"Selma Feriani is a Tunisian gallerist leading her eponymous art gallery in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia. Mathqaf sat down with her to talk about her work, the challenges and advantages of building an art space in Tunisia and her views on the Tunisian art and museological landscape. Today, the Selma Feriani Gallery represents 18 artists, including Ziad Antar, Amel Bennys, Maha Malluh and Catalina Swinburn.
Mathqaf: Your background is in finance and you established your first art gallery over ten years ago. Could you tell us more about your journey in the art world?
Selma Feriani: Indeed, I grew up and studied in Tunis and then left for London to work at an investment firm. Eventually, I left finance and decided to open my own gallery in London in 2009 – this was quite a significant step for me, to leave my job and start a gallery in a city with a lot of competition. Although my background is in finance, I have always been involved in the arts through my family. We travelled to many exhibitions and auctions all the time, and my mother is a gallerist, too. So the art environment was very familiar to me before I started my own gallery. In 2013, I came across a beautiful space in Tunisia, an old convent, and I fell in love with it. I thought it would be perfect for a project space and to promote artists from North Africa. The underlying idea, at first, was to create a bridge between Europe and North Africa. That’s the beginning of my gallery in Tunis.
Mathqaf: Your gallery is, indeed, located in an exciting, unconventional space. What are the advantages of this type of a space that is radically different from the traditional white cube setting?
Selma Feriani: We are quite used to the white cube setting in the international contemporary art arena, and that setting definitely makes exhibition set-up easier. In our case, the situation is completely different as the convent is located in a conserved village. We cannot knock down walls or create a white cube or an open space. We must work with the architecture of the space, which is a number of rooms around a bastion. The village, Sidi Bou Said, is coloured white and blue, so this is what visitors see before they enter the gallery, the surroundings of the gallery play a role, too. I tried to make the space as white canvas as possible with minimal architecture and concrete floors and white walls.
The underlying idea with our space in Sidi Bou Said is that every artist who is invited to Tunisia to our residency will develop a special project to work with the city, the people and our space. So far most of the artists have been very excited about the space and the light in our gallery and they have created site-specific projects. This is something I really like about our space, the ability to create unique pieces of art and exhibitions that cannot be reproduced elsewhere.
Mathqaf: Considering the lack of arts infrastructure in Tunisia and the absence of strong public institutions, was it challenging for you to attract people into your gallery in the beginning?
Selma Feriani: Coming from London, a vibrant city with a great cultural infrastructure and arriving in Tunisia with very few galleries and independent spaces and no museums of contemporary art, it was very difficult to be working in such an environment. However, at the same time it gave us the opportunity to play different roles. Although we are a commercial space, we also function as a public space at the same time, and we produce contemporary art. We also try to educate the public because they are not necessarily used to such conceptual programmes. It was quite challenging in the beginning because it was something new and people did not know what exactly we were doing. Right now, however, we have an amazing audience and we attract a lot of people to our openings and they follow our artists. I think we succeeded in creating a micro-hub around the city and Tunisia, but also within the region.
Mathqaf: How do you approach programming as a gallery? How many exhibitions do you organise per year? How do you choose the artists you exhibit?
Selma Feriani: We have a programme of five exhibitions per year and we represent 18 artists. Every artist will have a solo show every two years, and the programme is prepared 12 months in advance. We welcome artists to our residency to develop their projects here in Tunisia, which makes it quite a long process. Concerning the programme, we work very closely with our artists including the research process and the development of the idea. This is usually done either in-house or with a curator. Quite often we also invite curators to work with artists. A recent example of this type of collaboration is the Thameur Mejri exhibition with Matthieu Lelièvre from Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon.
Mathqaf: How would you describe your relationship and approach to the artists you represent? It sounds like it is very intimate and goes beyond merely representing artists at fair, for instance.
Selma Feriani: The relationship and synergy between an artist and a gallerist is a mysterious one, I think. The human aspect is absolutely fundamental for a positive collaboration and a long-time relationship between the gallery and the represented artist. I would say our relationship is very close, we discuss a lot and we try to make sure the artist achieves their goals.
Considering the artists we represent, it takes time to develop relationships. Often, it takes me a long time to decide to invite an artist to join our gallery so that we can develop their career and work with them long-term together. I try to proceed step by step and have my eyes always open to different exhibitions around the world including graduate shows.
Mathqaf: Do you have any particular criteria, when you decide to invite a new artist to join your gallery? Or is it intuitive?
Selma Feriani: To be honest, I cannot really describe it. Fundamentally, I think it is very personal. Each gallery has their own identity and my gallery, for instance, represents my taste and the way I see contemporary art. Everything I show I would also like to own – so I am very convinced by the art we represent.
Mathqaf: One of the characteristics that distinguishes an art gallery from other art institutions is the presence of collectors. How was it for you to build the group of collectors around your gallery?
Selma Feriani: The collectors are, indeed, an important element in the art industry. For us, the collectors represent the people who will validate the quality of the work when they decide to acquire it. To acquire an artwork also means that you are engaged with the artist and want to follow their career and to become part of their development process. We started with a database of collectors in London. In Tunisia, the circle of collectors is very small, and collectors are used to acquire modern art, mainly paintings. It took a few years to be established here and to place video art, installations and photography into the Tunisian collections. As I said earlier, we try to educate, but we also try to convince people and collectors that conceptual art is also important and worth collecting. Generally, we try to establish a dialogue with our collectors and make them part of the Selma Feriani family so that they are involved too.
Mathqaf: You have been active for about ten years now. Considering the beginning and now, do you see any differences in the easiness or difficulty of representing artists from West Asia and North Africa?
Selma Feriani: At the beginning we saw very few shows exhibiting art from the Middle East or North Africa in the US or Europe, and a similar phenomenon can be observed with Chinese or Indian art, for instance. It takes time and it needs multiple people, who are dedicated to promoting artists from the region. Generally speaking, I think it has been quite slow. There was no boom – which I think is also good, because there was no bubble. Nowadays the situation is better, of course, a lot of artists are collected by museums and there are a number of solo shows in prestigious museums. I remain confident and I think we are on the right track.
Mathqaf: Considering arts infrastructure and institutions in Tunisia, what should be done to better the situation there?
Selma Feriani: Tunisia is a specific place. Geographically, we are very close to Europe and the Middle East with an amazing history that usually caters well for artists and researchers. So, I think we have a great start to develop artworks, absolutely. The issue with the institutions and museums, unfortunately, is related to the government. The government should have a vision concerning the state of the arts. I hope that at some point we will have a museum of modern and contemporary art here in Tunisia, especially since the collection is already here: the government has been acquiring works for decades. Some private foundations are doing a fantastic job, for instance the Kamel Lazaar Foundation with their experimental space B7L9 Art Station. I hope that we will have more commercial spaces as private galleries can help artists to develop their work and place them into the larger framework and field, so hopefully there will be a new generation of gallerists in Tunisia soon.
We also try to develop our public programmes so we can have more performances and interventions and so on. We are also building a new gallery space in a new area with a much larger exhibitionary space.
Mathqaf: What kind of future plans do you have? We have heard you are re-opening your space in London, for instance.
Selma Feriani: Yes, we were supposed to open in London last June, but unfortunately with the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to postpone this. Hopefully, we can open in June 2021. We will present three exhibitions in London and five in Tunisia. I think it is important to be back in London as we have our first clients there, but also many institutional contacts and a wider public. In Tunisia, I hope to grow our business and build a white cube space too. I also strongly believe in the importance of having physical spaces, although I welcome the increase of online galleries, but I think there is a great power in the physical space: to enjoy and experience art, to view it, and to build relationships through it."
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