Tunisia's artists swooped into New York during the French Institute Alliance Francaise's (FIAF) fifth edition of their biennial festival celebration of twenty-first century transculturalism: the World Nomads Festival. The impact of the institute's month-long May festival aroused an enthusiastic curiosity for this North African country, its culture heretofore little-known in America. In New York, to meet this demand, the FIAF set an international festival precedent of praiseworthy and most unusual quality. Light was cast on Tunisia's recent explosion of creativity and innovation, following the country's seminal role in the 'Arab Spring' two years ago.
There is perhaps no other African country that better symbolizes the nomadic character of cultural cross-fertilization than Tunisia, for its geographic location at the strategic northernmost tip of the African continent. Jutting out into the ancient mare nostrum has endowed it with an abundantly rich cultural history. The Tunisian author Abdelwahab Meddeb, whose work I shall discuss below in conclusion, has observed:
The Arabo-Islamic has been but one contribution to Tunisia's inherent constituent diversity, to its earlier Berber, Jewish, and African substrata, as well as the multiple Mediterranean imprints from Carthage to Rome, Andalusia to the Ottoman Empire, and, the Francophonie. (Translated from the original French Abdelwahab Meddeb, 'Pourquoi le Projet de Constitution Tunisienne n'est pas Acceptable', Le Monde, April 30, 2013.)
Tunisia's 2011 revolution ignited revolt upon revolt, toppling senescent dictatorships throughout parts of the Maghreb and the Near East. The effects of the Tunisian uprising continue to ripple throughout the MENA region, where oppression and abuse of human rights, suppression of democratic values and ideals, and censorship of freedom of expression, can no longer be tolerated if those nations wish to advance and flourish. In the context of the festival, how Tunisian artists expressed and documented their country's historic tumult, and reflected upon its current constitutional debate – especially the need for the incontrovertible reestablishment of equal rights – was often revelatory and breathtaking.
The FIAF's complex programming, in collaboration with Tunisian curators, seems to have been a long, creative, analytical process, where the geographical evolved into thematic logic: an exploration of the nature of Tunisia's nomadism entwined with the role of women in art, society and politics, and – what was of urgent concern – post-revolutionary conditions of state repression. Sub-themes were interwoven: resistance and protest; consciousness-raising; and the need for peaceful, spiritual solutions in Islamic society.
The festival was a synthesis of Tunisia's culture in its modernization process. Disquieting in some instances, curatorial selections evoked revolutionary zeal and activism through visual arts, music, dance, cinema, and through ancillary women's panel discussions, with coherent vision. This all served to reveal Tunisia's decades-long history as one of the most progressive and open-minded of the Arab countries, although its current and incumbent theocratic-oriented political configuration threatens to undermine progress. In order to paint a picture of the creative scene in Tunisia as presented by the FIAF, this review will consider all aspects of the World Nomads Festival in 2013 according to discipline.
Tunisian Visual Arts in New York
Running deliberately and rebelliously against the grain of fundamentalist clerical interpretation of Islamic Law, where contemporary visual arts are throttled by harsh censorship and restrictions, the festival exhibitions bore powerful witness to the ongoing struggle for democratic freedom of expression in Tunisia today. Curator Leila Souissi featured 14 artists in various media, from photography to painting, videography, and 'calligrafitti', under the title The After Revolution. Under this rubric, the FIAF's former Visual Arts Director and current White Box Executive Director, Antoine Guerrero, helped position various exhibits in specific New York arts venues with a reputation for being contextually hip and cutting-edge.
At the White Box Art Center in Manhattan's Lower East Side, the entrance to the photography exhibit carried the following signage:
World Nomads Tunisia: The After Revolution: After the events of January 2011, Tunisia has experienced radical economic, societal, and artistic change. Artists were the first to react to this upheaval and threw off entrenched prohibitions to embrace free expression in all the areas of art. Despite lingering unrest and disturbance that left some faced with exile and destruction of their artworks, these artists continue to resist and fight for their freedom…Some of the works in New York are prohibited in Tunisia. This exhibition features work by Amine Boussoffara, Wassim Ghozlani, Amine Landoulsi, Zied Ben Romdhane, Rim Temimi, and Patricia Triki.
The exhibit presented some of Tunisia's immensely gifted photographers, all of whom brilliantly documented the unfolding of events leading to the overthrow of the former regime, as well as the aftermath of the revolution. There was Amine Boussofara's Dégage (2011), Amine Landoulsi's Madonna (2012) and Stop (2012), Patricia Triki's Untitled, from the series Sabrina b.h.a. (2008), and above all, Rim Temimi's ni qab ni soumise (2010), Tuniversality (2011), and Coexist (2011). Bracing and iconic, the majority black-and-white images presented by all the artists captured the heart of Tunisia's revolution, from expressions of anger, irony, anxiety and perplexity, to a fervent desire for better days to come, fleeting moments of pensiveness, and the birthing of a new identity, as well as a new nation to be.
from left to right :
La Madone, 2012, Amine Landoulsi.
Courtesy the artist.
Stop, 2012, Amine Landoulsi.
Courtesy of the artist.
Tuniversality, 2011, Rim Temimi.
Courtesy of the artist.
Untitled, from the series Sabrina b.h.a., 2008, Patricia Triki.
Courtesy of FIAF.
Most remarkable were the depictions and portraits of the adamantly assertive force of women in the revolution and in society. For the most part, the absence of defiance against veiling and headscarves in imagery seemed to reflect a profound inquiry into the Wahhabi movement and its dictates concerning control over a woman's mind and body. In a profound counterpoint, the subtle, spiritual dialectic of Sufi philosophy – of moderation, circumscribing coexistence, tolerance, and peace – emerged continuously in works by Rim Temimi, Wassim Ghozlani, Amine Landoulsi, and Zied Ben Romdhane.
from left to right :
ni qab ni soumise, 2010, Rim Temimi
Courtesy of Artist
The Origin, Sens Interdit, 2012, Wassim Ghozlani.
Courtesy of FIAF.
Coexist, 2011, Rim Temimi.
Courtesy of the artist.
Simultaneous to the White Box photography show, 'calligrafitti' artists eL Seed and Jaye created a live outdoor painting event directly across the street, covering a blank building and the corner walls of Broome and Chrystie Streets with magnificent, brilliantly coloured, elaborate codes. The contrast between eL Seed's sharply chiselled, curvilinear Arabic calligraphy and Jaye's blooming, bubble-like text in English was as much a call-and-response graffiti dialogue as it was an elevation of thought. One image by eL Seed was the Arabic translation of Francis Picabia's pronouncement 'one must be a nomad', and 'go through ideas as through lands and cities….', while a second work was a calligraphic rendering of 'the more you go to the West, the more you reach the East', a saying attributed to Lao Tzu. Another work in English by Jaye, quoted Einstein's 'imagination is more important than knowledge.'
from left to right :
The More You Go to the West, the More You Reach the East, 2013, eL Seed.
Imagination is More Important than Knowledge, 2013, Jaye.
Photo courtesy of Rim Temimi.
Although the meanings of their word imagery may seem pertinent, their combined colour, design, composition and layout seized the eye immediately. And of course, the ever-savvy FIAF organized yet more astonishing outdoor wall-painting events for the duo at the legendary 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center, the hip-hop 'graffiti Mecca' in Long Island City, as well as at the New Museum's Ideas City Festival.
In the FIAF's own gallery space, Leila Souissi presented five artists expanding on her theme of 'The After Revolution' through mixed media: painting, photography, and videography. The exhibition's unity lay in its contemplation of the aesthetics of revolution following January 2011. This included the resistance against the Salafist prohibition of the portrayal of women's images, and the refusal to submit to Salafist theocratic authority.
The most aesthetically pleasing of the works were the softly feminine, dreamlike photographic images of women in Mouna Jamel Siala's Rosaces series (2013). Reminiscent of centred Mandalas, these were an iconography of revolving, diaphanous veilings of gentle, shadow petals concealing and revealing Siala's self-portrait. Then there was Hela Ammar's cryptic Beyond The Walls (2011) series: portraits of a woman seated, kneeling, face-on and from behind, sometimes holding a large key; avoiding direct gaze with the camera, yet clearly visible through superimposed transparent layers of zellige and mashrabiyya patterns.
from left to right :
Rosaces, 2013, Mouna Jamel.
Beyond the Walls, 2011, Hela Ammar.
Courtesy of the Artist
Direct condemnation and contempt of Salafist censorship lay in the work of two painters, including Amel Ben Attia with his work In the Name of the Lord (2013), a mixed-media diptych of two squared, mostly black canvases. In the foreground of the picture on the left, the silhouette of a woman's nude body lay in a semi-foetal position, shielding her back from knife-like piercings emanating from the Salafist flag and words taken from the Salafist manifesto rendered in the background. In the picture on the right there was another silhouette: a white, domed structure – a mosque or zāwiya – with its doors bearing the outlines of the Star of David, defaced by the red stamp of censorship. To the right of the domed structure, a small frame contained the word 'censorship' in red. In both images, the 99 names of Allah in a white, calligraphy script were scratched over the blackened background to produce a Twombly-like surface texture.
While this exhibition was intended to feature predominantly women – presently the most vulnerable sector of Tunisian society following the revolutions due to sudden and violent Salafist repression –- Souissi included one male painter: Mohamed Ben Slama. He is by now a cause célèbre; he fled to Paris, a symbol of the intimidation and censorship facing artists in Tunisia. In May 2012 his work Lamb Couscous, a portrait of a nude woman with a bowl of couscous covering her pubis, was deemed blasphemous by the radical movement The League for the Protection of the Revolution. The painting was vandalized and seized by the police.
Ben Slama's dark paintings are modern day Boschs, dominated by bearded, devilish, monster-like figures, referencing the government's collusion with clerical authority. The most startling of the four works on show was In God We Trust (2013), a wonderful portrait of another nude woman implanted in a flowerpot of green leaves. On her pubis is finely etched: 'In God We Trust'. To her rear, three, haloed, bearded male figures menace her enigmatic smile (or is it a smirk?). In this, Ben Slama stubbornly depicts the deeply troubling sexual psychopathology of religious fundamentalism.
In God We Trust, 2013, Mohamed Ben Slama.
Photo courtesy of Rim Temimi
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Evangeline Kim - 30 September 2013 for ibraaz.org
About the author
Evangeline Kim is a management consultant with projects concerning international development as well as cultural programs. Early in her career she was appointed Vice-President of the London International Banking Group, Merrill Lynch and Co., where she was a key member of a lead advisory team for the African Development Bank in its formative years.
She has provided advice to UNESCO's Culture Sector to help raise awareness in the USA about the sector's activities in preserving world cultural heritages and cultural diversities. She has served as a National Endowment of the Arts selection panel member for the National Heritage Fellowships Awards.
She has worked with the Mexican Cultural Institute on projects dealing with cultural diplomacy in the USA. She has also acted as advisor to several other arts and culture organizations, including Brazil's Bahia Secretariat of Culture and Mali's Festival sur le Niger. She regularly contributes feature articles on global arts and culture to various American and international publications. She was Editor of Arts Magazine in New York in the 1970s.