Ridha Zili

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.

Copyright © Galerie Claude Lemand 2012.

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