It has been sixty years since the last Tunisian artist, Abdelaziz Gorgi, was formally shown in New York, but that’s the first of two claims to history made by The After Revolution, a series of exhibitions showcasing Tunisian artists at White Box on the Lower East Side — the focus of this review — as well as 5Pointz in Long Island City and the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) Gallery on the Upper East Side. The exhibition’s second and more obvious claim to history is as a comprehensive engagement with the question of revolution as it stands in Tunisia, two years after Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself and brought down a tyrant.
“We never lived Tunisia, really,” curator Leila Souissi, a former journalist and diplomat who splits her time between Belgium and Tunisia, told me one recent afternoon. I was asking her about the purpose of The After Revolution, whether its intention was more archival or aspirational. It turns out that it’s a bit of both, though two years after the fall of Ben Ali, the focus is decidedly less journalistic and more contemplative, intentional.
“We ask these questions, not just for ourselves, but for our children,” she said, alluding specifically to the work of Patricia Triki, a half-Tunisian artist whose exhibited series of photographs manifests a fragile return from exile, a young female subject carrying a plaid suitcase in varying states of uncertainty; at once action and repose and a washed out nostalgia for the future.
But beyond these abstract considerations, Souissi stresses that the fundamental object of her show is to demonstrate, amid the uncertainty surrounding the durability of the democratic movement in Tunisia and elsewhere, that there is a vibrant and conscientious civil society in Tunisia, one belonging to a universal and humanistic tradition that extends beyond the arena of national politics.
Photographer Rim Temimi, whose series of multi-ethnic Tunisian matriarchs dominates the entrance and culminates in the brilliantly-titled split image “Ni Qab Ni Soumise,” explained that she finds it difficult to be strictly journalistic, that for her it is important to show the “happy, peaceful” vignettes of the Tunisian condition. This theme bears itself out throughout her works in the show, though she is at her strongest in the entrance photographs, striking images of women from backgrounds not readily associated with the dominant Tunisian identity — an elderly Jewish lady, a middle-aged woman of Italian heritage, and so on. “It was a great loss,” she says of the departure of Tunisia’s Jewish population in 1967.
The show alternated between quasi-archival images documenting the significant moments of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution alongside more quotidian moments and startlingly political mise-en-scène works. In contrast to the photographs were three large works of street art on Broome, opposite White Box, one a collaboration between eL Seed and Jaye, both Tunisian, and two solo works by eL Seed. In many ways, the vibrant immediacy of photography and street art, the raw character of both mediums, seems ideally suited to capturing the Tunisian political scene, though the more intimate FIAF Gallery show delivered some intriguing and melancholic works of painting.
Back at White Box, Amine Landoulsi’s “Madonna” (2011) was easily the most compelling photograph in the show, a young woman’s steely indignation framed by the battered Plexiglas of riot shields. It’s the kind of moment that stands athwart the messiness of politics in pregnant austerity, a character curator Leila Souissi compellingly described as “arresting the acceleration of time.”
Another standout was Wassim Ghozlani’s Sens Interdit series, which dominated White Box’s back wall with a slapstick narrative of a woman in a crimson niqab, as cryptic as it was playfully subversive. The artist’s mercurial sensibility, though fundamentally serious, was a refreshing departure from what can at times be a superficial and cloying documentary sincerity in works engaging the Arab Spring writ large.
Though any single-nationality show, especially one with such a deeply political focus, is bound to produce some uneven results, Leila Soussi’s The After Revolution can roundly be considered a triumph, a thoughtful presentation of emerging talent in Tunisia that managed to deliver a heterodox vision of a high-profile but ill-understood political moment.
The After Revolution continues at White Box (329 Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 18, at 5Pointz (45-46 Davis Street, Long Island City, Queens) through May 31, and at the French Institute Alliance Française Gallery (22 East 60th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 1.
The After Revolution was organized by the French Institute Alliance Française as part of its biennial World Nomads festival.