Public space as a place for debate

Following the Tunisian Revolution, the streets and squares of the country have increasingly become a space for expression and communication, from established festivals to transient performances.

 

Art / Marco Scarpinato

In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi — a young, unemployed graduate forced to work as a street vendor to survive — set himself on fire in front of Sidi Bouzid’s government buildings, as a form of protest following the apprehension of his merchandise. This is how the revolution began in Tunisia; and in this moment, the aspiration for a better future ceased to be a private matter and became a political idea, expressed in the urban space.

 

Many images of the Tunisian Revolution feature Avenue Bourghiba: a café-lined street and a preferred location for an evening stroll, which became a stage for demonstrations and clashes. The avenue has extra symbolism since it leads to the Carthage archaeological site, and is the main crossing of the colonial quarter, where the Ministry of the Interior and the French Embassy are located.

Artocratie en Tunisie. Photo JR with Sophia Baraket, Rania Dourai, Wissal Dargueche, Aziz Tnani, Hichem Driss and Hela Ammar

Before the revolution, it was impossible to discuss politics collectively; the word freedom could not be uttered; and the only route available for the creation of debate — albeit in a hesitant and controlled form — was urban art. As a result, choreographers Selma and Sofiane Ouissi have, since 2007, organised DreamCity, a biennial art festival in the public space. The event has led to the rediscovery of the Tunis medina — an area of the city at the risk of abandonment following the movement of its inhabitants to the suburbs — by both the working class still living in the area and the bourgeois elite. However, the two years since the revolution have not been wasted and Tunisian society, newly conscious of freedom, has begun to demand other spaces for expression.

Artocratie en Tunisie. Photo JR with Sophia Baraket, Rania Dourai, Wissal Dargueche, Aziz Tnani, Hichem Driss and Hela Ammar

Despite the climate of uncertainty that affected last year’s programme up to the last minute, the 2012 edition of DreamCity was held in the Tunis medina, and for the first time, in the Sfax medina. Outstanding among the many events in the programme were Counfa, an installation by Hela Ammar in the underground garage of the Kasbah (an enormous, dark, labyrinthine space which explored the prison world, also highlighting the country’s current state), and director and choreographer Malek Sebai’s performance among the card catalogue of the Ancienne Bibliothèque Nationale. The performance reinterpreted traditional dance using contemporary bodies, and involved space and spectators in the retelling of ancestral traditions and ancient superstitions.

Hela Hammar, Counfa, installation in the underground parking of Place de la Kasbah. © Photo: Dream City 2012

Despite its notoriety, DreamCity is not the only art festival in Tunisia to take place in public space. After the revolution, different projects have been developed that have viewed the public space and collective arena as territory for artistic exploration.

 

Far from the urban centres, the work promoted by the Ouissi brothers with the project Laaroussa (“doll” in Berber) has reinterpreted the local identity through contemporary artistic languages. Starting in 2011 in the Berber village of Sejnane, where the women — following a thousand-year old tradition — produce painted ceramic objects and statues, Laaroussa has led to the creation of a collective made up of around sixty women and ten artists. Their aim is to reinterpret the artisan tradition through contemporary art. Despite its notoriety, DreamCity is not the only art festival in Tunisia to take place in public space. After the revolution, different projects have been developed that have viewed the public space and collective arena as territory for artistic exploration.

Project Laaroussa's women at work. © Photo Markus Luecke

In March 2011, as part of the project Inside Out, French photographer JR and Tunisian photographers Sophia Baraket, Rania Dourai, Wissal Dargueche, Aziz Tnani, Hichem Driss and Hela Ammar developed Artocratie en Tunisie. They toured the country creating 100 portraits of men and women who represent the diversity of the population; the works have been set up at symbolic points around the streets of Tunis.

 

In some cases, the project has been met with opposition. At La Goulette, for example, the portraits were glued up in the place where, before the revolution, the image of the now-deposed president Ben Ali had been. The photos were torn down because the people there, after having suffered the imposition of the ruler’s face in every urban space, did not want to see new faces on their walls (not even the faces of normal people!).

An aspect of the "symbolic march towards democracy". © Photo by Houda Ghorbel

The recent debate on freedom of expression and, in particular, on graffiti demonstrates that the public space is now no longer seen as somewhere to assert popular rights, but is becoming — increasingly — an arena for new forms of expression. Moving in this direction are small initiatives like Tsaw’Art, organised by Michela Sarti and Lassad Ben Abdallah, marking the centenary of the Mairie at La Marsa, a coastal town near Tunis that is a favourite with artists and intellectuals.

 

With its slogan “la rue aux artistes” [“the street to the artists”], this grass-roots initiative has involved artists, painters, poets, acrobats, dancers, musicians, photographers, sculptors, pedestrians and the curious, fusing the political dimension of the public space with the joyful one of art. The town authorities authorised the event and even this represents a step forward since, after the revolution, it has no longer been necessary to wait for the approval of the state censors before staging a street event.

"Tsaw’Art: la rue aux artistes". © Photo François Bioche/ Sika Photography

Last December began the symbolic march towards democracy promoted by the multi-disciplinary artist Houda Ghorbel with the help of volunteers recruited via Facebook and a grant from the AFAC. During the march, which started at Avenue Bourguiba with stops at Sousse, Sfax, Gabes and Bizerte, the volunteers have been carrying large, three-dimensional letters making up the word democracy and highlighting the two values summarising the meaning of this word: these are represented by hundreds of eyes and mouths of Tunisians, who can finally see what is happening and say what is wrong.

An aspect of the "symbolic march towards democracy". © Photo by Houda Ghorbel

Le printemps quand même: Arts, Territoires, Citoyenneté is a project taking place in the region of Redeyef, in the mining basin of Gafsa. For some months, director Yagoutha Belgacem, on behalf of the organisation Siwa, has been guiding the work, which highlights artistic training and participation with the aim of focusing on the inhabitants of the area. The project aims to find a point of contact between the political and social maturity of the Tunisian hinterland and contemporary art. It is not limited to using artists to work in the public space but brings this experience to the region as a whole with the aim of developing it in the local context through participation and the creation of artist residencies.

Project Le printemps quand meme. Arts, Territoires, Citoyenneté ; Choreographic Residence by Imen Smaoui. © Photo Laurent Malone

Public space in Tunisia has increasingly become a space for expression and communication. However, the recent events related to the murder of Chokri Belaid and the climate of uncertainty dominating since the fall of the government demonstrate that it is not straightforward to take possession of the public space, just as it is not straightforward to take possession of democracy. Marco Scarpinato, AutonomeForme

Artocratie en Tunisie, JR with Sophia Baraket, Rania Dourai, Wissal Dargueche, Aziz Tnani, Hichem Driss and Hela Ammar