada Loussaïf, Thouraya Loussaïf Coordination : Aymen Gharbi © Nicolas Fauqué pour Talan L’Expo

Community Engagement and Collaborations

Africans Column: Given the mention of public spaces in medinas and the intimacy of homes, how does the exhibition engage with the local community? Were there community collaborations or involvement that played a role in shaping the exhibition, and what impact do you hope the artworks will have on the broader community?

Ludovic: The practice of handicrafts, especially when practiced by women, is based on the principle of community and mutual aid. To create her work, Sara Ouhaddou collaborated with several craftswomen, a community of women from Rjim Maatoug who took turns weaving dozens of flij. Similarly, Najah Zarbout has collaborated with craftswomen in Kasserine to work on a type of laborious alfa weaving that is almost no longer used today. I can say that the exhibition is the result of a collective adventure, in a sense, artists, artisans, Talan, and all the people involved in the project came together for several months to create this extraordinary project. I hope that the exhibition will be seen by as many people as possible, and in particular by craftspeople, perhaps inspiring them to explore new voices, alone or in collaboration with artists.

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Najah Zarbout, Flying archipelago, 2023 (détail), Installation (alfa, son), Dimensions variables. Tissage : Mahbouba, Fatma, Gouta, Mabrouka, Massouda et Meriam Hleli (Kasserine) Composition sonore : Etienne Gillet © Nicolas Fauqué pour Talan L’Expo
 

Challenges, Triumphs, and Future Collaborations

Africans Column: Undertaking a project of this nature likely presented both challenges and triumphs. Can you share some of the most significant challenges faced during the curation of the exhibition and any unexpected triumphs that added depth or nuance to the overall narrative?

Ludovic: Without a doubt, the triumphs are the works the artists created. Each of them has shown total professionalism and commitment to their project, despite conditions that are not always easy. I’m particularly pleased that this exhibition has provided an opportunity to experiment with new developments. This was particularly the case for Jennifer Douzenel, who worked with silkscreen on glass, whereas her usual medium is video or for the painter Dora Dalila Cheffi who experimented painted on rugs. I’m proud of the result and of the job we’ve accomplished together.

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Meriem Bouderbala, Boza et Ordalie, 2023, Installation composée de 6 éléments (peinture, dessin, tissage, céramique, photographie, broderie), Chaque : 180 x 100 cm. © Nicolas Fauqué pour Talan L’Expo

Legacy and Future Prospects

Africans Column: As the curator, what legacy do you envision for the “Hirafen” exhibition, both in terms of its impact on the artists involved and its contribution to the wider discourse on the intersection of contemporary art and traditional craftsmanship? Additionally, do you foresee future collaborations or projects inspired by the success of this exhibition?

Ludovic: It’s still too early to say, but I hope that as many Tunisians as possible will be able to come and discover the exhibition, the artists, and the crafts, which is why we wanted it to last several months and be freely open. I sincerely hope that this type of project can be repeated in Tunisia and that this experience will inspire artists to initiate other projects in collaboration with craftspeople, and vice versa. Of course, I’m continuing discussions with the artists, and with some of them we’re already working on other projects in the continuity of Hirafen.

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Sonia Kallel, AJAR, 2023, Tissage Jacquard, Largeur : 300 cm ; Hauteur : entre 150 et 480 cm ; Longueur : 880 cm, Tissage : STIVEL, Monastir (collaboration avec Haifa Ben Salem), © Nicolas Fauqué pour Talan L’Expo

The “Hirafen” exhibition stands not only as a testament to artistic innovation and craftsmanship but also as a bridge between the past and the present, tradition and innovation, with each thread of collaboration weaving a narrative that speaks to the very essence of human creativity.

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Majd Abdel Hamid, Artisans of sensibility, 2023 (détail), Techniques mixtes sur papier, broderie, vidéo, photographie, Dimensions variables, © Nicolas Fauqué pour Talan L’Expo

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