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Patterns of Abstraction

Artist Alia Bensliman draws on the mosaic of her Tunisian heritage, human rights, and international experiences

By Ilene Dube | Photography by Jeffrey E. Tryon

Alia Bensliman creates worlds filled with figures, patterns, and symbols. Her watercolors are composed of tessellations suggestive of traditional Arab art, and are simultaneously contemporary and meditative.

The Robbinsville resident was the subject of a solo exhibition in the Hutchins Galleries Rotunda at the Lawrenceville School last winter, and she is readying work for an exhibition at Princeton University Art Museum’s Art@Bainbridge. “Reciting Women: Alia Bensliman and Khalilah Sabree” will be on view January 20 through March 31.

Conversation With A Friend, by Alia Bensliman.

It is not every day that a local artist gets exhibited at Princeton University Art Museum.

“I first encountered Alia’s work on the walls of Artworks Trenton and was instantly captivated by her luxuriously patterned watercolor portraits of Amazigh women garbed in elaborate dress, jewelry, and tattoos,” says Juliana Ochs Dweck, chief curator, Princeton University Art Museum. Amazigh people are indigenous to North Africa – Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. Their more commonly known name is Berber. Bensliman is of Berber descent.

Dweck subsequently encountered more of Bensliman’s work at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie and at the Hutchins Galleries. After seeing Sabree’s work in her Artworks Trenton studio, “I felt that bringing [both artists] together could highlight how they each, in their distinctive way, open windows into complex and beautiful worlds where cultural and visual traditions are tenaciously preserved but also under threat.”

“Both artists are employing boundary-defying blends of figuration and abstraction and using handmade processes to adapt photographic imagery,” Dweck continues. “And both artists’ projects are grounded as much in their interest in aesthetic lineage and materiality as in their own life stories and distinct identities.”

Symbiotic Juxtaposition by Alia Bensliman.

Each employs a meditative repetition, and to that end, Dweck chose the title “Reciting Women” because “Recite evokes the chanting of prayer but it also brings to mind secular storytelling of various forms — whether reciting one’s experience or reciting poetry for an audience,” she says. In both instances “recitation suggests the act of repeating something from memory in ways that create new meaning and shared experience.”

Bensliman takes me to her studio, a loft space in her home. With her hair tied up in a knot on a steamy summer day, she offers me a cup of hibiscus tea — it is sweet without sugar. Cans of brushes are neatly lined up, and her collections of Prisma Colors, Micron pens, and Sharpies in various colors and sizes are fastidiously contained in specially-fitted cabinets.

“I don’t get excited buying shoes like some women do, but my excitement comes from buying pens,” she says.

Her 10-year-old son, Laith, comes into the studio with a camera. He is excited to learn that his mother will be featured in a magazine. He wants her to be on the cover, and he takes several photos to up the chances of that happening. Daughter Maya, 5, is at day care.

Bensliman is listening to the music of Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, a favorite she saw in concert in Paris. The artist has been visiting Paris on her own since she was 16. Her older brother manages two theaters there, and as a child, Bensliman would accompany her parents to Paris museums — her favorite is the Musée d’Orsay. As a young adult she found the city easy to navigate, walking or using the Metro. She is fluent in Arabic, French, and English. French was spoken in Tunisia after the French invasion of 1881 (Tunisia achieved independence in 1956), although today the most common language spoken in Tunisia is Arabic.

Bensliman has been making art since childhood. During middle and high school she realized she had a learning disability. She wasn’t officially diagnosed at that time. She credits her mother for helping her get into Ecole d’Art et de Decoration, Tunis, where she earned an associate’s degree in product design.

She met Khaled Bensliman, who had grown up in the U.S., when he came to a cousin’s wedding in Tunisia. The two began dating long-distance, a Skype romance. He would come to visit every three months, taking an eight-hour flight to France and then another two-hour flight to Tunisia. In 2007 he proposed, and a few years later they married and set up home in the U.S.

Although she’d always spoken English, Khaled told Alia her English was too British — she would say things like “tomahto” and “pleased to meet you.” That was one of many things she had to adjust to fit in in New Jersey.

Bensliman fell in love with Trenton — the Italian neighborhoods and buildings reminded her of cities in Tunisia, and she became fascinated by the history of John Roebling and the Roebling Wireworks. Her painting I am Roebling is in the permanent collection of the New Jersey Department of Health.

Alia Bensliman surrounded by her family and pets.

It wasn’t long before she was volunteering at Artworks Trenton, the Sage Coalition (where she helped create murals and plantings to beautify streets), and at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie.
“I met (Trenton artists) Leon Rainbow, Will Kasso, and Brass Rabbit,” she says, as well as Craig Shofed, managing director of Artworks, who has been a mentor and an advocate. Artist and photographer Andrew Wilkinson is another friend and mentor, someone she relies on for honest feedback. He photographs her artwork and taught her how to build her website. “It’s a beautiful art community with friends helping friends,” she says.

In 2016, she won first prize for her piece in “Monster’s Ball — Night on the Bayou” at Artworks Trenton. Soon she was teaching sustainable art, magazine collage, and paper bead making at Artworks, Ellarslie, and the Monmouth Museum. (Jewelry with paper beads is one of her sidelines.)

Bensliman’s handcrafted jewelery made of layered strips of magazines.

During this time, she was also the manager of the framing department at Michael’s Crafts at Nassau Park. That presented the opportunity to frame the artwork of her friends Tamara Torres and Habiyb Shu’Aib.

Upon meeting, the artist speaks freely about her political views, and soon you learn that her grandparents never held back from expressing theirs — which landed them in prison during the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government.

Her grandfather, Azzouz Rebai, an attorney, was a leader in the resistance, giving speeches about defending rights. Her grandmother, a women’s rights activist, wrapped herself in the Tunisian flag and sang the Tunisian national hymn as an act of protest. She was charged with holding a Molotov cocktail and imprisoned. Rebai became her lawyer, and proposed when the two were still in jail.

Asma Belkhodja, born into a family of magistrates and public administrators, was imprisoned for 18 months while Rebai served seven years. Both were tortured, according to their granddaughter. Upon release, Azzouz Rebai was nominated secretary of youth and sports in the first government of Tunisia after it gained independence, and Asma Belkhodja Rebai became one of the founders of the Union Nationale de la Femme Tunisienne, according to Wikipedia.

One wall of the house showcases vintage photos of Azzouz Rebai addressing a crowd, giving speeches. “He always wore suits with a red rose in the pocket,” Bensliman recollects. Red roses in her paintings are an homage to her grandfather.

Another wall showcases her grandmother’s artwork. The abstract artist had a strong influence on her granddaughter. “She bought me books and taught me to think independently,” Bensliman says.

In photos, Asma looks like Sophia Loren. Patterns and textiles in some of those family photos are evidence of the artist’s primary visual world, and the influence on her artwork is apparent.

Bensliman mixes non-toxic paints, time-consuming as it may be.

During the pandemic, Bensliman began to feel homesick — her parents still live in Tunisia. She commenced work on her North African women series as a way to mix Eastern and Western styles and began making her own non-toxic watercolors.

Me, Myself, and I: Unfinished Conversation is a self-portrait with three heads representing her artistic side, her classic side, and the part of her that is a free spirit.

Me, Myself, and I — Unfinished Conversation by Alia Bensliman.

“I feel like women are harshly judged no matter what they do,” she says. “Be smart but not too smart. Be a leader but be careful, you might be intimidating. Be confident but not too confident. Be sexy but be careful not to look too trashy. Me, Myself, and I highlights the injustice of our world toward women. Each of the three portraits are envious of each other — they are all questioning what should be their next move.”

One of the faces has a Berber tattoo on her chin; Bensliman has the same tattoo on her wrist, a palm leaf that represents the union between woman and man. A halo of gold calligraphy contains the names of people she loves.

The free spirit has objects in her hair that echo the shapes of the geometric background and have Arabic words that talk about mental health. Bensliman calls herself an advocate for invisible illnesses. “When you see a person, you don’t see behind the scenes,” she says. “I have chronic diseases. My artwork helps me with that. I go into a certain world with repetition of lines and colors and it takes me into a beautiful cocoon. I explain to viewers, it’s OK to deal with mental health.”

As the daughter of a speech therapist, she developed an understanding that people with autism and speech and hearing impairment are normal. “There’s no difference between me and someone with other abilities,” she says.

She taught art at the center where her mother worked to prepare students for employment. Clients there also learned pottery, knitting, and rug making. “It’s amazing to see what they do. I taught them to draw to express their feelings,” she says.

Bensliman is one of nine artists whose work has been chosen for a Modest Mussorgsky concert at the Capital Philharmonic in Trenton. Her Space Warrior, created while listening to the music, will be projected on a large screen as well as appear in the hallway. There are patterns on Space Warrior’s face, in her hair, her vestment, and the background, and her eyes are red poppies.

Bensliman takes me into her “laboratory” behind a room divider, where she makes little shimmering squares of paint. She says she learned by trial and error. Khaled, an environmental engineer, is serious about recycling and not using things that aren’t friendly to the environment, and this has influenced her decision to mix non-toxic paints, time-consuming as it may be.

Among her ingredients are cabbage and clove oil, and the odor is surprisingly pleasant. She labels the colors saffron, Cyprus umber dark, Italian umber. Magic power and mica are among the ingredients that make them glitter.

Her preferred substrate is Arches cold-pressed watercolor paper because of the way it absorbs the paint.

Bensliman’s career is taking off. In addition to the two solo exhibitions, in 2017 she won a prize for mixed media in the Ellarslie Open exhibition. In spring 2023, Trenton’s Passage Theatre commissioned a painting for the cover of its program. She has shown in Paris and received commissions from, among others, Canada and Australia. Her work donated to fundraising events, such as HomeFront’s ArtJam in Princeton, sells quickly.

“My artwork is a sort of diary of my everyday life,” she says. “The symbols express sentiments about milestones and past experiences. I also express my views about sociopolitical issues, health issues, religion, and human rights. My goal is to intrigue, engage, and provoke thought and reflection.”

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