Mariem Besbes

The term ‘African textiles’ often brings to mind images of richly patterned cloth. Part of this stereotype is based on the very real variety of textile traditions practiced on the African continent. But it is worth remembering that Africa is geographically huge and its numerous cultures incredibly diverse. While ‘African art’ or ‘African design’ are phrases that tend to conjure memories of textile traditions now stored in museum collections and dubious forays into tourist art, both stereotypes are out of date.

Mariem Besbes is a good case in point. Born in Tunisia, Besbes grew up in Paris. She returned to Tunisia seven years ago to launch her design practice when injury forced her retirement from a career in contemporary dance. Her homeland is part of the Maghreb countries, which have close ties to French culture first established during colonisation of the region. This, coupled with North Africa’s proximity to Europe (at the closest point the Tunisia coast is just 85 miles from the Italian island of Sicily), contribute to the region’s diverse visual culture.

Tunisia is a country where mosques and European café culture co-exist in the country’s bustling capital, Tunis. Labyrinthine covered markets sell the spices and herbs you may expect, along with every style of blue jean imaginable. Besbes herself brings an equally eclectic range of experiences to her design practice. Her visual education began in Paris, where she studied applied art, complimented, upon her return to Tunisia, by a course in carpet weaving completed at the national handcraft emporium in Tunis. She then began working with natural dyes and local hand weavers to produce the mainstay of the collection she continues to develop today.

In the years that have passed since her return to Tunisia, Besbes has maintained close ties with Paris, exhibiting at the textile design fair for interiors – Maison & Objet – annually and her richly coloured throws and scarves are sold in European and Tunisian boutiques. Ironically, her sophisticated textiles have become a bit of a victim of their own success. She explains that in recent years the pressure of orders has meant that her life was “becoming a business of invoices with no time for feelings. Everything was about cost, size and I couldn’t develop possibilities.” Part of this challenge comes directly from her commitment to work with natural dyes and hand weavers. Buyers “see photos and want one exactly the same,” she explains of her frustration with a global market conditioned to expect the uniformity of machine production.

Besbes’ sustainable studio practice is a far cry from the ‘greenwashing’ that has become a common tactic in mainstream design. The term is coined by the PR industry and refers to companies who are making token gestures (such as adopting organic cotton or using recycled materials for one small element of a large collection) to claim sustainable design credentials for the sake of marketing. Today four women assist with weaving the cloth on floor looms in their homes, which Besbes then hand dyes in her studio. Wool, rather than cotton, is the primary fibre used – a legacy from the nomadic traditions of the region, which did not allow for the cultivation of crops in one place, but instead focused on portable resources such as sheep. Natural dyes such as henna and pomegranate, which Besbes explains all have a primary use in traditional medicine, are boiled before the cloth is dyed. Salt is used as a mordant.

There is also a strong influence from her previous career in contemporary dance that influences her textile design. I inquire if she has recorded the natural dye recipes she has recovered, for publication perhaps, or to teach younger students? “I would rather work as artist with imagination,” she explains. “Dance is linked to improvisation. Not explaining, but doing, doing, doing.” She admits, “I am not a scientific person. I work by instinct. The thing that moves me is creation and discovery.”

A recent experience working with an NGO (non-governmental organisation) to support women in rural craft practice in Tunisia confirmed this need to work in her own way. It was “social research, I couldn’t develop creativity with all the reports I had to write!” While “sharing knowledge” remains important, Besbes found the administrative burden of the project “did not give you enough time or the right breath to enter into the process of creation. I am not against NGO work because they help, but their priority is not art.”

While Besbes seems understandably reluctant to get caught up in bureaucracy, her eye for colour and texture mean her work has developed a following with the European design press. Her sophisticated use of bold colours is often set in surprising contrasts within the collection and the hand woven cloth she designs covers a remarkable range of textures from heavily textured blankets and throws to incredibly fine gauge scarves. One draw back to a studio visit is the overwhelming choice that faces you!

But intensive production has taken its toll recently and Besbes explains that she is now looking to change the priorities of her business. “I was making many, many scarves for shops but now I want to work differently. I want to develop a new way of working through exhibitions,” she offers in response to impossible requests to make her textiles uniform. She is also exploring further foreign markets and has work at ABC Carpet & Home store in New York City. The plan is to shift away from the volume of production her attendance fairs such as Maison & Object demanded, to “working with small series” that will allow her to “find new things by doing, not by explaining”. Embroidery on leather is a new interest, inspired by decorative elements of traditional Berber textiles, as well as developing loosely cut blouses for women.

Is her work appreciated within Tunisia? “The Paris market is easier”, she admits because of the contacts from her time living in the city. But Besbes explains that her work also sells well in countries where contemporary textile design enjoys an appreciative audience. “The English understand textile work and in Denmark they have more close ties to textiles than the French,” she observes of the contemporary market. Her commitment to hand production and a clear aesthetic seem to be enjoyed most by those who know a little about textiles. Her keen eye for presentation is also key to her work. “I want it like this,” she says as she looks around her beautiful studio of red brick and white washed walls, “not like a supermarket.”

Surface Design Journal (summer 2010: 22-27)