The work of Tunisian American artist, Alia Bensliman, is wide ranging. It integrates and contrasts the Eastern symbolism and experiences of her native North Africa with the peculiarly American and Western impressions of her married life in New Jersey. But it also follows the emotional journeys of a woman exploring the meanings behind her experiences.
Of her upcoming show, “Mind Stroll” at the Artworks Community Gallery from Nov. 3-24, she says, “When you go to that show, you really go through my brain and see all the many and different thoughts I have, and it is a sort of roller coaster of thoughts. It’s going to be interesting even for me when I go there and see all my pieces hanging in the same space—it is beautiful and also challenging.”
Bensliman has always loved to tell stories, and because she is dyslexic, the storytelling always happened through art. “It was difficult for me to write or read,” and “my art was sort of therapy, so I didn’t feel really different from people who could write.”
Bensliman traces her artistic talent to her grandmothers, both artists. As a youngster, she took lots of art classes, but the artistic technique she still uses today started to develop as a teen while she talked on the phone with friends. “I was doing many lines and felt like I was putting my feelings in those lines,” she says. “The drawing was detailed, with textures, lines, and dots—not light and shade—and many, many colors, with pens, pencils, and markers.”
And even today, Bensliman says, “If you come to my studio, I have hundreds of different types of pens—I always call myself a pen-aholic.
Usually Bensliman starts a painting with a subject in mind that she develops organically through intricate symbolism and arabesque lines that weave tales. “Then I start developing the idea and the symbols, and add color and texture,” using pens with different thicknesses and different types of ink and more recently, watercolors. She likens her process to that of a writer, starting with a subject, then adding description and plot.
But when she doesn’t exactly know what to do, she says, “I just start putting shapes on paper, and from those shapes I would develop the story of the drawing. It depends on the days if I want to do something specific or just let my mood guide me.”
The newest larger painting that will appear in the upcoming show is titled “Chess of Life.” “I’m trying to analyze my thoughts in my drawing—it talks about how you go through the death.” She explores the idea of being judged at death and whether a person ends up ultimately in paradise or in hell.
“It is a way for me to be jealous of the 100-percent believer,” she says, noting that “death is easier for them.” Asserting that her attitude toward religion is respectful, and she considers herself a believer, she adds, “sometimes I question a lot of things.”
To explore her questions, the process of drawing becomes for her one of psychoanalysis, “when you analyze your thinking.” She describes the attitude of the painting as “a sarcasm to myself, not to other people.”
Much of her work uses arabesque lines that Bensliman calls “Arabic geometry” or “Muslim geometry.” Fascinated by such lines, found in some churches and mosques in Mediterranean countries, she started painting them more when she moved to the United States after her marriage “because of a sort of nostalgia that I feel.” She misses the “beautiful architectures of the old mosques we have in Tunisia” and “the smell in Tunisia” and colors that vary by region.
In a painting titled “Nostalgia,” Bensliman introduced the colors of Tunis, “green, red, and white, with an accent of gold and silver,” in the traditional wedding clothes of a Tunisian bride. She has Arabic letters and Berber symbols in her hair, the latter drawing from a Berber custom where a groom “used to take the best tattoo artist to his bride’s family” and instead of exchanging jewelry or wedding rings, the bride would get a tattoo. “Nostalgia” also derives from the West, as it uses golden “bubblies” to highlight the vibrant blue background surrounding the bride.
Nostalgic for Tunisia and a big fan of Berber traditions, Bensliman got a wrist tattoo with Berber symbols after she moved to the United States. On this tattoo a palm leaf signifies union between male and female; a moon and stars, a mother who has children; and flies, a protective symbol to “take off the evil eye.”
The Artworks show will include about 25 pieces, some large, some small. These reflect not only her thoughts about the present but her many and varying life experiences.
Bensliman’s mother is recently retired from a career as a speech therapist and professor of speech therapy at a university in Tunis. Her father continues his work in dental surgery, but is working about halftime.
“I belonged to a very interesting family artistically and politically,” Bensliman says. Her maternal grandmother, Asma Rebai, fought for women’s rights in Tunisia, and her grandfather, Azouz Rebai, served as Tunisia’s Secretary of Youth and Culture when Tunisia gained its independence from France. Asma was an artist, but had never showed it to her family until her husband died, when Bensliman was young. Despite Asma’s own reticence and shyness about her art, she had different ideas for her granddaughter. “She was showing me a lot of her creations when I was young and really encouraging me to be outside and show my own art,” Bensliman says.
Having drawn and painted throughout her school years, Bensliman decided to go to a fine arts school after she graduated from high school, where she earned a degree in product design and modeling. “I decided on product design because I didn’t see myself behind a desk. I love creating and doing sculptures—I’m a very active person,” she says. Her first job was with architects, where she drew miniature views of the insides of houses and buildings to help clients envision what the completed construction would look like.
Bensliman met her Khaled, an environmental engineer at Sadat Associates in Trenton, at his cousin’s wedding. He and his family had moved to Bethesda, Maryland, when he was 11, but she knew all his cousins in Tunisia. They started dating during his visit that summer 10 years ago, and they married a little over a year later when Bensliman was 25. They have two children, a son who will be 6 in February and is in kindergarten at Sharon Elementary School. Her daughter was born in September.
After marriage, she and her husband moved to New Jersey, first to an apartment in Plainsboro and then to Robbinsville. While Bensliman was adjusting to her new country, culture, and language (although her English was fluent when she arrived), she put aside art for a couple of years. But when she was pregnant with her son, her creative urges came to fore, and instead of pursuing her design career, she decided to focus more on painting and the jewelry design she does using recycled magazine paper to create paper beads with different shapes.
Right after she delivered her son, she started working on “Motherhood”—her favorite piece so far. “It talks about how beautiful it is becoming a mother, especially the first experience, with the first child. At the same time I had a lot of questioning: it’s not like adopting a pet. I was afraid a lot: of having a child, of how am I going to raise him; am I going to be a good parent or not? At the same time, it was a blessing: having a small human being inside my belly.”
The symbols in the painting combine flowers, watching eyes, a heart, and warm and cooler colors that represent “the joy and the excitement of being a mother and at the same time the fear,” she says, adding that some of that fear grows out of having her family so far away. The eyes have a twofold meaning for Bensliman: on the one hand, they represent protection from the evil eye, and on the other, people who send a judgmental look toward a mother with a crying baby.
This painting also captures Bensliman’s continuous questioning, which reveals something of a philosophical bent. As a new mother, she asked herself, “Am I going to be perfect or not?” But at the same time realized that “perfection doesn’t exist.” Because she wanted her child to be raised in a “perfect situation,” she says, she and her husband decided to move to Robbinsville, because “the school system is great, and we wanted our child to have a great education.”
A clearly political painting titled “Grab’ Em by the D” builds both on Bensliman’s background in Tunis and her experience of U.S. politics today.
In Tunisia, she says, wearing a hijab was an option, not a requirement. “We are more open minded and less strict than other countries,” she says. Also in Tunisia, she adds, “women and men get paid the same amount of money.”
Yes despite her self-description as a “women’s rights fighter,” Bensliman is not comfortable using the word “feminist.” She explains, “It’s something obvious. We shouldn’t have to fight for rights. We should have them already. It should be normal. We should have equal rights.”
But looking around her, she sees women with fewer rights than in Tunisia. “I still feel in the U.S. we are trying to find a way so women both get paid equally and treated equally, and I do express that in my art,” she says.
In this painting Bensliman draws about “a woman that is fighting” for her rights. “The woman who is the focus of the painting has different skin tones, representing women of all ethnicities,” she says. She is flashing a middle finger that ends in a pen. “What I mean is we should fight ignorance by being more cultivated—if you learn about information, let’s say you learn it through Facebook, you need to check if it’s right by reading books, going to libraries, having more accurate information, having the right information,” Bensliman says.
Although the painting does include, at the woman’s foot, the letter D with hair that “looks like Trump hair,” Bensliman says, she emphasizes that her target is the treatment of women, standing against denigrating statements like “Grab them by the pussy”—but “not to criticize whether you belong in the Republican or Democratic Party.”
On the painting, instead of “The New World Order,” a phrase represented on the U.S. $1 bill by the Latin “Novus ordo seclorum,” the woman has a book with the words “The Best World Order.” Also, tattooed on her arm are the words “Keep America Great,” instead of “Let’s Make America Great.”
Bensliman sells her artwork in shows and galleries. Along with four artist friends she rents a gallery in Lambertville, Visual Stream Gallery Collective. They show their own art there, curate art shows, and are developing an art education program. “What is great about our art is that it is extremely different, so it makes a good flow in the gallery, having different styles of art and sculpture,” she says.
Addison Vincent, exhibits coordinator at Artworks Trenton, writes in a statement about Bensliman’s upcoming exhibition that she “uses exquisitely fine lines, shapes, and repetitive patterns, coupled with a myriad of color washes to create and accentuate her art.” Noting that her stylized lines reflect her Tunisian roots, he writes that more broadly “her art is a reflection of her personal life experiences, thoughts, and dreams, as well as a social commentary, translating the everyday world we live in, into beautiful abstract, geometric, and illustrative compositions.”
Mind Stroll, Artworks Trenton, 19 Everett Alley. On view Saturday, November 3, through Saturday, November 24. Opening reception November 3, 6 to 8 p.m. 609-394-9436 or www.artworkstrenton.org.