Art challenges Tunisian revolutionaries
The Artocracy project, featuring photos of ordinary Tunisians, has proven art can be just as provocative as politics.
LE KRAM, TUNISIA — A crowd has gathered to ponder the black-and-white photographs which have been pasted across the face of building that was, until recent, the local offices of the former president’s much-loathed party.
“I have no idea what these photos mean. Do you know?” Meddeb Nejeb, a high school teacher, asks Al Jazeera.
He might be yet to grasp the meaning of the photographs, but Nejeb wants to know more.
For the artists behind what is one of the most ambitious contemporary street art projects to vibrate the Arab world, the artwork is about replacing the once all-pervasive presidential photography with mosaics of ordinary, anonymous Tunisians who rose up against their government.
The group are using street art to kick-start conversations and to challenge their compatriots to see the familiar in a new, post-revolutionary, light.
In the spirit of people-power, the project, titled “INSIDE OUT: Artocracy in Tunisia”, features a hundred ordinary Tunisians, putting their images where only presidents once hung. The portraits were taken by six Tunisian photographers, in collaboration with the renowned French street artist known as JR and other international artists.
Artocracy is part of an ongoing international project by JR and his collaborators, who have previously used such surprising canvases as the favelas of Brazil and the wall separating Palestine and Israel lands.
JR used some of the money he won as recipient of the 2011 TED Prize to seed the Tunisia project. Next stop for the INSIDE OUT team is probably Egypt, with other uprising-affected countries in the region likely to follow.
Photographer Marco Berrebi speaks with Al Jazeera about Artocracy
Marco Berrebi, a Tunisian photographer who has worked closely with JR on several of his previous projects, says that Artocracy is about giving people the freedom to debate the photographs and to come to their own conclusions.
“After 50 years of silence, people are willing to discuss, to talk, to challenge your ideas,” says Berrebi, who had long hoped to bring this type of street art to his home country.
“If people want to tear them down, or write something on them, that’s part of the project, that’s okay.”
Indeed, the group’s message of tolerance and the celebration of diversity has been met by lively debate wherever they have gone.
In spite of government authorisation, they had to abandon their first attempt to paste the images on a fortress La Goulette, a suburb north of the capital, after a crowd of locals turned angry. Posters the artists pasted during the night on the Porte de France, central Tunis, were torn down by 7am.
Learning from their mistakes, the Artocracy team took a more collaborative approach in Sfax, Sidi Bouzid and Le Kram, where they arrived earlier to explain the project and locals helped to create the collages on politically significant monuments.
Revolutionary fire still burns
Slim Zeghal, a Tunisian businessman who helped bring the project to Tunisia, says that the group did not expect to encounter the kind of opposition they met at La Goulette, and that the experience had reminded them that sensitivities are still raw.
“If you scratch beneath the surface, the fire’s still there,” Zeghal says. “We didn’t want to push things to the limit.”
Surprise might work with street art projects elsewhere, but the artists quickly realised dialogue is just as crucial to the artistic scene as it is to the political sphere in post-uprising Tunisia.
Aziz Tnani, one of the Tunisian photographers involved in the project, said that the experiences in La Goulette and Porte de France underlined the importance of consulting with local people.
“We didn’t involve people. They woke up and just found the pictures,” Tnani says of the first attempts to display the photos.
“Some people told us ‘we saw so many pictures for so many years, we don’t want anyone to impose their pictures anymore,'” he says.
When they arrived in Le Kram on Monday, the artists were working in collaboration with local community organisations, as they had in Sfax and Sidi Bouzid.
Sami Belhadj, a member of a recently-formed organisation that is focusing on building cultural, economic and social activity in the working-class neighbourhood, says his organisation willingly gave its support to the Artocracy project.
“They got in touch with us, and we said we would support them,” Belhadj says on Monday evening, speaking shortly after the images had gone up.
Despite participation from some of the locals, however, many people in Le Kram are opposed to the photos.
Belhadj and other members of the local organisation are standing below the building, trying to protect the images from those who wanted to take them down.
Looted and vandalised with the fall of Zine El Abdine Ben Ali’s regime, the building in Le Kram has since remained empty, aside from two homeless families who moved in.
With the RCD party formally dissolved earlier this month, the controversial structure, like many others across the country, has yet to be given a new official role in the new Tunisia.
Now the dozens of locals were debating whether these images have a place in their midst.
Belhadj was particularly worried about a small group of men who say the photos must come down because the portrayal of human beings is a violation of Islam.
“We know they will try to destroy them,” he says. “Before the Islamists were clandestine. This is the first confrontation we’ve had with them.”
Hassen Ben Zaied, another man standing in the crowd on Monday, was opposed to the portraits not for religious reasons, but because he thinks they are a needless provocation.
“We don’t need this kind of thing right now. All artistic projects belong in galleries or official spaces, not on the street,” Ben Zaied argues.
“You shouldn’t pray in the street, have alcohol in the street, or show photos that have no meaning.”
During the night, someone broke into the building. Only the outline of the heads was left, their faces scratched out.
Awatef Djebali, a divorced woman living with her daughter Norhane in the former RCD building, says whoever came during the night did so without waking them.
It was Norhane who told her mother that the photos were gone.
“The photos of the grandfathers are gone!” the eight-year-old exclaimed on Tuesday morning, her mother says.
Djebali says it could have been anyone. She suspects the culprit came from the ranks of the many young unemployed men who frequent the cafes with a view of the photos.
“They would have liked to see photos of pretty young women, not sad old men!” she laughs, noting the reaction from those who spend hours taking their coffee and cigarettes opposite the old RCD building.
A day earlier in Sidi Bouzid, the artists confronted similar issues. They were welcomed warmly by the people, many of whom helped to paste the portraits around their central Tunisian town.
One of the artists, Wissal Darguiche, was questioned by some people about why they weren’t using the photographs to commemorate those who died during the uprising.
“I responded that my photography was about showing life and the future,” she says, an argument many seemed to appreciate.
She suggested to local people that they create their own art to remember the fallen, and some said they would continue the project after the artists left.
While some of the younger men voiced their opposition to the images for religious reasons, many older men were vocally supportive of the art.
Yet many of the portraits were quickly taken down by men who argued they were too close to a mosque.
In the flux of Tunisia’s political transition, everything is contested after decades of imposed silence.
As the Artocracy project shows, public art is no exception.
“This discussion is sound and we should have this discussion, because that’s how we can prove Tunisia is a free country,” Berrebi says.
You can follow Yasmine on twitter @yasmineryan.