Pictured above: Shearing the Rams
Dianne and Houcine Chikhaoui create distinctive mosaics using their ‘D&H’ realism technique. They first established a friendship among other mosaic artists on social media in 2014 and discovered they had many things in common. They married in Switzerland in 2018 and Houcine moved to Australia the following year. Houcine uses the name ‘Kala Jarda’ for his art, the name of the place where he was born in Tunisia. Rhona Duffy asks them about their journey, mosaic technique and working together.
Can you tell us a little bit about each of your journeys to mosaic?
Kala: I studied painting, sculpture and mosaic at university in Tunisia. I then created my own workshop where I worked on private commissions. After three years, I expanded the business, employing 11 full-time mosaic artists and I qualified as an electrician. My mosaic team made commissions for private homes and public places, such as hotels, local councils and swimming pools. We worked exclusively in marble. I also participated in art exhibitions in Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, France, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. After 15 years of operating my business, I left Tunisia, moved to France and later to Switzerland, where I worked as an electrician.
Dianne: I had many artistic hobby pursuits during my life, but it wasn’t until I did a beginners mosaic class in 2010 that I really felt inspired. In 2013, I joined a contemporary artists group and I discovered Facebook and mosaic artist friends around the world. I had my first solo exhibition in 2014, where I received a message of congratulations from a mysterious but charming Kala Jarda, who didn’t speak a word of English. The messages didn’t stop, and I travelled to Switzerland after a year of daily conversations in French. Over time, I learned fluent French from our conversations. From then on, I made six-monthly trips to Switzerland and we married there in 2018. I introduced Kala to glass, which I brought with me on every trip. We shared our mosaic projects and completed green sea turtle mosaics together. In my spare time, I completed a few overseas commissions and benefitted greatly from Kala’s advice. After more than four years of waiting for a visa, Kala finally arrived in Australia in 2019.
When did you decide to work together?
Dianne: There was no specific moment we decided to work together. It evolved naturally. Kala had spoken to me about the possibility of teaching mosaics in the past but, although both of our mosaics were well received, I didn’t believe we had a technique that was ‘shareable’. Mosaics have been a passion for us both, and living apart for so long ensured we always shared all our work together. The most difficult period for us was when Kala arrived in Australia after leaving his life behind in Switzerland. I went off to work every day as a primary school teacher, while he was at home with no friends, no English and no work. Covid was a further complication when Kala was keen to participate in the community. To stay occupied, Kala began cooking for elderly people in our area who needed some help, mowing grass for neighbours, and working on a magnificent homage in mosaic to an iconic Australian painting, Shearing the Rams by Tom Roberts. He had already researched this painting while he was in Switzerland and felt connected to it because it was such a special representation of life in Australia, and to his uncles’ sheep farms in Tunisia, and to me. It’s an incredible and large mosaic (2.4m x 1.7m), which took Kala two and a half years to complete.
Kala: When I finished Shearing the Rams, Dianne asked me if I would make her a zebra mosaic. How could I refuse? I wanted to make it a special mosaic so I started researching how to make it more realistic and more like a painting. It took a while to develop the right way of cutting the glass. Dianne watched me work and wanted to create her own zebra with this technique as well. We shared our zebras on Facebook, which created an avalanche of enquiries from people who were interested in learning our technique. I say ‘our’ technique because, even though I developed it, I’d never have done it unless I’d wanted to create something amazing for Dianne. So I created it, but it’s her fault! We’ve continued to make animal mosaics and we’re now teaching our technique online all over the world. We’ve been asked by several artists overseas to teach our technique in their studios in person. After the success of our online courses, Dianne is planning to leave her full-time job so we’ll have more time to make mosaics together, concentrate on our courses, and travel overseas to present them in person. We hope to hold a joint exhibition once we find a suitable venue.
What are the benefits – and any challenges – of working together as partners in both business and life?
Dianne: The benefits? We both love art and sharing mosaics with each other. We talk, make, live and breathe mosaics. It’s a true passion, and now we are sharing that with others. While Kala now speaks English quite well, I can be a support to him to find that elusive word during our Zooms and messages if necessary. We take turns to give each other a break. Another benefit is that we’re making friends all over the world. We share so many emotions during this course that we connect with many people in a special way. We also laugh a lot! The challenges? It sounds corny, but I honestly have nothing to say here. Every day I spend with Kala is a gift. Being separated for so long has really made us appreciate each other.
Kala: The benefits? Our love for each other. We have all the elements to have a very happy partnership – respect, connection and communication. We love to be together every single day. The challenges? Nothing is challenging. It’s easy for us.
What advice would you give other artists who are considering collaborating with others?
Kala: We both think you must have the same elements that make any partnership work – respect, connection and communication. You must also have the same objectives in mind.
Can you tell us about the realism technique you’ve developed in your art and why you decided to create makes in this style, rather than a more traditional mosaic style?
Dianne: Our realistic ‘D&H’ technique evolved naturally. It’s the conclusion of our joint experience of 28 years, with three years of study. It began with Kala’s production of Roman mosaics, and all other types of mosaics we’ve produced between us, such as classical, contemporary, decorative, representational, non-representational, etc. It grew organically from these experiences. As a team, we wanted to produce mosaics of great value, that would appeal to the wider art world. To that end, we developed our finesse, technique and skills so that the results would be so much more than a ‘pretty’ mosaic, and enter the realm of ‘fine art’. We hope that our mosaics will be recognised as such!
Kala: In creating Shearing the Rams, there were several portraits. Some had smooth hair and using normal shards didn’t give the result I wanted. I started to cut finer and finer shards, and it worked well, but I found it very difficult. When I started the zebra that Dianne had asked me for, I was determined to make it totally unique. I worked hard to cut the longest, finest, straightest shards that had ever been created. It took me about 11 hours a day for some weeks before one night I realised I had achieved what I wanted. I completed the first zebra using many colours together and arranging them in different ways. For example, no two shards of the same colour could be arranged side by side, and one of our rules is that we never use black or white glass in our animals. From there, I wanted to create a pedagogical system where I could teach others my technique. Dianne offered to be my first guinea pig and she created her own zebra.
What’s keeping you busy at the moment?
Dianne: We’re always busy developing our online courses, as we want to streamline how we deliver our information so that people can learn this advanced technique. We’re also developing a portfolio so that we can use them as demonstration pieces in our online courses.
What are your plans for the future?
Kala: Our plans are to continue working together and teaching online as we love sharing our technique with others and seeing them succeed. We want to continue to make our own mosaics, exhibit our work, and perhaps help change to the perception of realistic mosaics from being a craft to fine art.