By ROOKSANA HOSSENALLY
SEPT. 1, 2014, INTERNATIONAL ARTS - nytimes.com
DJERBA, Tunisia — While most gallerists search for artists, Mehdi Ben Cheikh, the founder of Galerie Itinerrance in Paris, searches for walls. Mr. Ben Cheikh has spent 10 years building an organization devoted to the work of street artists. He was behind last year’s Tour Paris 13 project, in which 100 artists from around the world painted a derelict 10-story apartment building that was set to be demolished. The biggest collective street art exhibition in Europe, Tour 13 had more than 25,000 visitors during its one-month run.
“Street art is the biggest and most unique art movement in history because of its global impact and its lack of dependence on conventional institutions, and my role is to help it develop and reach across borders,” the French-Tunisian Mr. Ben Cheikh said in an interview. “We’re bringing street art back to the streets, where it can be seen by everyone for free.”
Yet Mr. Ben Cheikh has chosen an unusual setting for his latest and most ambitious project, Djerbahood. He invited more than 100 artists, some from his gallery, others whose work he admires, from 30 countries to leave their mark on the walls of Er-Riadh, a village on the island of Djerba off the coast of Tunisia. He claims it is the world’s first permanent street art project of its scale.
Mehdi Ben Cheikh Credit Joel Saget/Agence France-Presse
Once known as the “island of dreams,” Djerba is now one of Tunisia’s most popular tourist destinations. Scenic Er-Riadh, however, is off the tourist strip. Known for La Ghriba, Africa’s oldest synagogue, the village is a prominent pilgrimage site and home to a multicultural community.
Mr. Ben Cheikh aimed to create a cultural crossroads here. “I wanted to do a project in Tunisia, but it was also a question of logistics,” he said. “I couldn’t send artists to the middle of nowhere. But also because Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived here in peace for the last 2,000 years or so. I’m not here to aggravate anyone, but to consolidate this aspect, which I find beautiful, and together with the natural beauty of the village, provides the artists with a unique canvas.”
After completing his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and a stint as an art teacher, Mr. Ben Cheikh, 39, opened Galerie Itinerrance in 2004. As well as conventional exhibitions within its walls, his aim is to organize in-situ art projects. “Few gallerists commit themselves to this art form, which for me, transcends style and place.”
Mr. Ben Cheikh finds his artists mostly via the Internet, which he has been “scanning for years” and invites them to show their work at his gallery. Most of the street artists Mr. Ben Cheikh represents paint on canvas and on authorized public spaces and walls, thus avoiding legal complications. “My role is to obtain the necessary authorizations so that they can paint within a legal framework,” he explained.
Djerbahood, which was financed by several commercial sponsors from France and Tunisia, had to be authorized by the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism. Once onsite, Mr. Ben Cheikh obtained the mayor of Djerba’s approval for the artists to create art on public property; including cemeteries, schools and the town hall. Once consent was obtained, the organizers also collected authorizations from each homeowner in the village before the final go-ahead was given.
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While some homeowners have had a say in the artwork, others have given free rein to the artists. Painting began in June and was to continue to the beginning of September. The artists live in the village for a few days before the next group arrives.
A mural from the street-art project. Credit Aline Deschamps/Galerie Itinerrance
“At first, the locals didn’t really understand what I was trying to do,” Mr. Ben Cheikh said. “But this project isn’t about vandalism. It’s a real exhibition with a real scenography. I attribute the walls to the artists whose designs we approve together.” He said that the installations will not be dismantled by the local authorities and that he hopes they will live on after the project’s unveiling on Sept. 20.
There are more than 100 pieces woven into the village fabric, from calligraphy by the French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed, whimsical figures by the British artist Phlegm, a hand of Fatima by Alexis Diaz from Puerto Rico, to thought-provoking phrases by the Peruvian Elliott Tupac. On one street, Maz, Az and DeyaaOne from the Dhad family in Saudi Arabia painted calligraphy and amusing superhero-like Arab figures, while a few streets away, Claudio Ethos from São Paulo, Brazil, contributed a jaunty figure looking up at the stars through a telescope.
The Parisian-born eL Seed, 32, who was recently commissioned to do a colossal fresco on the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, continues to explore his Tunisian roots through art, which is seen in his work for Djerbarhood. “The village is beautiful and I think this project will encourage people to come and explore it,” he said. “Foreigners will learn about Tunisian culture and for locals who have never left the island, it’s an opening onto the world.”
But the artwork isn’t contained to the village. It extends across the arid landscape, close to the 18th-century Ben Ayed Palace and ruined prison a 10-minute drive away. “I’d love to see the whole island of Djerba serve as a canvas for street art,” Mr. Ben Cheikh said. “I hope that the locals will keep the project alive by contributing to it after we leave.”
Graffiti decorates the wall of an old house on the Tunisian island of Djerba. Credit F Nasri/Agence France-Presse
The Er-Riadh project spawned some controversy when the Itinerrance team first arrived. But the locals have adapted.
Anis Tannich, a 33-year-old resident, said: “It’s true that some inhabitants weren’t too happy about the artwork at first because it’s something they had never seen before, but most are now overjoyed. I’ve lived here all my life and for the first time people from all over the world are coming to our village. It’s something we can be proud of.”
For Abdel Kader, 63, a shopkeeper, having such diversity in his village has helped him realize his travel dreams. “On my way home,” he said, “I often stop to speak to the artists who tell me a little bit of their story. Art is important, it encourages us to stay open to others, to other cultures, and I am grateful to this project because it has allowed me to meet people from all over the world, to travel, and best of all, to open my mind.”