Fela Kefi Leroux, Embracing Blackness at the First World Festival of Black Arts is an exhibition designed for readers. It tells of my personal encounter with the artist Fela Kefi Leroux and our conversation about her experience as a Tunisian participant in Dakar’s 1966 Black Arts Festival. This online project encouraged me to approach publishing as a potential exhibition format. The exhibition follows the publication of a longer text, “How North Africans Negotiated Blackness at the Dakar 1966 First Black Arts Festival,” which established the context for the story unfolding below.
I arrived in front of a stunning neo-Mauresque house located in Carthage, a suburb of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital. Artist Fela Kefi Leroux was standing on the front porch of her home, waving energetically at me. She was elegantly dressed in a bright red top, with matching red lipstick and nail polish. She welcomed me warmly into her house whose eclectic decor combined her own and her friends’ artworks, memorabilia, small objects, and books she collected throughout her life. Fela Kefi Leroux is an artist trained in the Tunis School of Fine Arts and the Paris National School of Decorative Arts. A student of the first generation of Tunisian modernists, she mainly practiced interior design after her studies, working at a Paris-based international design firm for most of her life and traveling all over the Arab world and the African continent to decorate the homes and palaces of monarchs and statesmen.
I came across Kefi Leroux through the research of Dr. Jessica Gerschultz, an art historian invested in the histories of Tunisian female artists. Dr. Gerschultz dedicated a section in her recent book, Decorative Arts of the Tunisian École: Fabrications of Modernism, Gender, and Power, to Fela Kefi Leroux. The book explains that the artist was one of few Tunisians who had participated in the Dakar 1966 first World Festival of Black Arts. The festival, which sought to make sense of a shared transnational experience of Blackness through the arts, hosted a contemporary art exhibition, as well as ancient and traditional art exhibitions, a rich program of performing arts, and a colloquium that gathered the most prolific Black intellectuals and artists of the time. Its aim was to restore a sense of unity among dislocated African and Afro-descendent communities. Moreover, the festival was attempting a decolonial writing of global art history, one that acknowledged the contribution of practices and artistic traditions from the African continent and the world’s Black diaspora at large.
Presupposing that Fela Kefi Leroux took part in the Festival with a Tunisian delegation, I wanted to understand the relationship of the first independent Tunisian state with the Négritude cultural movement, and through Tunisia’s participation in the Festival of Black Arts, potentially grasp the state’s own position towards Blackness. As I explained in my previous piece, “How North Africans Negotiated Blackness at the Dakar 1966 First Black Arts Festival,” Negotiating Blackness at the Dakar 1966 First Black Arts Festival, the festival organizers did not consider Africans of Arab-Amazigh (also known as “Arab-Berber”) descent to be Black, and Tunisia did not send any artists to the event. Even though the then-Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba openly noted on various occasions the undeniable “Africanness” of Tunisians, he also emphasized Tunisians’ Semitic roots when formulating his theories on national identity, while paying little attention to the African roots of local populations. This genealogy, one could argue, created distance from the rest of the African continent, a distance that would eventually evolve into a normalization of anti-Black racism and an institutional erasure of Black Tunisian genealogies, as scholar Afifa Ltifi detailed in her article “Black Tunisians and the Pitfalls of Bourguiba’s Homogenization Project.”
When looking at the festival’s archives I was surprised to find out that Tunisians had taken part in the festival and had been invited by France to represent France’s Black contemporary art scene. I started questioning the apparently rigid concept of Blackness as outlined in the festival’s guidelines and wondered to what extent the festival allowed space to renegotiate Blackness. For instance, the United States delegation debated whether to include non-Black artists, and among the American performers selected, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre group included one Asian-American dancer.
Given this context, I reached out to artist Fela Kefi Leroux to collect her personal testimony of the event and gauge her perception of Blackness. A Tunisian national, she was sent by France in 1966 to Dakar to take part in the contemporary art exhibition Tendencies and Confrontations. At the start of our conversation, she warned me that her memories of the festival were scarce: “The festival was almost 60 years ago, how could I possibly remember details!” Kefi Leroux handed me a thin file she had compiled with her archive of the Dakar festival containing an intact brochure and program of the event and photographs and postcards of her personal collection. In Dakar, the artist presented three ceramic-based works, including two panels from her Four Seasons series (1966). Her ceramic practice at that time echoed the call of the Tunisian artistic movement École de Tunis to incorporate local craft techniques into fine arts practices. Kefi Leroux was a student of the renowned artist Abdelaziz Gorgi, who himself belonged to the École de Tunisand taught a ceramics studio in the Tunis School of Fine Arts.
Shortly after graduating in Tunis, Fela Kefi Leroux moved to Paris. She was pursuing her studies there in 1966 when she was contacted by a local association that organized the festival. She does not remember who exactly reached out to her, but she was connected to this association through her Congolese friends at school. “I remember even being called out by other Tunisian artists in Paris for hanging out with Black Congolese students,” she told me, thinking back on the deplorable racism among art students of her generation.
I asked the artist whether she attended conferences or had conversations with her peers in Dakar about racism and colonialism. She remembered clearly that she did not. During her stay, she was mainly attending the performing arts program, and even admitted to “not taking things so seriously back then.” Pointing to a photo of her next to Maurice Senghor, Leopold Senghor’s nephew, she recalled: “I met Maurice in Dakar. He took me around and helped me navigate the festival by recommending shows to attend. I attended performances from different regions, from Chad, from Mali … I even attended Duke Ellington’s concert and bowed to the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie… My husband thinks that at that age I certainly did not realize the importance of what was going on. Indeed, he is right.”
I was curious to find out about the artist’s personal perception of her own Blackness and position toward Black culture. “Were you conscious you were part of a festival for Black arts? Did you feel you belonged to Black culture at that time?” I asked her. Kefi Leroux answered without hesitation: “Of course! Participants were telling me, ‘you are one of us, you are an African sister’ and for me as long as I was part of this festival I agreed with them and felt I belonged.”
The festival was a turning point in her career. She showed me a card with the seal of the Tunisian state. “When I was in Dakar, the then-Tunisian ambassador, Tahar Belkhodja, invited me to attend a cocktail at the embassy with the Tunisian Cultural Minister Chedli Klibi. Klibi told me he was so happy to see a Tunisian artist in Dakar and offered me a residency space in the prestigious Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, where I lived after the festival for two years. I do not remember meeting any other Tunisians in Dakar though…,” she recounted. Moreover, the festival broadened her views of artistry and artistic practices. In Dakar, she was stunned by the richness of African art history as conveyed by the exhibition Black Arts, and encountered many modes of being an artist, be it a painter, a weaver, a street sculptor, a musician, or a dancer, among others.
Fela Kefi Leroux is a Tunisian-French artist born in Carthage, Tunisia, based between Paris and Tunis. She graduated from the Tunis School of Fine Arts in Tunis from the Decorative Arts section with the highest honors. She received the Award for Excellency as an art student from Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba himself. She was a student of notable Tunisian artists including Safia Farhat, Mahmoud Shili, and Abdelaziz Gorgi. She has a diploma from the National School of Decorative Arts in Paris in the section of Mural Arts and Interior Architecture and was a resident at the Cité des Arts in Paris. Fela Kefi Leroux was a participant in the exhibition “Tendances et Confrontrations” at the Dakar 1966 Black Arts Festival. Kefi Leroux works since the 1970s mainly as an interior designer and regularly visits the ateliers of the Grande Chaumiere in Paris, where she dedicates herself to the art of drawing.
This is the second in a series of five online exhibitions presented by curators selected as Hyperallergic fellows in the 2022/23 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators. As part of their fellowship, each curator was asked to consider an article format as an exhibition that presents a body of work while offering some insight into their curatorial process.