From bold portraits to wry cartoons on the Islamist resurgence at the polls, a Paris show explores the roots and branches of Tunisia’s revolution, one year on, as seen by home-grown artists.
Photographs, graffiti, paintings, videos and sculpture explore the issues spotlighted with the ouster of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali: freedom of speech and religion, women’s rights, the online world, democracy building and Islamism.
Titled “Degagements — Tunisia One Year On” in a play on the protestors’ slogan “Degage!”, which means “Get out!”, the show spans three generations of artists, all but three Tunisian or French-Tunisian, with works created before and after the December 2010 uprising.
“Of all the Arab revolts Tunisia has gone the furthest in leading to a democratic process,” explained Geraldine Bloch, chief curator at Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA, or Arab World Institute) which organised the show.
The exhibit opens with an ironic self-immolation kit — gasoline and matches — imagined by Lebanon’s Ali Cherri: a tribute to 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, the desperate fruit seller who sparked the revolt by setting himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid.
“We wanted to show how this one event jolted people into realising the time had come to act — but also how the events of last year are all part of a much longer process,” said Bloch.
As the tide of change sweeping the region enters a second year, Egypt is ruled by an unpopular military and still shaken by unrest, Libya is in turbulence despite the rebel victory over Moamer Kadhafi, and Syria remains steeped in violence.
By contrast Tunisia, whose revolt became known as the jasmine revolution, has broken with authoritarian rule, electing a constituent assembly dominated by the Islamist party Al-Nahda.
“We wanted to take stock,” Bloch said. “At the time artists were in the street, not in their workshops. But we wanted to show how the revolutionary aesthetic has impacted their art.”
Photo “postcards” by Wassim Ghozlani, snapped in outlying parts of the country, highlight how the revolt took root in these poorer regions, whose people descended on the capital to defend their rights.
Franco-Moroccan artist Majida Khattari explores the “organic” nature of social upheaval, with a field of ceramic cones shooting like rhizomes from a bed of charcoal — a soil both scorched and fertile — glazed with jasmine patterns or Arabic script lifted from Tunisia’s national anthem.
And graffiti artist Sk-One shows a piece he painted on the wall of the Tunis kasbah during the revolt, a single eye staring out from between angry red lettering.
A collection of black-and-white portraits, by Tunis-born photographer Hichem Driss, is entitled #404 in a play on the name given by Tunisian youths to online censorship under Ben Ali’s regime.
Their eyes are blacked out to make them anonymous, but the subjects’ postures are feisty, proud — like a young veiled women who poses naked in a lace bra, her arms crossed defiantly under a generous bust.
“They are like statues, totems, watching over what happens next. They illustrate how in a sense each Tunisian has become his own boss, now Ben Ali has been thrown out,” said Bloch.
Part two of the show takes a wry look at the choices facing the fledgling democracy.
One powerful piece, by Tunisian-based Aisha Filali, is made from the branches of a tree from her garden, that was bound by a metal frame so tightly that it withered and died — a potent metaphor for totalitarian rule.
From the salvaged wood, she created two sculptures — one with its ends carved into coloured crayons, hinting at the battle for free speech, the other into bright green buds that suggest the Islamist revival.
“Willis from Tunis” — a cartoon cat by Nadia Khiari that went viral during the revolt — also raises the Islamist issue as he peers into the mirror, asking: “Should I shave this morning? I think I will wait until the election result.”
Other pieces skewer the lack of space for Tunisia’s artists at home, referring to a tongue-in-cheek collective set up last year to defend Tunis’ contemporary art museum — which does not exist.
“It is far from certain that the new authorities are going to be more supportive of art than the old ones,” agreed Bloch, “There is no guarantee that we would be able to show this exhibition there.”
“Degagements — Tunisia One Year On” runs at Paris’ until April 1.