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TUNIS — “Rien n’a changé” (“Nothing has changed”). This was the response of many I met in Tunisia last summer when I asked them how they felt about the Tunisian revolution. Rising unemployment and persistent security concerns were the main worries many cited, along with increasing threats to freedom of speech for journalists and artists (the most recent report by the Tunis Center for Press Freedom detailing such threats is here and an article describing freedom of speech restrictions in Tunisia in 2013 here).
Measuring how much has changed for art since the revolution of January 14, 2011 is still very much evolving. Curator and Tunis University professor Rachida Triki compiled a useful summary, explaining the structural transformation of the visual arts from their representation by one organization, the Association of Tunisian Visual Artists (Union des Artistes Plasticiens Tunisiens) to the multiplicity of arts organizations that now exist. Triki also notes the rise in art exhibitions and the fact that photography has become the most widespread medium.
Yet events of the past year indicate what the recent York University report “Out in the Open: Artistic Practices and Social Change in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia” finds: While public and graffiti art by artists like Tunisian eL Seed (who specializes in large scale calligraphic graffiti works) has been flourishing in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, arts in the “Arab Spring” countries are increasingly under threat from violence by ultra-conservative Salafists and government censorship is “largely still in place.” In June 2012, Salafists deemed blasphemous some works of art exhibited in the annual Printemps des Arts Fair. Violence and riots broke out throughout Tunisia as a result and some artists who participated in the exhibit, like photographer Yasmine Ryan, described the targeted artists as scapegoats, arguing that censorship in Tunisia has shifted from being political to being religious and moral. Sixteen individuals implicated in the violence last June were recently sentenced to one month in jail.
It was during this period of unrest that I photographed some of the street art in Tunisia and discussed the post-revolutionary state of the arts with Tunisian painter and physician Sami Oueslati. My photos appear in this post, and other slideshows of Tunisian street art can be found here and here. My conversation with Ouselati follows.
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Joscelyn Jurich: Describe your first reaction these murals commemorating the Tunisian revolution.
Sami Oueslati: To tell the truth I was the most surprised by the dynamism that suddenly overtook the Tunisian population, made up in large part by young people with a considerable level of education. There was massive participation and development of graffiti art that went beyond political subjects or pseudo revolution. Another really interesting phenomenon is Arab calligraphy that was reserved before to a particular elite class. Now all over the democratizing world, calligraphy is taking on a graphic and mural form.
JJ: Public art like these murals could not have and did not exist before the Tunisian revolution. Can you explain the situation for public art before the January 14th uprisings?
SO: Art in all its forms is the profound expression of genius and psychological pulsation. Without total freedom that puts aside all forms of social and religious taboos, it cannot be expressed. Without this space of freedom the artist will be frustrated and depressed or may channel his genius into serving a cause that limits his space of freedom. In general, it’s totalitarian regimes that are the cause of these limits and these are the regimes that will benefit from the artist who puts his talent to work in the service of the state propaganda machine useful for every totalitarian regime.
JJ: These murals that celebrate the revolution are close to the Ministry of the Interior, which is still surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by tanks, along with numerous soldiers. What do you think about this proximity?
SO: The French Revolution was marked by the destruction of the Bastille, a place very symbolic of tyranny and of religious and monarchical powers. If you visit Paris, you will see that they even destroyed the foundation of the Bastille — all the remains are a few stones in the Metro “Bastille.” The Ministry of the Interior is in some ways our Bastille that was not destroyed. This proves that what is called the Tunisian revolution has not really succeeded and in fact today one might have the impression that the revolution has failed. Add to that the support Islamists are getting from the American government and the Gulf monarchies … some years ago, Islamist movements were blacklisted and their leader barred from entering the United States. Today the American government is supporting the same people. Another thing that many Tunisians cannot begin to understand and feel bitter about are the political parties in Tunisia that use Islam against every form of democracy and above all against every form of artistic expression.
JJ: Last summer, Tunisian artists Nadia Jelassi and Mohamed Ben Slama were charged with disturbing the peace for art exhibited at the Palais Abdellia in the suburb of La Marsa. Salafist groups condemned the exhibit as morally offensive and violence broke out as a result. Describe the significance of this controversy.
SO: The Ennahda party orchestrated the La Marsa controversy. Everything was planned to create an explosive scenario. This is very important, serious and significant. Art is free expression; if it is not, there is no art. Art is the engine that will push society to move forward and uplift it to evolve.
The Ennahda Islamist machine tried to make this controversy into a way to turn the country toward total disorder and to take power. Recall that in Islam, figurative art existed in Shiite and Sunni Iraq and in Turkey and that there are many Islamic textual explanations that permit it. There is nothing concrete in fundamental Islamic texts that prohibit the representation of the Prophet. It’s only very rigid interpretations of the Koran that banned figurative art and representations of the Prophet. Furthermore, the painting in question was not even included in the exhibit. What happened there is very significant because it was a battle between the forces that want our society to evolve and liberate itself from taboos and the forces of religion that meddle in politics with the aim of making our society stagnant or even turning it backward so that a dictatorship could be easily reinstalled.
Even though the Tunisian revolution has had some failures, it’s a revolution that surely could change the history of all humanity. There is something new on the horizon and it exists thanks to the artists who always resist and who will keep the flame of the revolution alive.