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, a year on, as seen by homegrown artists.
Photographs, graffiti, paintings, videos and sculpture explore the issues spotlighted with the ouster of dictator Zine al Abidine Ben Ali: freedom of speech and religion, women’s rights, the online world, democracy building and Islamism.
In a play on the protesters’ slogan “Degage!” (“Get out!”), the show is entitled “Degagements – Tunisia One Year On.” It 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 (or Arab World Institute) which organized the show.
The exhibit opens with an ironic self-immolation kit – gasoline and matches – imagined by Lebanon’s Ali Cherri as a tribute to 26-year-old Mohammad 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 realizing the time had come to act,” said Bloch, “but also how the events of last year are all part of a much longer process.”
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 Moammar Gadhafi, and Syria remains steeped in violence.
By contrast, Tunisia, whose revolt became known in certain circles as the Jasmine Revolution, has broken with authoritarian rule, electing a constituent assembly dominated by the Islamist party Ennahda.
“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.
Graffiti artist Sk-One shows a piece he painted on a wall of the Tunis kasbah during the revolt – a single eye staring out from between angry red lettering.
In a play on the name Tunisian youths gave to online censorship under Ben Ali’s regime, a collection of black-and-white portraits by Tunis-born photographer Hichem Driss is entitled “#404.”
Their eyes are blacked out to make them anonymous, but the subjects’ postures are feisty, proud – like a young veiled women who poses naked but for a lace bra, her arms crossed defiantly under her generous bust.
“They are like statues, totems, watching over what happens next,” Bloch observed. “They illustrate how in a sense each Tunisian has become his own boss, now Ben Ali has been thrown out.”
Part two of the show takes a wry look at the choices facing the fledgling North African democracy.
One powerful piece, by Tunisia-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 has its ends carved to look like colored crayons, hinting at the battle for free speech. The other has been shaped with 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 established last year to defend Tunis’s (non-existent) contemporary art museum.
“It is far from certain that the new authorities are going to be more supportive of art than the old ones,” Bloch agreed, adding: “There is no guarantee that we would be able to show this exhibition there.”
‘Degagements – Tunisia One Year On’ runs at Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe until April 1. For more information