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Silvia Defraoui

(b. 1935, Vufflens-le-Chateau, Switzerland) lives and works Switzerland and Spain
Raku, 1973
clay, 4.5 x 3.25 x 3.5 inches, 93.39.256

Silvia Defraoui was raised in St. Gallen, Switzerland, and at the age of 15 she traveled to Algiers, Algeria, to study painting at the School of Fine Arts. Right before the outbreak of the Algerian War in 1954, she returned home to study ceramics at the School of Decorative Arts in Geneva, Switzerland. While at school she met her future husband, Chérif Defraoui, who was studying literature and law.

In the spring of 1971, under the auspices of the International Academy of Ceramics, the Tennessee Arts Commission pledged its support for the promotion and establishment of the U.S. International Ceramic Symposiums. The Symposium’s mission to help develop a worldwide network of support for ceramic art was achieved by bringing together top ceramic artists from around the world for a month-long sharing of ideas and creation of innovative ceramics.


Left: Raku, 1973, clay, 2.5 x 3.5 x 3.25 inches, 93.39.79 Center: Unnamed, 1973, stoneware, 9 x 9.5 x 6.5 inches, 93.39.172 Right: Defraoui creating Unnamed

Defraoui represented Switzerland at the First U.S. International Ceramic Symposium, which consisted of twenty-five artists from thirteen different countries, and was hosted in the summer of 1973 at the Memphis Academy of Art. At the Symposium, she created a number of hand-built forms, many of which have a smooth and organic two-fold or four-fold symmetry to them. The negative space openings in these works are meant to resemble openings found in the human body.

Following the Symposium, Defraoui continued her career as an artist, and in 1975 she began collaborating full time with her husband Chérif, with them signing both their names on all their work. Together they founded the Mixed Media Studio at the Geneva School of Visual Art and Design, where they both gave classes until Chérif’s death in 1994, after which Silvia continued teaching until 1999. The art they made was more interested in exploring themes of duality—such as male-female, human-animal, and memory-presence—than in working solely with one particular medium. During their career the Dafraouis explored ceramics, photography, installation, silk-screen, and sculpture. In the late seventies they were also some of the first Swiss artists to work with video, which they would project or mount on monitors in installations. After Chérif’s death, Silvia has made work that continues the themes and methods which they established together.

Defraoui has exhibited her work widely, including at the Venice Biennale (1976), Documenta IX in Kassel, Germany (1992), and MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York (2008). Her work can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Geneva, Switzerland; the Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland; the Kunstmuseums in St. Gallen, Solothurn, and Geneva, Switzerland; the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art in Zürich, Switzerland; and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France. She is the recipient of the 2006 Culture Award of the City of St. Gallen, Switzerland, the 2005 Geneva City Prize, the 2008 Grand Prix of the Vaudoise Foundation for Culture, and the 2014 BEWE Foundation Art Prize. Active in the arts community, Defraoui served as a member of the Switzerland Federal Commission for Fine Arts from 1999 to 2007. In 2014 a retrospective of her work was shown at the Kunstmuseum in Solothurn, Switzerland.

Silvia creates large architectural works for competitions in her country. Preferring to call her smaller pieces “objects,” she considers them containers for the practical meaning of clay, not for things. She feels everything in clay is natural and the ceramic medium ideal for producing a feeling of naturalness. – 1973 International Ceramic Symposium catalogue

Written by Aiden Layer, TN Arts Intern