In Tunis, Art Reinvents and Liberates the City

29 August, 2022
Bab Bhar, the old door mark­ing the sep­a­ra­tion between the med­i­na and the mod­ern city (pho­to Lost in Tunis).

 

Sarah Ben Hamadi

 

“Home Sweet Home.”

Few peo­ple know that John Howard Payne, the Amer­i­can author of this famous expres­sion, which has become pop­u­lar around the world, lived and died in Tunis, where he served for a decade as U.S. Con­sul. I myself only found out very recent­ly, dur­ing a BBC report on the con­sular dis­trict of the med­i­na in Tunis, yet I have always lived in the Tunisian capital.

Tunis is a city with a thou­sand and one facets, and a thou­sand and one secrets, which we dis­cov­er every time we walk the streets, even if we have lived here all our lives. As French Tunisian jour­nal­ist Ami­ra Souilem described it in a recent report on Radio France Inter­na­tion­al, Tunis is a bit­ter­sweet city par excel­lence. In my view, Tunis is sweet by virtue of its mag­nif­i­cent light, bit­ter by its often dirty streets; sweet by the beau­ty of its old art deco build­ings, bit­ter by its anar­chic stalls; sweet by the patience of its inhab­i­tants, bit­ter by their often dif­fi­cult dai­ly lives — a city of con­tra­dic­tions, where every­thing inter­twines to cre­ate its charm.

In Tunis, it is impos­si­ble not to suc­cumb to the charm of the med­i­na, clas­si­fied as a world her­itage site by UNESCO, and its mag­nif­i­cent res­i­dences, despite their some­times dilap­i­dat­ed state. But if the inter­est of tourists, his­to­ri­ans and archi­tects is often drawn to this unavoid­able dis­trict of the cap­i­tal, the so-called “Euro­pean” city cen­ter, which was built by the French dur­ing the era of col­o­niza­tion, does not lack inter­est or charm. Delim­it­ed by what is called Bab Bhar (Sea Gate), or “Gate of France,” which sep­a­rates it from the tra­di­tion­al med­i­na, the city cen­ter is the beat­ing heart of the capital.

Avenue de la Lib­erté, a street in down­town Tunis (pho­to Lost in Tunis).

When we think of the city center’s down­town area, we often think of the stalls of the Avenue de Carthage, its cen­tral mar­ket with its beau­ti­ful col­ors, the love­ly Cathe­dral of St. Vin­cent de Paul Avenue Bour­gui­ba, and the impos­ing Min­istry of the Inte­ri­or, sym­bol of the police state of Ben Ali. This was where, on Jan­u­ary 14, 2011, Tunisians came to assert their anger and shout “GET OUT!” to a self-installed author­i­tar­i­an pres­i­dent who had ruled for 23 years. 

Today, walk­ing in the heart of the city, beyond the art deco and art nou­veau build­ings — built between the 19th and 20th cen­tu­ry and as attrac­tive as they are dilap­i­dat­ed — we can­not but cast our gaze at the walls, now invad­ed by graf­fi­ti and street art.

That’s just as well, because in Tunis you have to look at the walls to under­stand the sit­u­a­tion. These walls, which were so white before 2011, have become the log­book of the city. In fact, just as it inspired John Howard Payne with his poems in the 18th cen­tu­ry, Tunis today inspires young artists who set out to reclaim it by mak­ing its walls speak.

 

In Tunis, the walls have much to say

Since the pop­u­lar upris­ing of 2011, the walls of Tunis have spo­ken vol­umes. They tell and trace the dai­ly life of the city. Young street artists have appro­pri­at­ed these walls and, through their work, made them a sound­ing board for society.

“The poor man was buried alive” (pho­to Zwewla).

Sev­er­al artist col­lec­tives have sprung up dur­ing the past decade, their mem­bers shar­ing their dashed hopes, their dis­com­fort and their slo­gans on the walls. Such is the case with Zwewla (“the poor” in Tunisian dialect), a col­lec­tive of anony­mous anti-sys­tem tag­gers whose sig­na­ture Z is rec­og­niz­able as the aveng­ing Z of Zor­ro, and whose objec­tive is to raise aware­ness of social injus­tice with clan­des­tine tags.

Social tol­er­ance for these ille­gal tags fol­low­ing the rev­o­lu­tion failed to dis­suade the local author­i­ties from arrest­ing two of the collective’s graf­fi­ti artists, Ousse­ma Bouag­i­la and Chahine Berriche, in Gabes (south­ern Tunisia) in 2013, accus­ing them of spread­ing false infor­ma­tion and under­min­ing pub­lic order. The case cre­at­ed con­tro­ver­sy because it was con­sid­ered an attack on free­dom of expres­sion in a peri­od of demo­c­ra­t­ic tran­si­tion, where rev­o­lu­tion­ary achieve­ments remain frag­ile. Per­haps for this rea­son, Bouag­i­la and Berriche were quick­ly released and fined a mere 100 dinars ($30).

“Is this the life for which I was kick­ing in my moth­er’s womb?” Quote from Gibran Khalil Gibran (pho­to Lost in Tunis).

A mode of expres­sion con­sid­ered sub­ver­sive, ephemer­al and in con­stant renew­al, street art allows peo­ple to con­test, denounce and shake up social codes in the pub­lic space. For a decade now, the walls of Tunis have served as a forum for com­mu­ni­ca­tion on issues of social justice.

But are artists oblig­ed to con­vey a mes­sage through their works? Not nec­es­sar­i­ly, accord­ing to Meh­di Ben Cheikh, artist and own­er of a Parisian gallery spe­cial­iz­ing in urban and con­tem­po­rary Tunisian art. Orga­niz­er of numer­ous projects both here and there, such as La Tour Paris 13 and Djer­ba­hood (street art project in the island of Djer­ba in south­ern Tunisia), Ben Cheikh explains that “there is no manda­to­ry mes­sage in art. Paint­ing in the street is already a polit­i­cal act in itself.”

Lost in Tunis

Defin­ing him­self as an urbex­er, Mourad Ben Cheikh Ahmed, ama­teur pho­tog­ra­ph­er, likes to get off the beat­en track in order to (re)discover for­got­ten and lost cor­ners of Tunis. With his cam­era, he archives the city from all these angles on his blog Lost in Tunis. Ahmed has observed Tunis over the years and doc­u­ment­ed its evo­lu­tion: “The graf­fi­ti have become much more politi­cized; the lev­el has evolved too,” he says. “We went from tags on the sly to well-devel­oped fres­coes or con­cepts. There are teams…They put in more resources. Some murals take more than a week of work for a team of tag­gers, so rich are they in detail.”

And indeed, unlike the first clan­des­tine tags that we observed a few years ago, today the walls are cov­ered by giant fres­coes, with mul­ti­ple social and polit­i­cal messages.

 Art made accessible

 We can also observe this renewed artis­tic inter­est in down­town Tunis man­i­fest­ing itself in a framed way, through the mush­room­ing of new art gal­leries in the cap­i­tal. Some gal­leries, such as 32 Bis and Cen­tral Tunis, have revived neglect­ed areas in the heart of the city. Oth­ers are based in areas such as Sidi Bou Said and Marsa.

Thus, the walls of the for­mer Philips fac­to­ry, built in 1953 in down­town Tunis, became the hybrid art space 32 Bis. This is a spa­cious gallery of some 4,000 square meters, fit­ted out and trans­formed — on a street known for the sale of tools and spare parts, where art tra­di­tion­al­ly has had no place — “in order to cre­ate links with the inhab­i­tants of the dis­trict,” accord­ing to its direc­tor, Camille Lévy. 32 Bis coheres with the neigh­bor­hood and lends space to an artist such as Atef Maatal­lah. He paint­ed a giant fres­co rep­re­sent­ing the work­ers of the con­struc­tion site who con­tributed to the rede­vel­op­ment of the fac­to­ry into a gallery. Maatal­lah observes that many neigh­bor­hood passers­by are uncer­tain that such a grand gallery real­ly is for them, but the fres­co is an open invi­ta­tion. “[My work] allows all these peo­ple to know that they can come inside,” he says.

 

 

2021 pho­to show at Cen­tral Tunis gallery (pho­to Cen­tral Tunis).

A few streets away, on Avenue Carthage, near the icon­ic Barcelona Square train and bus sta­tion through which thou­sands of Tunisians pass every day, the Cen­tral Tunis gallery was inau­gu­rat­ed in 2018. It’s an impres­sive cul­tur­al project, to be sure, intend­ed to serve a wide range of view­ers and art lovers from all social class­es, while mak­ing art more accessible.

Facade of the Cen­tral Tunis gallery, fres­co by Jaye de Tunis (pho­to Cen­tral Tunis).

Found­ed by Emna Ben Yed­der, Meh­di Tamarziste and Arij Kallel, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Soumaya Jeb­nai­ni, Cen­tral Tunis pro­pos­es artis­ti­cal­ly chal­leng­ing but finan­cial­ly acces­si­ble art, and sup­ports both estab­lished and emerg­ing artists. As Emna Ben Yed­der explains, “Each time we have an exhi­bi­tion, we ask the artists to pro­pose vari­a­tions of cer­tain works that will not hurt the artist’s price range but which, by propos­ing anoth­er type of work, can be sold at a low­er price. Thus, one can find at Cen­tral lith­o­graphs, engrav­ings, seri­graphs or col­lages. This gives a greater num­ber of art lovers the pos­si­bil­i­ty to go home with some­thing to call their own.”

Ben Yed­der, who has been very involved in rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing Tunisian soci­ety since the ouster of Ben Ali in 2011, con­sid­ers Cen­tral Tunis’ mis­sion to cel­e­brate the joy and free­dom of art while stray­ing from the beat­en path, propos­ing paint­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy and instal­la­tions that search for mean­ing. Words that come up in con­ver­sa­tion with Ben Yed­der are “free,” “exper­i­men­tal,” “lib­er­at­ed” and “joy­ful.”

A cat­a­lyst of Tunis’s new urban dynam­ics, the cre­ation of art in the heart of the city is in turn inte­grat­ed into the muta­tions of the lat­ter. And so, for the past ten years, the city has been under­go­ing a sub­tle trans­for­ma­tion, through artis­tic move­ments and projects, indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive, clan­des­tine and legal. It is a trans­for­ma­tion that push­es back the walls of clas­si­cal cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions and makes art more acces­si­ble. It is also a ves­tige of Tunisi­a’s strug­gling democracy.

 

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Sarah Ben Hamadi is a renowned blogger and has collaborated with various international media. Her writing focuses on societal and cultural issues in her country, Tunisia, and in the Arab world. Active in nonprofits, she was a board member of the think tank Le Labo Démocratique, and a member of the Tunisian Pact. She is a communications director based in Tunis.

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