Art and politics in post-2011 Tunisia

The culture of Tunisia is thousands of years old, but the 2011 Tunisian revolution brought about important changes to the way art and politics interact in Tunisia. Censorship under the dictatorship of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was replaced with unprecedented freedom of expression and questions on how to use it.[1] The newfound vigorousness of the arts in Tunisia and the new challenges artists have to address echo those in other countries affected by the Arab Spring, especially Egypt.[2]


Art before the Tunisian revolution

Artists found ways to circumvent or avoid censorship of their work before the downfall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime.[3] Tunisian collaborative painting, for instance, is an art form created in Tunisia during the 1980s that allows several artists to collaborate on one piece without prior discussion or planning. Although the Tunisian art market was relatively small and inward looking compared to the ones in other North African countries like Morocco or Algeria, there was proof of an evolving, dynamic art scene even before the revolution, with the successes of Galerie El Marsa or Le Violon Bleu.[4]

Still, according to Khadija Hamdi: "In Tunisia, with the absence, among other things, of a cultural policy speci!c to the art market, and the lack of the appropriate cultural and ideological conditions, the emergence of a “system” of “contemporary art” itself (in the Western sense) has not yet been possible."[5]

Certain artistic institutions such as the school of music in El Kef were closed by the regime as potential hotbeds of discord.

Art during and after the Tunisian revolution

Works of art that used the revolution as a subject proliferated after the downfall of the former regime, both to emulate iconic revolutionary symbols and to explore the complex challenges the country still faced.[6] The revolution saw an upshot in the number of artistic manifestations such as exhibits, most notably in the field of photography.[7] Other art forms such as music also thrived after the revolution.[8]

Remnants from the older regime and from the demonstrations themselves were also used by artists during the revolution, by transforming a police station into an art gallery or transforming burnt out cars into works of art, for instance.[9][10] Villas belonging to the Trabelsis, the family of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's wife Leïla Ben Ali, became the target of graffiti artists soon after the regime's downfall.[11]

Street art

In the months during and following the revolution, street art played a major role by reclaiming public spaces that used to be controlled by the government and by letting artists and ordinary citizens express themselves freely for the first time in years.[12] Individual artists or groups like the student-run Ahl El Kahf collective used stencils, graffitis and paintings to depict political or revolutionary themes, such as the portrait of Mohamed Bouazizi.[13] In addition to using local revolutionary symbols, street artists also reused Western and Latin American revolutionary icons in the work.[14] Murals were one of the most common form of street art, representing, for instance, people killed during the revolution.[15]

According to Nicholas Korody, "The graffiti of the Tunisian revolution always possesses a revolutionary character in form. That is to say, it existed as a reappropriation of authoritarian-controlled property. It is also notable in that it is the only art form born out of the revolution. While a few artists existed in Tunisia during the Ben Ali regime, their work was quickly covered up and few people knew about the art form. Since the revolution, it has grown massively."[16]

New challenges

Religious challenges to artistic freedom

Despite the end of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's dictatorship, Tunisian artists have faced new challenges to their artistic freedom, often from groups that have a strict interpretation of Islam. After years of censorship and repression of both the art world and religious identity, the new regime has had to juggle between the two, and tensions have periodically surfaced.[17]

In June 2012 riots erupted against the "Printemps des Arts" exhibit in La Marsa that Salafi groups and others deemed blasphemous, most notably because of one work of art that spelled out God's name using insects. Hundreds were arrested and curfews were imposed.[18] Some radical religious leaders called for the deaths of the artists, who received death threats, and Tunisian minister of culture Mehdi Mabrouk condemned the artists by saying that art should be "beautiful," not "revolutionary," and that the artists were wrong to invoke Islamic imagery.[19] The leader of the ruling Ennahda Movement, Rachid Ghannouchi, said that he condemned violence against individuals or property but also opposed "attacks on the beliefs of Tunisians" and emphasized the need to protect "sacred symbols".[20] Also deemed blasphemous by some was a work of art by Nadia Jelassi, who created an installation of female mannequin busts, cloaked in hijabs and surrounded by stones. Jelassi, a teacher at the Tunis Institute of Fine Arts, was called to appear before a judge and was charged for disturbing public order.[21] Her treatment - police took her fingerprints and a mugshot - sparked an online campaign in defense of free expression.[22] In the aftermath of the incident, the artistic community complained that authorities weren't doing enough to protect them.[23]

Religious hardliners tried and sometimes succeeded to prevent other artistic events from taking place like music festivals and plays.[24] Women artists in particular feared that hardline Muslim pressure would prevent them from working freely.[25]

These tensions led many to feel that "nothing had changed" with regards to the relations between art and politics, as censorship is said to have shifted from being political to being religious and moral.[26] According to Sofiane Ouissi, co-creative director of the Dream City, an art festival that takes place in Tunis' medina: "Under the old censorship and oppression - it was conspicuous; we could locate it; it was clear for us. [...] But now, since it was displaced, it has come into the public space, you never know where dictatorship is going to emerge."[27]

Political challenges to artistic freedom

Artists have also been targeted by the new regime. In November 2012, Chahine Berriche and Oussama Bouagila, two Tunisian graffiti artists, were arrested for writing “the people want rights for the poor” and “the poor are the living-dead in Tunisia” on the wall of a university. The two artists were members of the Zwelwa[28] art activist collective and were charged with breaching the state of emergency, writing on public property and disturbing public order.[29]

Attempts to address challenges

Tunisian street artists eL Seed reacted to these tensions between the artistic and religious communities by painting verses of the Quran preaching tolerance onto the Jara mosque in his hometown of Gabès.[30] He also said that the threat of censorship was exaggerated in certain circles: "I feel that there is a lot of hypocrisy in Tunisia at the moment, and unfortunately many artists relish censorship, or the fear of it, if it brings them international recognition. I personally have not felt any real threats of censorship."[31]

New art institutions and organizations

The B’chira Art Center, located near Sidi Thabet between Tunis and Bizerte, opened in July 2011. The center aimed to develop contemporary art by providing a space for artists to produce and show work, as well as an experimental laboratory to research techniques and introduce children to the art world.[32]

The Carthage National Museum saw the launch of an umbrella program called Carthage Contemporary, part of an increasingly dynamic contemporary art scene in Tunisia.[33]

Also established after the revolution in 2011 was the Tunisian Federation of the Visual Arts (Fédération Tunisienne des Arts Plastiques), a grouping of young artist associations aimed at defending and promoting visual arts in Tunisia. These goals are shared by two preexisting organizations, the Association of Tunisian Visual Artists (Union des Artistes Plasticiens Tunisiens) and the Union of Visual Arts Professions (Syndicat des Métiers des Arts Plastiques), created in 2009.[34]

International influences and projects

In Tunisia

French street artist and photographer JR launched the first phase of his Inside Out Project in Tunisia, where native photographers displayed large scale portraits of ordinary Tunisians around the country instead of the formerly ubiquitous pictures of the president.[35] The project fostered discussion with Tunisians, some of whom understood and appreciated the project, while others did not think art should play a political role by using public spaces and complained that the previous regime already imposed pictures upon them all the time.[36][37]

Algerian-French artist ZOO Project also celebrated the revolution by placing hundreds of life-size figures around the city, representing the Tunisians who revolted and in particular those who died during the revolution.[38]


Tunisian artists also explored political and revolutionary themes in exhibits abroad. In France, the Institut du Monde Arabe hosted two events. In May 2011, an exhibit called "Dégage" (French for "get lost") showcased photographs of the revolution by a Tunisian photography collective of the same name.[39][40] A second exhibit that ran from January to April 2012 called "Dégagements – Tunisia One Year On" showed work from Tunisian artists and others from the Middle East to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution.[41] It included paintings, graffiti, pictures and sculptures by artists like cartoonist Nadia Kiari and photographer Hichem Driss.[42]

In the United States, Tunisian student Ikram Lakhdhar curated an exhibit at Connecticut College called “Moments of Freedom: Revolutionary Art from China, South Africa and Tunisia” in April 2013 with work by contemporary Tunisian photographers Wassim Grimen, Omar Sfayhi, and Youssef Ben Ammar and internationally renown artists such as Diane Victor, Zhang Hongtu, Rajaa Gharbi and William Kentridge.[43]

In Germany, the ifa Gallery in Stuttgart hosted an exhibit from January to March 2013 called "Rosy Future" on the future of contemporary art in Tunisia after the revolution.[44]

See also


  1. Rhodes, Emile (11 May 2011). "La culture tunisienne fait sa révolution". Slate Afrique. Retrieved 20 April 2013.
  2. Demerdash, Nancy. "Consuming Revolution: Ethics, Art, and Ambivalence in the Arab Spring". British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. Retrieved 20 April 2013.
  3. Rhodes, Emile (11 May 2011). "Quand les artistes se jouaient de Ben Ali". Slate Afrique. Retrieved 17 April 2013.
  4. Ben Soltane, Mohamed (14 September 2010). "Art in Tunisia: a visibility in the making". Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  5. Hamdi, Khadija. "On the path of contemporary Tunisian art" (PDF). Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  6. Shilton, Siobhán (29 January 2013). "Art and the 'Arab Spring': Aesthetics of revolution in contemporary Tunisia". French Cultural Studies. 24 (1): 129–145. doi:10.1177/0957155812464166. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  7. Triki, Rachida (February 2012). "Tunisia: A Dynamic and Vigilant Art Scene". Nafas Art Magazine. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  8. Kraft, Jessica C. (9 February 2012). "After the revolution, arts bloom in Tunisia". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  9. Metwaly, Ati (30 August 2011). "Police station in Tunisia turned into an art gallery". Ahram Online. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  10. Ben Miled, Zied (21 March 2011). "Burnt out cars turned into artistic pieces in Tunisian revolution". Demotix. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  11. "Les graffeurs tunisiens s'invitent dans les villas Trabelsi". Slate Afrique. 6 July 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2013.
  12. Galliot, Lorena (6 June 2011). "Graffiti artists show their support for the Tunisian revolution". France 24. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  13. Galliot, Lorena (6 June 2011). "Graffiti artists show their support for the Tunisian revolution". France 24. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  14. Rodrigues, Jill (4 April 2013). "Revolutionary Art on the Streets of Tunisia". Roger Williams University. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  15. Letsinger, Brandon. "Creating the Political: Street Art after the Tunisia Revolution". Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  16. Korody, Nicholas (7 December 2011). "The Revolutionary Art: Street Art Before and After the Tunisian Revolution". Independent Study Project. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  17. "Tunisian artists use graffiti to fight religious extremism". Reuters. 7 September 2012. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  18. Amara, Tarek; Lin Noueihed (12 June 2012). "Islamists riot over "insulting" art". Reuters. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  19. Larkins, Zoe (26 June 2012). "Under New Regime, Tunisian Artists Face New Censorship". Art in America. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  20. Ryan, Yasmine (15 June 2012). "Tunisia's embattled artists speak out". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  21. Beardsley, Eleanor (28 September 2012). "Tunisians Battle Over The Meaning Of Free Expression". NPR. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  22. Weslaty, Lilia (10 September 2012). "Tunisia: Artists on the offensive with photo campaign". Nawaat. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  23. Harris, Gareth (11 July 2012). "After Islamist riots triggered by contemporary art fair, tensions remain high in Tunis". The Art Newspaper. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  24. Amara, Tarek (19 September 2012). "Tunisian artists cry for help against religious extremists". Reuters. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  25. Dettmer, Jamie (8 March 2013). "Tunisia's Female Artists Fear Islamist Repression". Voice of America. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  26. Jurich, Joscelyn (18 January 2013). "Revolution Hasn't Changed Artistic Censorship in Tunisia". Hyperallergic. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  27. Fordham, Alice (2 October 2012). "The battle for Tunisia's art and soul". The National. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  28. Hendoud, Henda. "Tunisie – Zwewla, le graffiti se révolte". Slate Afrique. Retrieved 20 April 2013.
  29. Ajmi, Sana (16 December 2012). "Tunisian graffiti artists targeted by law". Open Democracy. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  30. Davies, Catriona (20 September 2012). "Tunisian artist graffitis minaret, fights intolerance". CNN. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  31. Rao, Mallika (30 September 2012). "El Seed On Graffiti, Censorship In Tunisia, And Why Arabic Is An Artist's Best Friend". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  32. Ben Zineb, Sayda (31 July 2011). "Un lieu où se développent les pratiques artistiques contemporaines". Le Temps. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  33. Milliard, Coline (22 May 2012). "From the Ashes of Tunisia's Revolution, A Contemporary Art Scene Grows: A Q&A With Curator Khadija Hamdi". Artinfo UK. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  34. Triki, Rachida (February 2012). "Tunisia: A Dynamic and Vigilant Art Scene". Nafas Art Magazine. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  35. "Artocracy in Tunisia". JR. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  36. Ryan, Yasmine (26 March 2011). "Art challenges Tunisian revolutionaries". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  37. Bell, Melissa (25 March 2011). "Tunisia and the art revolution". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  38. "Revolutionary Tunisian Street Art". My Modern Met. Retrieved 19 April 2013. |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  39. ""DÉGAGE", COLLECTIF DE PHOTOGRAPHES TUNISIENS". Institut du Monde Arabe. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  40. Farhat, Mehdi (23 May 2011). "Le collectif Dégage révèle sa révolution". Slate Afrique. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  41. "DÉGAGEMENTS... LA TUNISIE UN AN APRÈS". Institut du Monde Arabe. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  42. Charlton, Emma (28 February 2012). "Art dissects Tunisia's revolution, one year on". AFP. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  43. Smadhi, Asma (2 April 2013). "Tunisian Student Organizes Revolutionary Art Exhibit in US". Tunisia Live. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  44. "ROSY FUTURE – CONTEMPORARY ART FROM TUNISIA". Contemporary &. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 12/21/2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.