Ridha ZILI (Tunisia, 1943-2011)
Tunisia from times past. 30 Photographs.
Donation Claude & France Lemand 2018.
Ridha Zili was born in Monastir on June 3, 1943 and died on April 17, 2011 in Tunis.
In 1961, he worked for the National Company for Publishing and Distribution as an assistant for journalist and photographer Pierre Olivier. In 1967 he partnered with Mustafa Bouchoucha to create the photographic division of the Ministry of Culture as well as the National Photographic Library. He also in 1967 published his first book of poetry, Ifrikya ma pensée, through Editions Pierre-Jean Oswald.
From 1969 to 2010, he organized dozens of photography exhibitions in Tunisia and around the world (Egypt, Algeria, Hungary, Germany, Morocco, Iraq, Qatar, Canada, Spain, Azerbaijan, Moldavia, Russia and Libya). He won first prize for his photography in 1985 and was the medal recipient for the Order of Cultural Merit in 1994.
He remains one of the artist photographers who, through his sensitivity and thought, has left an undeniable influence on a part of the artistic life of our times. The beauty and emotional power in his work comes from a contradictory duplicity of an intimacy of intense expressions on the fringes of the laws of nature and an inseparable attachment to the people and things from his land.
Hatem Bourial, The Enchanting World of our Memories.
Preface to the book RIDHA ZILI, Tunisia. Portraits and Crafts from long ago, Zili éditions, Tunis, 2018.
Through the eyes of Ridha Zili, the Tunisian palette and it’s little known treasures re-emerge pure. It’s as if these gestures and faces were touched by grace. They seem shaped by light, adorned by eternity. Through the souks and the countryside, recreating a time long past in the medinas, this photographer brings our recent past back to life, capturing in tender moments the sublime work of artisans and more than anything else, capturing the indescribable traditions that weave together the threads of our daily life. In the olive groves, the oases or the steppes, the people continue their work, day in and day out.
Barefoot shepherds in the shade of hundred year old trees and women wrestling with the ancestral break emerge resolute, as if they were living in another time. Guiding the fish, the fishermen nimbly unroll their nets. The skiffs and the techniques they use remind us of our distant heritage, shared by the people of the Mediterranean. These are the thousand and one faces, and just as many gestures, costumes or traditions that return as clear as day in this book. A confluence of esthetics and documentary, Zili explores the captivating place of our nostalgia. The geniuses with clay creating shapes from their imagination; the weavers creating their works with the simplicity of their materials and an explosion of colors; carpenters and sieve makers keep the traditions alive. The artisans’ anthem reverberates from the lively souks and the calm medinas. In the labyrinth of alleyways we also find the traditional small merchants from another era: the milkman on his bicycle going door to door, those selling warm bread that’s always ready, water bearers and spice sellers, trash collectors and hardware dealers….
Zili is able to bring us back to the intimate chaos of our medinas with a great deal of tenderness. From Monastir to Cap Bon, from Sfax to Tunis, from Djerba to the Sahel, he captures the dozens of fragments of eternity. To see this, one needs only to leaf through this book to find the majestic image of the burnouses from the south, the haïks that covered Tunisian women long ago, the in comparable radiance of their wedding dresses, and so many attitudes, looks and scenes that seem sculpted from the Tunisian soil. These photos by Ridha Zili form a remarkable collection. Slices of life and popular memory unite in a harmony rarely achieved. This record of Tunisia in the time between the sixties and the eighties takes us back to the time when the country is heading toward modernity, fully evolving.
This makes these photographs even more precious, because the old medinas that we see no longer exist. Just like the dozens of artisanal shops carried away with the winds of time… What remains is the eternal Tunisia: this invisible continuity that mixes Punic, Latin, Berber and Arab heritage and nest it in the folds of fabric, the fibula of a peasant woman, the joy of the harvest, the jewels of a bride or a spinning wheel.
The works of Ridha Zili are also a vibrant testimony to Tunisian women. In the medinas and in the countryside, they are attractively presented, a living symbol of the millennia buried deep in our memories. To the glory of the olive grove or the ceramics of Nabeul, to pay tribute to an art de vivre and to those who perpetuate it, to immortalize the hands of a potter or the odd chop of a butcher, this photographer is at the same time historian and indispensable witness to a reality that he captures in its fragility just at the moment where it hovers between the forgotten and everlasting.
These portraits and craftsmen from long ago form a veritable gallery where the medinas and the land are the stage. Proud knights and hieratic Bedouins, olive pickers and the fishermen from the sea blend with craftsmen whose hands won’t forget the legacy of centuries to the secret world of women who continue the oral traditions and also the medinas, their doors, their souks and the spaces covered with arches and domes.
Through winding streets and draft-proof alleyways, to the heart of a labyrinth of colors and perfumes, Ridha Zili immerses us in a world that is far away yet so very familiar: that of the trades of the past, from the medinas of the past that are unshakeable, and we continue to invest in our desire to find this past that has shaped who we are.