Tunisia

Flesh and Blood

Writer

Sophie Chamas

Photographer

Sophia Baraket

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Considered one of the most renowned partnerships on the contemporary Arab dance scene, the siblings have engaged in a diversity of projects over the span of their nearly 20 year career, ranging from minimalistic dance choreographies and digital performances to biennials and socio-economic engagements.

One factor however, seems to underpin most of their professional endeavours: the act of observation. From the repetitive gestures of female potters at work in rural Tunisia that inspired ‘Laaroussa’, to ‘Wacl’s’ choreographic response to the mystical poems of Jalal Al-Din Rumi, Selma and Sofiane’s creations are the result of a meditative engagement with their personal, socio-political, economic and cultural surroundings.

The pair has spent their career repurposing their environments and circumstances for artistic use. The performance ‘Here(s)’, which Sofiane calls an ‘acceptance and transformation of absence,’ is one example. Two dancers appear in their separate apartments on one Skype screen, performing in real-time from the privacy of their personal spaces to a public audience seated in a theatre. The piece, the siblings explain in an accompanying text, produces ‘a new mobility both real and virtual,’ transforming distance through the Internet, into ‘a paradoxical mode of closeness.’

They have also turned Skype into a digital rehearsal studio. It is a space where they can meet and practice, defying distance and challenging dance’s need for corporeal interaction. ‘We are two distinct persons, but we really make one artist,’ the siblings write. ‘We have lived forever with this feeling of wholeness, completeness and achievement, only possible when we are two.’

Sofiane, three years his sister’s senior, was still experimenting with cinema when Selma began studying dance. In the evenings, she would recreate lessons for her brother, training him in classical techniques while their encouraging parents looked on, unaware that what looked like youthful experimentation would eventually evolve into one of the most respected dance collaborations in the region. Not long after their evening sessions began, Sofiane followed his sister into the Tunis National Academy for Music and Dance and, after completing their course, the two enrolled hand in hand in the National Dance Center of Tunis.

They eventually made their way to Paris, where they earned the Diplôme d’Etat d’Enseignement de la Danse. In Europe, the pair worked with the likes of the iconic jazz-choreographer Raza Hammadi in France and observed the styles and techniques of established European dancers like the Belgian Michèle Anne De Mey, while keeping their mind’s eye fixed on Tunisian icons like Hamadi Laghbabi, who shaped the profession of dance into something both desirable and attainable for their younger selves.

It wasn’t until 2004 that Selma and Sofiane conceived and executed their first original and independent performance, a critique of world dictators titled ‘Stop Boom’. The piece, Sofiane explains, ‘was meant to trigger a physical reaction from the bodies of the audience members.’ Artists and choreographers, he continues, should drag populations into social and civic life while using their art to develop the public sphere.

It was with this approach to art in mind that the siblings established the collective of artists and choreographers L’Art Rue in 2006, when Sofiane returned to Tunis. The collective’s goal is to conceive new artistic and socio-cultural practices in conversation with social and public space in Tunisia. ‘We felt we needed to start working on the emergencies of our own territory,’ he explains. Through L’Art Rue, the pair initiated Dream City in 2007, a biennial of contemporary art in public space. It purports to serve, Sofiane elaborates, ‘as a space of reflection, as a reaction to the crisis we as artists were experiencing, living in a territory lacking spaces for expression, creation and support.’

Dream City breathed new life into Tunis’ medina, which prior to the launch of the festival had been largely abandoned as a result of a mass outflow of people to the suburbs. Titled ‘Artists Facing Freedom’, the 2012 iteration of Dream City involved nine international art organisations, invited from as far and wide as Benin and the Netherlands, to apply their specific experiences and knowledge to the particularities of Tunisian sites.

Plenty of biennials ask artists to respond to public space and to create site-specific works in the hopes of challenging assumptions and facilitating social debate and discussion. Sofiane and Selma however, believe art can impose itself further, moving away from the exclusive realm of privileged intellectualism. In 2011, they journeyed to the village of Sejnane in northeastern Tunisia, where the practice of pottery is popular among rural Berber women, who draw on skills and knowledge passed down through generations as far back, legend has it, as the Stone Age.

In a part of the country crippled by unemployment, Sofiane and Selma saw an overlooked opportunity for potential socio-economic prosperity, initiating the project ‘Laaroussa’ (doll or bride in Berber). They created a pottery collective, bringing together ten artists with 60 female potters from Sejnane to teach the value of this ancient craft, develop it into an empowering profession and create contemporary art inspired by it.

Since February 2011, ‘Laaroussa’ has helped over 60 families develop themselves into a self-sufficient community equipped to fight socio-economic disenfranchisement. Watching the women extract clay from the earth, crush bricks and model their pots, transforming a meaningless raw material into a doll, plate or spoon, Sofiane and Selma found themselves witnessing a gestural retelling of the history of this Tunisian village. These gestures, Sofiane reflects, ‘are part of the story of the body, of a certain way of being in the world.’

It is hard to imagine when Sofiane and Selma find time to dance, given the extensive socio-cultural projects they are managing at home and abroad. When it comes to their own choreography, the artists are more interested in ‘experimentation and theme-based works rather than genre-driven ones,’ Sofiane comments. ‘We use the tools of genre to explore a certain posture and serve a certain experience. Our works have been more like spaces of creation for us – reflections upon a posture.’

This article appears in the issue41Buy Now