Monday, 31 January 2011

The Father of Contemporary Tunisian Art - Nejib Belhodja

Néjib Belkhodja was born in 1933 in the Capital, Tunis. He was the son of a Dutch Opera singer who had performed at the Paris Opera House and a Tunisian aristocrat. The family lived in the Medina in Tunis, which at the time was the heartbeat of all North African cities. The Medina, for those that don't know, is a walled city within a city. It was where the rich and influencial used to live.

The Most Famous Median is Deir El Medina and here are some images.

His father died when he was 3 years old, leaving his blonde-haired Dutch mother with 2 children Néjib and sister, in the centre of Tunisia. His mother had spoken extensively with her husband about bring their children up as Muslims in Tunisia. They had spoken about what school the children would attend and what careers they might have. Although Néjib mother was from a good family back in Holland she kept to her word and brought her children up in Tunisia. Later she converted to Islam.

Whilst growing up with his sister in the narrow streets of the Medina his life was never dull. He was unlike the other boys in Tunis, in regards to his looks and not having a father he was bullied terribly at school. Najet, his widow, recalls how he would go to school and be beaten, come home and then beaten up again. He was no coward and would, with a stiff upper lip return to school the following day only to be beaten again. He was so fearless the boys eventually learnt to respect him and his amazing resolve. This tough character building experience was to shape his tenacious personality in the future. He was not the only person in the family to be bullied. His mother was referred to by the Tunisian side of the family as simply, "The Stranger" and Nejib and his sister as, "the Son and Daughter of The Stranger"...his up-bringing was far for easy but his mother was strong and determined and these important characteristic rubbed off of him and aided him throughout his adult life. The genuine feeling of loss for his father was something that repeatedly effected him and returned again and again throughout his life even when he was in his seventies.

He studied at the School of Fine Arts, Les Beaux Arts in Tunis and had his first exhibition at the age of 23. In the 1960's he left for Rome and Paris where he became absorbed in the works of the french artist, Robert Delauney and the Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky. In Paris, he took part in the three consecutive biennial exhibitions in 1965, 1967 and 1969. Before leaving for Europe he had been awarded the Tunis Municipal Prize at the Salon International in 1956. This had given him great confidence in venturing out further afield. In 1964 he was again awarded the gold medal in Milan, Italy and again in Egypt in 1968.

Néjib Belkhodja took part in numerous collective exhibitions worldwide such as in Tunisia, the United Kingdom, France, Egypt, Germany and the United States. Néjib has had various solo exhitibions since beginning his artistic career in 1956 especially in North Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and also France among others. In 1968, he was resident at the International City of the Arts in Paris where he received the National Award for painting.

In 1987 Néjib Belkhodja and his friend the architect, Slah Smaoui built the artistic village of Ken. Ken is Arabic and in English means Once Upon a Time. In 1991, he held an exhibition in Tunis with the Iraqi painter Dhia Azzawi.

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