Aly Ben Salem Tunisian, 1910-2001

"Ben Salem is awarded the Tunisian Government Prize of Fine Arts in 1936, becoming the first Arab Tunisian to receive the distinction."
The first Tunisian to attend the Tunis School of Fine Arts, Aly Ben Salem belongs to a generation of Tunisian modernists who grew up during their country’s long struggle for independence and expressed their patriotism through their art, thereby establishing the Ecole Tunisienne. He merges his strong foundation in painting and composition he received from his training under Armand Vergeaud with a passion for traditional Tunisian craft, and, just one year after graduating from art school in 1933, holds his first exhibition at Colisée Rotunda in Tunis. Soon thereafter, Ben Salem is awarded the Tunisian Government Prize of Fine Arts in 1936, becoming the first Arab Tunisian to receive the distinction, and also wins an award by the Ministry of North African Affairs enabling him to spend 1937 to 1940 in the heart of the Parisian art world in Montparnasse. Ben Salem’s distinctive style begins to emerge as he comes into contact with a wider world of ideas about art and politics. This is also the period when he makes his first contact with Sweden, the country where he would emigrate in 1950 and spend the rest of his life. Upon his return to Tunisia at the onset of the Second World War, he founds the School of Fine Arts in Sfax where he teaches there until the school is bombed during the war.
He moves to Sweden soon thereafter where he continues to tirelessly campaign for Tunisian independence throughout his life and to support the revitalization of Tunisian crafts. In addition to painting, Aly Ben Salem also devoted his creative energies to collecting mosaics, tapestry and enameled glass. These works were shown in Tunisia, Sweden, the United States, Norway and Germany. He received numerous distinctions and honours throughout his life, including the rank of Officer of the Swedish Royal Order in 1973, La Médaille de la Villa de ParisLe Mérite National des Lettres et Arts de France in 1976 and is made an officer of the Tunisian Republic in 1980. In 1992 he was promoted by the Tunisian Government to the dignity of the Grand Officer of Arts and Letters, and receives a medal from the Tunisian Association of Aesthetics and Poetics in 1996. Ben Salem’s collection of Tunisian ethnography is eventually donated to the National Ethnography Museum in Stokholm after his death in 2001 and, on what would have been his 100th birthday in 2010, Tunisia celebrated Aly Ben Salem’s contribution by declaring it the National Day for Culture.