The craft industry: a renaissance at its fingertips

February 10, 2017
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The lecture theatre in Nabeul’s Institut des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Institute) is full to the brim. A number of craft workers have settled down among the teachers and young students. And for good reason – the famous Italian designer and winner of the ‘Compasso d’oro’, Giulio Vinaccia, has come to talk about design.

Vinaccia was invited by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) as part of the ‘Med Creative Tunisia’ project, an initiative financed by the European Union under its ‘Creative Mediterranean’ regional programme, designed to foster clusters in the cultural and creative industries in the southern Mediterranean, thus contributing to the region’s economic growth.

The purpose of the meeting is to unite the students and craft workers who, as a group, will put together all the development strategy required, including product design, visual identity and communication. Giulo Vinaccia seeks to prove to the audience that design can work as a catalyst for craft workers. He believes that the arts can make headway by trying to find a compromise between preserving national identity through the pursuit of forms of expression drawn from a rich heritage and the need to meet the demands of modern life, which is moving constantly towards globalisation.

Selling a story

He explains to the audience that in crafts, “people buy into the history of the object” – its intangible value. But it is a question of ability, not the object itself. “Design can save the craft industry,” he says. The craft sector in Tunisia, which employs 350,000 people and contributes up to 3.9% of the country’s GDP, is facing a serious crisis following the collapse in tourism. “A number of craft workers have had to shut up shop because the tourism sector is in such a depressed state,” explains Ms Sana Ben Mansour, manager of the Regional Office for Crafts in Nabeul and the regional focus point of the project. “The tourism crisis in Tunisia has been a serious blow for the crafts.” The sector, which sold its wares to tourists in the country’s traditional souks, has been devastated as tourists have vanished from the area following the terrorist attacks in the country.

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Signs of slowing

It is important to point out that the Tunisian crafts industry has been showing signs of slowing for years. “It is a reputable industry that has been abandoned by young people because it offers few career prospects and its products still come up against stereotyping,” says Hichem Messaoudi, director of the Institut des Beaux-Arts de Nabeul and a member of the Cluster.  That’s where “the Tableware Cluster in Nabeul, which came to the rescue of devastated crafts, comes into its own,” argues Talel Sahmim, national coordinator of the Med Creative Tunisia project. This EU-funded project launched in 2015 and focuses on a dozen craft workers, designers, tradespeople and manufacturers. A steering committee made up of the financial backers’ representatives, ministries, professional groups and observer-members keeps a close eye on the dissemination of a new form of entrepreneurial culture in the region.

A production centre

Talel says Nabeul was chosen on the grounds that the region is considered the country’s main centre for ceramic production, and that the art of ceramics reaches as far back as ancient times in the area. The segment to develop is tableware, as it is those products that are in great demand both locally and abroad, he adds. Of 24 candidates, only 12 were kept. From market analysis to development strategy, “ground-breaking training, skill development, integration and financing activities are run for the benefit of craft workers, artist-designers, tradespeople and suppliers,” Talel Sahmim says.

The project coordinator explains that emphasis was placed on design, the Achilles’ heel of the Tunisian ceramics trade. This was a shrewd choice, as Nabeul’s pottery sector supplies grand Tunisian homes with earthenware jars, dishes, bowls, couscous steamers, basins, and so on. In short, it provides a fine array of pottery pieces for use in the kitchen and at home. “The problem is that over the years we have continued to offer articles in the same shapes and with the same colour glazes: yellow, green and brown,” he adds. Hence why they are working towards “developing two or three new collections per craft worker”.

Innovation and creation

Habib Chabbouh, craft worker and managing director of the Maison de l’artisan (House of craft), cites innovation as the first issue that the Cluster helped him to solve. “Owing to a lack of innovation, creation and new design, ceramic articles have not changed since the 60s. A craft worker cannot be innovative or creative alone. The Tableware Cluster has enabled us to overcome weaknesses of that kind,” he explains. “We are working together so that we can benefit from each other’s expertise. We’ve succeeded in producing three or four pieces a year, whereas for a long time we worked on only a few items each year.”

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Fayçal Karkeni, managing director of STE Poterie Karkeni, sings from the same hymn sheet. “The Cluster has enabled us to take a number of training courses. We feel that we’ve advanced as craft workers on several levels,” he says.

Having traditionally sold his wares on the local market, he is now broadening his horizons. “Our goal is to take part in professional exhibitions with a view to investing in international markets.”

Karkeni, who has five retail outlets, does not shut himself away in his workshop when he’s coming up with new craft models. Students, trainees, artists, academics and specialists are investing in this ancestral temple, and a new synergy has already taken form, as new life has been breathed into pieces and techniques that have been tried and tested as society and their clientèle’s tastes have shifted.

“Nowadays we make beautiful things, but that’s not enough; we have to show them, too,” he adds. With the help of the Cluster, some craft workers went to the Foire de Strasbourg (a trade fair in Strasbourg) last September with a new collection of ceramic pieces. The fact that they had shown their work there made other craft workers want to take part in other trade fairs, such as Ambiante, Messe Frankfurt, Maison et Objets and Artigiano.

“Showing my work at the Foire de Strasbourg was a turning point in my career,” says Nour Bellalouna, an artist-designer and managing director of the company Belle Lune. The fine arts graduate developed a taste for working with ceramics following a traineeship with a crafts worker. “I have gained a lot from the Cluster. Before, I worked in the traditional Tunisian style. Now that I have been trained in design, I am able to develop new collections. I have learned new artistic techniques, but I’ve also learned how the whole export chain works.” What is more, “direct contact with European customers in Strasbourg gave me the opportunity to see how much my products are worth,” she says, as she glazes a piece which is part of an order from Europe. This state of mind has greatly contributed to the renaissance in Tunisian crafts, a growing industry which is enjoying an increasingly important place in the economic dynamics of the region.  

Text and photos by Chokri Bennessir

To find out more

Creative Mediterranean 

Med Creative Tunisia