Hardly Fragile: Tunisian Glass Artist’s Effort Displays Women’s Strength

Years ago, artist Sadika Keskes became transfixed with fire. In glass, she discovered a medium that brought her into direct contact with the element. The atmosphere, the heat, the motion ignited something within her.

“Glass is a very lively material. That means that when we work on it, it is moving,” Keskes says. “And movement, for me, is hyper important in all my creations and in my lifestyle, because movement generates development and creation. So, without movement, it’s death.”

Keskes, whose delicate features are framed by her thick dark hair, is credited with reviving the art of glass-blowing in Tunisia and breathing innovation into the field over the past few decades. Constant, fluid movement has fed not only her creativity but also the development of her successful commercial art enterprises, now employing 30 workers. With Tunisia’s revolution, she foresees new frontiers for creative expression and avenues for artists to help rebuild their country. Unable to sit back, she is, as always, on the move. Through “Women, Show Your Muscles,” an artisanal initiative for women in the economically strained interior of the country, she hopes to precipitate their self-sufficiency.

Making Future History

Keskes has a large white stucco complex on the fertile outskirts of Tunis, the country’s capital. From her showroom, sunlight strikes through shelves upon shelves of green, pastel pink, blue and other colored pitchers, plates, lanterns and vases — all made from recycled glass. A floor above, there’s a tiled Moorish events hall, the grounds also include workshops with brick kilns and a spacious exhibition gallery.

As a child, while Keskes attended school in the old quarter of Sfax, on Tunisia’s southeastern coast, at lunchtime she went to her aunt’s house where she would watch her cousin replicate the works of the famous French sculpture Auguste Rodin. Her artisan family also exposed her to painting and woodworking, in which her father specialized. Later, as a fine arts student concentrating in ceramics, she saw a short film about glasswork and became hooked. In 1984, she traveled to Murano, Italy, a renowned center of glassblowing, where she trained in glass art, then the only woman in her program.

Keskes had the opportunity to remain in Italy. But something called her home. She turned down a job with a great master, saying she felt burdened by the centuries of glasswork in Venice. “It is impossible for you to create things that are different. You suffocate, totally,” she says in French. “I wanted to reunite with my culture… I wanted to come back to Tunis to come closer to my culture. I want to create something different. I wanted to work with glass but not in the Venetian way. I wanted to create something new.” An archaeology aficionado and observer of cultures, she sees a continuity with earlier ages, gleaning meaning from the past and tradition. But what’s produced now, is that “something new.” She says, once again, it’s about movement. “Today, we are making our future history,” she says.

What she learned in Murano, she says, was not enough and she knew she’d have to continue refining her skills in her own space. She got a 10,000 Tunisian dinar loan from a state program that allocated funds to recent graduates and artisans who launched enterprises. Her brother agreed to cosign the loan, serving as the guarantor if she ever defaulted from payment. “If you don’t have a brother or another person to sign, it is not possible to get the money,” she says. “It is very important because not all young people are lucky regarding this.”

She worked out of a tiny workshop, turning to any and all sources that would furnish her operation. She went to factories to buy second-hand fireproof machines, constructed her own oven and made her own tools. And she only used recycled glass. “I practically worked in the red for five years. I did not make profits. I had to close down two or three times,” she says. Additionally, she had to create awareness around her line of glasswork. “It was really difficult because people culturally do not make the difference between mechanically-made glass and handmade glass. So, my prices were more expensive,” she says. At the same time, to supplement her income, she taught fine arts for many years.

Keskes had some sales in shops, participated in fairs and her mother aided by giving her pieces as gifts to the family. Her sister, who was an independent commercial agent, also helped by selling some of the artwork. At one point, she had to stop working with glass for a year, because she had to repay her loan, and took up designing clothes. It was the innovation and connection to her culture that she had so earnestly chased that ultimately became her greatest asset. Migrating away from merely copying Venetian molds, she searched for something new. She combined glass and Tunisian silver, with its distinct design and quality. That something new began to fetch her profits.

After about seven years, she moved to a new place in Ras Tabia, a more popular location than her earlier site. She also started to get some recognition when her work was featured in the media and many films, which she calls her only form of marketing. The director of a film financed by the tourism ministry was dumbfounded that Keskes wasn’t better known. He helped her move to La Marsa, a tourist district near the sea where she remains until today. She again borrowed another loan from the state investment channel, this time, for 250,000 Tunisian dinars to build on the La Marsa plot. The cap amount for arts and crafts loans was 10,000 dinars, as she had first received. But she needed a bigger sum to expand this time around, so in her application, she represented her outfit as an industrial enterprise. That money paid for the initial structures, and later with the profits she made from the growing glass sales, she created the sprawling complex that now stands.

To Keskes, her advancement as an artist is seemingly inseparable from her entrepreneurial success. “I think that the most important thing is that the engine of development is creativity. Each time that I created something good — that changed the enterprise. Because, as you look through the development stages of my enterprise, you’d find the work of silver and glass, then when I was in Ras Tabia, I created objects with forged iron,” she says, introducing another take on the form. In her collections, there are her own creations and sculptures that she herself makes as well as mass products which she designs but that her team manufactures. In essence, creativity ensured sustainability. That must be fortified as well with resolve to withstand the difficult times. “First, there is passion, but also I believed in my work, and I was sure that there was need for resistance,” she says. One must be able to resist hardships, she says, such as long bouts of not having any money. “You cannot establish an enterprise, especially the innovative type, and think it would work in a second.”

Keskes’ inventiveness led her to take out a third loan to copyright and patent stackable, iridescent glass cubes that she created. International copyrighting is expensive and she needed funds to register the design. The cubes, of all hues, are not just for aesthetics. They can be used to build walls and when filled with water can conduct the temperature for the setting. Keskes says they reflect the future of central heating systems. It has helped her multipliy her sales 15-times over, she says. Unlike the other handmade wares she offers, she subcontracts the cube production to other industrial firms, which make tens of thousands of the objects to meet the skyrocketing demand.

Through her design and production center she has passed on the art of glassblowing to about 200 people. With growing interest, she’s mulling over the idea of establishing a formal training facility to prepare the next generation of glass artists.

Free is Beautiful

On the flip side to all that Keskes had achieved, there was the dark undercurrent of functioning under the repressive regime of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The constriction of open expression took its toll. Though she did create, the context was far from optimal. “My work is very related to culture; it is not merely industrial. So, as artists, we suffocate,” she says. “Everything was going towards pressure, not expansion. By the end, I almost had depression, I rarely went out and it was a dreadful life.”

She can catalogue countless examples of how Ben Ali’s machinations pervaded even her artistic abode. There was the time when Keskes spent the entire day being interrogated by police about a play, performed at her center, that had political themes. Another time, she was asked to sign a propaganda letter in showing the arts community’s support for the president. And once officials insisted that she hang Ben Ali’s photograph in her studio when Morocco’s queen came to visit. (She refused on both counts.) Government handlers also hovered over any civic efforts such as when she wanted to set up environmental or artisan groups. “We are controlled to the extreme. Whenever I organized an event, the police would be here,” she says. “There was intimidation all the time.”

The choked creativity and authorities’ ceaseless surveillance prompted Keskes’ decision to relocate to the Greek island of Crete, where she also has a shop. But then, a month later, the revolution broke out.

“The most beautiful thing is the street has become free,” Keskes says. Rather than flight, she turned her gaze inward, deep into her newly unfettered country. “What I started doing right after the revolution is that I started traveling across the country. I would go see young people, and participate in the sociocultural activities, not only in my center in Tunis, but also in other places to which we did not have access before. So, that was a great source for inspiration for me.”

Ask Keskes for signs of post-revolutionary Tunisia, and she points to the red woolen shawl draped across her shoulders and the gray rug beneath her red-leather ballet slippers. Driven by her desire to contribute to society, she spearheaded a movement that is now an official association to train women within Tunisia’s interior, which is where the revolution was ignited but where the population still experiences high unemployment and socioeconomic woes. The program’s name comes out more as a motto, “Women, show your muscles.” (In French: “Femmes, montrez vos muscles.’ In Arabic: “Shammar ala dra’k ya mra.”)

Keskes’s groups buys wool, she makes the designs and the women wash and then weave the material into textiles. There are men working with them as well, she says. But true to her form, she connects sociocultural activities with an enterprising dimension. She says some of the women have been without jobs for decades. It’s not about donations or charity, but instead she says the goal is supporting them to make a living through their own work and to eventually create their own profitable entities. Part of that requires stressing quality work. “We show them how designs should be made and then they become independent and they enter into the economic dynamic,” she says. The effort itself is a product of the revolution, since Keskes points out that she would have faced governmental harassment attempting to establish such activities under Ben Ali’s rule.

Keskes notes that artists also contributed to the dictator’s fall, through demonstrations and other acts opposing the regime. The revolution has heralded in an explosion of expression across various modes, from film, painting, photography, theater and more. She says the creative community will continue to play a role as the country redefines itself amid this rush of newfound voices. “The Tunisian society has never been in need of art and culture as it does today, because it is the only thing that will move people’s minds,” she says. “Because, without cultural development, you cannot achieve economic development.” Through culture, she says, minds can be opened. “If we do not work on this, society will not move forward. The fall of the regime is not enough. Revolution is now.”

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