The "Artist of the Month" section is back and this month AMI invites you to discover Rahma Naili, a young artist from Bizerte (Tunisia) and based in Paris (France). In her work, she plays with materials by subjecting them to all sorts of experiments (collages, painting, embossing, engraving, printing), reflecting the lived experiences of each individual person.
Rahma is a true rising star of Tunisian contemporary art, and she is part of this new generation of African artists trained in Africa who are breaking onto the international art scene.
Rahma, could you introduce yourself in a few words?
I am a young visual artist, passionate about art since childhood, throughout which my family has encouraged me a lot. I am committed to art - the love of art - it is, in my opinion, the only way to dream in this world.
Let's talk a little bit about geography and identity! There is this eternal opposition between the Maghreb and the rest of the African continent, and yet the Maghreb is indeed part of Africa. Do you consider yourself to be first and foremost a “Maghreb artist” or do you prefer to be presented as an “African artist” in the broadest sense? And why is that?
I am a Tunisian, maghrébin (North African) and African artist. I consider myself to be an “African” artist in the broadest sense since the Maghreb is part of Africa. We tend to forget that in the Maghreb we are also African! Africa is also a diversity of origins, languages, colours, traditions and cultures. This is precisely what Africa's richness is all about!
Can you tell us about your academic art training?
I am a graduate of the Higher Institute of Fine Arts of Tunis, where I got a Master of Research in Plastic Arts (2016) and a Bachelor degree in Plastic Arts - Engraving Specialty (2014). During my academic studies, I had the chance to follow the teaching of great Tunisian professors - among whom my master Nabil Saouabi who taught me drawing and painting as well as engraving. He also inspired me a lot to pursue my artistic path and it is thanks to him that I chose engraving as my main discipline. I consider Nabil Saoubi as a true artistic reference.
Do many young Tunisian artists choose to study in Tunisia? Or do they prefer to go abroad to pursue their artistic aspirations?
It depends! I think most of them prefer to study abroad, like in Europe, to pursue their artistic aspirations, in Paris especially (a city that has been considered the capital of art for centuries) because it is a cultural, artistic city, which inspires us a lot. You have access to art museums, galleries and fairs.
Is the status of artist in Tunisia a difficult status to have? How are you perceived by the rest of Tunisian society?
I don't know exactly! I think it depends on the person, maybe it's easy for one person and difficult for another. I was a beginner when I started exhibiting in Tunisia and before coming to Paris. I had participated in great exhibitions and events, such as my residency at the Centre des Arts Vivants in Rades (Tunisia), but I had not yet had the opportunity to exhibit in major galleries.
And concerning the status of artist in Tunisia, I am also asking this question! With which criteria can we already define an artist?! And who gives us this status of artist? Is it the art critics, the gallery owners, the collectors, the public or the "Union of Tunisian Plastic Artists"?!
Most of the Tunisian society is not very interested in artistic life and especially when it comes to plastic art, people don't really know what it is all about! They don't know who our contemporary artists are. Contemporary Tunisian art remains reserved for artistic circles (art students, gallery owners, art critics, collectors, artists and their relatives).
Now let's get to the heart of the matter, tell us about your work and your aspirations. What exactly do you do and what are you working on right now?
I have been working for several years on the issue of identity through different plastic techniques such as engraving, collage, drawing, silkscreen printing and painting. My artistic approach is based on an aesthetics of fragility where I try to reach what remains hidden behind appearances, the soul of the objects and people around me. I use paper to transmit the ephemeral part that dwells in each of us.
At the moment I am working on a series of mixed techniques. This particularly difficult period of confinement for all of us has allowed me to surrender to our relationship with others, to the importance of society, to moments of sharing and to our relationship to time and space.
Why did you choose to come to France to base yourself?
First of all, it was my artistic residency in Rades that brought me to France, allowing me to participate in the competition for the residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, via the programme of the Tunisian Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Then, I made the choice to stay in France to develop my artistic career and I signed an artistic agent contract with the Wasanii Ya Leo agency.
Is it easy for a young African artist to break into the European contemporary art market? What about the Tunisian art market?
I don't think so! It's very difficult, especially when you're young and a beginner in this field! It's all the more difficult when you don't know the artists' networks - whether it's in Tunisia or here in France. I finished my artistic studies in 2016 and I immediately started exhibiting, first in Tunisia, then later in 2018 in Europe. I was lucky because I met Cindy Olohou, one of the creators of the Wasanii Ya Leo art agency (of which I became a member). Today, thanks to this opportunity to have an art agent who knows the art market well, I think I can have an easier time breaking into the European contemporary art market.
You have had the opportunity to participate in residencies and to exhibit abroad, can you tell us more about these experiences?
I finished my studies in 2016 and started to exhibit in several art galleries in Tunisia - the Gallery of the National Library of Tunisia, the Elbirou Gallery, the Cité de la culture and at the National Bardo Museum as part of the JACC 2019 (Journées des Arts Contemporains de Cartage / Cartage Contemporary Art Days).
I have also been selected to participate in several artistic residencies in Tunisia at the Centre des arts vivants de Rades (2017-2018) and in France at the Cité Internationale des Arts de Paris (2018-2019). Thanks to this last opportunity I was able to participate in artistic events and exhibitions in Europe - including several in Paris (at the Ministry of Economy and Finance - Bercy, at the Village Suisse, at the H Gallery) and in Barcelona in Spain (El Gatascopio Gallery) in the context of the second edition of 21*21 of engraving. More recently, I participated in the 7th Fête de l'Estampe (printing festival) in Paris.
Where can we see your work?
What do you wish to achieve in the next five years?
I would like to have more experiences in other countries of the world. I would like to visit some African countries and participate in contemporary art exhibitions and fairs such as the Dak'Art Biennale. I would also like to have a personal workshop to focus more on plastic research and to realize personal exhibitions in Tunisia in particular, but also in the rest of Africa and Europe.
What advice would you give to young African artists?
I don't have any advice to give to young African artists because I don't feel I'm in a position to give advice! I can, however, remind them to not give up despite the difficulties. Stay positive and optimistic because you are the realizers of your dreams and wherever you are, you'll get there one day!