By Hafawa Rebhi
In the heart of the medina of Tunis, a small sign marks the spot.
Painted in black on a wooden rectangle, the words “El Warcha” — “workshop” in Arabic — glimmer under the rays of a winter sun. I smell fresh wood through the half-open door.
Inside, furniture is piled up on the floor. Smaller pieces hang on the left wall. In the back of the long, narrow room, I see salvaged wood, broom handles, hammers, some drills and a circular saw.
The mess evokes the workshop of an old craftsman. But El Warcha is barely three months old. It is the artistic home of Benjamin Perrot.
After practicing and exhibiting his art in London, Paris and Lampedusa, the French designer moved to Tunis to seek new horizons. There he is supporting a project called El Warcha under the auspices of l’Art Rue, a Tunisian not-for-profit that supports young artists and promotes innovative street art.
The process of creation prevails over aesthetics.
On most days, El Warcha welcomes about 10 boys and girls from the neighborhood who come in the afternoon after school. But during this winter holiday, children arrive by 10 a.m. They greet Benjamin and his assistant, Taha, entering as if they owned the place. After jokes and banter, the children start talking about their ongoing projects.
Everything in the workshop is made by the children, under the supervision of Benjamin and his assistant. Some artwork has already left the workshop. Hand-made dustbins dot neighboring shops. Wooden planters adorn the square in front of the workshop. Large light installations near the door illuminate the narrow streets and alleys of Hafsia Square.
“Everyone wanted a light installation in front of their homes,” confides Benjamin, smiling.
From time to time, mothers pass by, greet Benjamin, praise the work and wish El Warcha well.
“Parents sometimes ask me if we could make products a little more beautiful,” Benjamin says. Broomsticks held together by black cable clamps could recall a sober minimalism. But for Benjamin, the process of creation prevails over aesthetics, collaboration over the finished product.
“The structure — how it holds together and how it is used — is what matters the most.”
“Maybe I’ll become an engineer.”
Benjamin’s mantra is that of an architect who has abandoned conformist aesthetics to try new experiments that put a premium on human interaction. His pupils do not seek fancy results for the sake of beauty. In creating, they learn, make mistakes, exchange ideas and correct each other. And then, when they see their work displayed in public, they swell with pride.
At 11 a.m., a young boy arrives, smiling, hands in pockets. Firas, 13, has come to take a look at his project. It will take him a few more hours to complete his ping-pong table.
“I guess all I need to do is assemble the three supports, paste the horizontal plate and then add the net,” he says.
On the right wall, Firas points to a sketch of his work. He is in his first year of junior high school but has already learned the basics of design and come to appreciate the challenges of a project.
“I did not know I would like working with my hands this much,” he says. “Maybe I’ll become an engineer.”
To stir enthusiasm in a young person like Firas is what satisfies Benjamin the most. The designer hopes dreams born in El Warcha will grow and flourish. He wants neighboring schools and local authorities to replicate his project, to infuse public spaces with new life, so that participatory design is above all a tool of citizenship.
Hafawa Rebhi is an independent Tunisian journalist. She has been covering the transition in Tunisia since 2011, with a special focus on public policies, social and economic rights, migration, development and energy. She is fluent in English, Arabic, French and Italian.