Tunisia’s creative documents

From protagonists and documentarians, today, Tunisian photographers – and other artists – went on to becoming commentators on the unfolding changes in the country; new creative forces are challenged by new realities.

Published on Thursday 1 Dec 2011 in Ahram Online and Al Ahram Weekly

After failing quell nation-wide unrest, on January 14, 2011, the authoritarian ruler of Tunisia Zine El-Abidine Ben Aliwas forced to leave Tunisia. The new Jasmine Revolution was in the making and its force field soon caught other Arab countries, including Egypt. In no time the concept of change generated by social unrest started infiltrating many life sectors, including the arts. The breath of revolt against oppression and newly discovered freedom – or hope for it – released new energies that were quickly translated into fresh creative discoveries.

One of the first symbolic marriages between creative and political change took place in Thala, a small town, population 14,000, in the Kassina Governorate, north-western Tunisia, 300 km from the capital Tunis. At the beginning of January 2011, Thala was home to some of the first demonstrations that were soon to echo all across the country. A police commander in Thala opened fire on the peaceful march along Bourguiba Avenue, in the vicinity of the police station. A few weeks after the ousting of Ben Ali, Nemri Bassem, a mechanical engineer, transformed the same police station into a gallery covered with graffiti commemorating the revolution and its victims.

For their part, Tunisian cartoonists had greater freedom to give their commentaries on life in Tunisia. The first episode of an animated cartoon, Le Journal du ZABA, depicting Ben Ali in a plane searching for a country in which the authorities might allow him to land, released on YouTube by ‘kharabeeshtunisia’ only two days after the president’s ouster became an instant hit, soon gaining almost two million clicks. The Tunisian cartoonist known as Z, active online since 2007, had had his website shut down by Ben Ali’s regime. Today his voice can no longer be silenced; though now, his pen meets new kind of censure: Islamists finding the work “too obscene”.

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Equally, photography being a tool that holds both documentary and artistic benefits, emerged in its full potential. In many cases, artists became the protagonists and the chroniclers of history in the making. Together with fellow Tunisians, Lofti Ghariani was calling for democracy in front of the Ministry of Interior in Tunis’ city centre. Ghariani’s photography series Fragments d’un vecu en Tunesie (Fragments from the one who lived in Tunisia) captures the streets of Tunis in the peak of demonstrations – both crowd and individuals. “In order to fully understand and enjoy the meaning of freedom of expression,” Ghariani comments, “one had to live the oppression. In January, we were afraid, we stayed together, and none of us was looking after his own interest but we looked after the interest of the nation. During those days, I collected evidence of the suffering experienced during the dictatorship, and especially the joy of the people looking towards a better world.”

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Many photographers joined the revolutionary events. Wassim Ghozlani captured the rage and bravery of the Tunisian people as well as the involvement of women in his series Tunisia 140111. His photographs Vehicle for Revolution, currently on display in Art Tunis exhibition taking place in Paris, present broken cars painted with the colors of the Tunisian flag.

While many photographers continued to document the daily events, some projects offered interesting artistic reflections. It was in March 2011 that Artocratie en Tunesie (Artocracy in Tunesia) took the country by storm. Part of Inside Out, a global art project initiated by a French artist of Tunisian origins, known as JR, it comprised large-scale portraits of regular people.

Considering himself “an urban activist,” JR directs his attention onto “regular” citizens: men and women, young and old, poor and rich, beggars, entrepreneurs, peasants, workers… JR collaborated with six Tunisian photographers, Aziz Tnani, Hella Amar, Wissal Degueche, Sofia Baraket, Rania Dourai  and Hichem Driss, who spent a week taking portraits in six Tunisian cities, including Sidi Bouzid, Sfax, Tunis. Films were then sent to JR in New York for development. Finally 100 3m x 2.5m prints as well as mosaics consisting of photos 1m x 80cm were displayed in the cities’ open area spaces, on the walls of governmental buildings, rooftops, and balconies. The streets became museums presenting individuals, the people of Tunisia, who were protagonists and viewers of the art.

In a country where the only portraits on the streets were those of the president, Artocratie was an enormous ideological change.  “The project had no limitations or preferences regarding gender, social class or age. The only requirement was that we do not know the people we photograph and that their faces are expressive,” comments Hichem Driss, one of the collaborating artists. “Some people followed us from one location to another as they wanted to see their portraits displayed, others helped us put up the pictures.”

Artocratie en Tunesie gained interest of most Tunisian communities, though some people preferred to see martyrs in the photographs. On some occasions people gathered in large crowds under a photograph and started a discussion about it. In some areas, however, the project met with disapproval of the local community, as was the case with areas occupied by fishermen complaining that the photographs were redirecting their potential clients’ attention.

“We learned a lot through this project and we touched the untouchable. Portraits covered the walls of police stations and governmental buildings before the cheering crowds. Many realized that those pictures were a symbol of their freedom of expression,” Driss comments.

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Artocratie created an important bridge which led to creative photographic expressions, artistic reflections on the newly unfolding reality. For Driss, it was the same process of discovering the people that generated his series Erreur 404 (Error 404).

“In January and the following months, we all became individuals who started communicating together. During the revolution people would guard their neighborhoods against thugs released by the former ruling RCD[Constitutional DemocraticRally] Party; many living in the same building or on the same street exchanged conversations for the first time. We started to know each other. I learned a lot about other people’s lives and professions while many were interested in visiting my photography studio.”

In Error 404, Driss documents the diversity of the Tunisian population while pointing to many of the taboos still dominating society. It is in the diversity that he finds originality as he discovers personalities and offers them valuable self-validation. “While working on Error 404, I would talk strangers randomly encountered on the streets or in a coffee shop. I would explain the project to them and invite them to my studio. Many were very positive about this experience and shared with me long life stories.It is a rather new phenomenon for Tunisians to interact in this way.” Driss looks at people of different religions, ethnicities, sexual preferences and social classes. He wonders how their unique individualities will be validated on the road to democracy.

Yet interest in people was already present in Driss’ earlier works, such as the series Le Grand Parcours (2009-2010). The name refers to Tunisia’sNational Road GP1, running close to the Libyan border. The photographs tell a story about people living the road, last witnesses of the brutality of the events in the area, their lives and dreams, wondering about the future of their children.

Le Grand Parcoursseries and documentation of Artocratie is on display during the 9th Bamako Photography Encounters in Mali. Error 404 is taking part in Contemporary Art in Tunisia showcasing works of 30 Tunisian artists, an event incorporating a number of locations: the Montparnasse Museum in Paris,public and private spaces and gardens in Lyon and Tunis, starting at the beginning of November until lasting until last week of December.

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Together with other photographers and artists, Driss hopes to continue his artistic mission in documenting and giving an artistic commentary on social and political changes taking place in his country.

“The role of art is essential and important in the current circumstances. We need to be present and underline that we exist and create. No forces can refrain from artistic expression. Though we removed Ben Ali, Islamists are proposing new limitations on freedom. Islamists act like a sect and depend on propagandas. As artists, we have to stand against all forms of pressures and repressions, regardless who is motoring them.” Driss’ words make even more sense when recall the Islamists’ recent action, last October, against the Nessma private television channel (and its owner) for broadcasting Marjane Satrapi’s Oscar-nominated animated movie Persepolis. Islamist protesters were predominantly offended by a scene depicting God.

With new energy released and changes on the way, Tunisian artists remain alert and their art will continue to express their thoughts while contributing to change across Tunisian society. From being protagonists and documenters, today, Tunisian photographers – and other artists – went on to being commentators, taking some distance in order to present their reflections. Their commentaries on political changes set new ideologies which they hope to be well received by all social strata and all people regardless their religious, social or political preferences. With the democracy in the making, only time will tell how such inspiring ideology find its way to reality.

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