The alternative voices: Artists in the Arab world

9 September 2015


Sandwiched between two of the most deadly terrorist attacks Tunisia has known in decades, several dozen artists from the Arab world gathered in Tunis to debate the link between art and violence. Many face censorship or deadly threats to their art and lives as their countries have been sucked into violence on a scale last experienced a century ago.

Freemuse correspondent Daniel Brown gauged the fragile yet courageous initiatives on display in and around Tunis, where artists of all disciplines united to offer alternatives to Manichean visions of the turmoil in the Arab world.

By Daniel Brown    INSIGHT 

Breaking down the walls of perception
It’s a simple enough display: five Rubik’s cubes aligned under the cold glare of a white neon light. There’s one distinctive feature, however: the coloured squares originally conceived by Hungarian Ernö Rubik 41 years ago are now all black with moving horizontal lines of white tape transforming the cubes into a provocative representation of Mecca.

The 2004 work is called ‘Brainteaser for a Moderate Muslim’, conceived by Moroccan Mounir Fatmi and described by critic Lillian Davies in the following words: “The optical exchange that takes place between mental image and physical object creates a bond reminiscent of Sufism. The ‘house of God’ is no longer at the centre but becomes an image to be played with.”

11 years later, ‘Brainteaser’ takes on an entirely new dimension. Arab artists are confronting a contemporary world in which revolution and war have shaken convictions to their foundations. As part of a collective work seeking to represent the new élan and contradictions in much of the Arab world, the Moroccan’s cube mirrors many of the convictions of Lina Lazaar, young curator of ‘All the World’s a Mosque’ (meaning: ‘The entire world is a mosque’).

Lina Lazaar

“Nowadays, we must pick up the gauntlet thrown in our faces by the extremists.” Lazaar’s arms make a circular movement to embrace her giant installation. “To do this, I’ve tried to deconstruct and dissect all these superficial exterior symbols that define the Islam of today. We must go beyond the outer shell, le contenant, represented by the veil or the minaret, and plunge into what our religion truly contains, le contenu, enriched by the philosophies of Rumi and, more recently, the Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb (ed. one of the Arab world’s leading literary figures who died in November 2014, see You can read their enlightened vision on all the walls here. The idea of these containers is to export them around the world to challenge the reductionist visions of Islam.”

The polyglot, named one of the ten most influential people in Middle Eastern art paused and smiled as if a bit dazed at the realisation she had pulled it off.

“We collected all these works in the space of three weeks. The artists shared our need to make an artistic statement as quickly as possible after the Bardo massacre two months ago. I think we pulled it off.”

The hundreds of visitors filing out of the two-floor installation, appeared to concur. The Rubik’s cubes is on the first floor of a two-floor assembly of 22 bordeaux-coloured shipping containers assembled like giant Lego pieces with bridges and stairwells linking them together. According to the promotion, it aims for “an interplay between sacred space, religious ritual, cultural content and everyday life.”

The result is an unlikely elegance to the 2,000m² assemblage set up in a parking lot of Carthage’s most famous theatre. The whole reflects Fatmi’s cubes: splayed open, exposing the doubts and vulnerability of a composite Arab community of artists that have rarely come together before. But also mirroring the unerring courage and defiance of artists who have not cowed to pressures of comformity and threat swirling inside and outside the Arab world.


Art in the face of violence
‘All the World’s a Mosque’ also attempted to reflect the spirit of reconciliation sought by the organisers of the third edition of Jaou. ‘Jaou’ is a Tunisian colloquial expression translating as ‘pleasure’ or ‘nice atmosphere’. According to its founder Kamel Lazaar – a Geneva-based Tunisian banking entrepreneur and, yes, Lina’s father – Jaou was initiated as a meeting of minds to overcome what he told me was “the often painful relationship between art and politics in the Islamic world.”

Following so shortly after the bloody 18 March attack in the Bardo museum, this leitmotiv was replaced by an urgent need to assess the role of art in the face of violence.

Kamel Lazaar

“This was a barbaric attack against our heritage,” underlines Kamel Lazaar in a frank exchange outside the conference room. “We had to react and there is nothing better than visual arts to counter this disease poisoning our lives. Artists have this capacity to heighten awareness, explain and thereby change perceptions. Paradoxically, in the difficult economic climate we’re experiencing here in Tunisia there has never been so many art galleries opened, debates and forums on the state of the arts in our country. And we take pride in being at the forefront of such reflections in the Arab world.”

Participants at the third edition of Jaou

Kamel Lazaar’s words have been borne out by empirical studies published by Annabelle Boissier. The French social anthropologist from Aix-en-Provence’s LAMES research institute examined Tunisia’s artistic evolution between 2003 and 2013. At Jaou, Boissier underlined four trends over that decade: the number of Tunisian artists has doubled, there are three times as many men involved, there was a sharp rise in artists born after 1980, and international exposure has also seen a steep climb.

“But let’s not get carried away,” she says, “artists remain on the sidelines, even if they are respected for their intellectual pedigree and what they contributed to the revolution. New pressures are discouraging more from joining: nowadays, they no longer face as much censorship from official circles, but there is a degree of self-censorship and peer pressure which stymies their development.”

Since 2011, academics have been scrutinising Tunisia’s artistic laboratory with growing interest: “The first two years of the revolution there was an incredible energy,” explains Rachida Triki, art critic, curator and university professor in Tunis.

“Cultural associations and artists groups sprouted everywhere, including in the swathes of territory marginalised by the central government since independence. Regions like Kef, Sbeïtla and Bizerte have spawned women’s theatre, youth exhibitions, musical creations in rural towns where self-censorship and financial marginalisation had dominated for the previous 50 years. These were places forgotten by the political and cultural elite. That’s no longer the case. But with all the political uncertainties, this creative drive is running out of breath, artists are becoming frustrated, certain old bad habits – corruption, elitism – of the pre-revolution days are returning. Add to that the growing insecurity and catastrophic economic realities we’re experiencing, and you can imagine how challenging it is to be a Tunisian artist nowadays.”

“Artists are like turtles: slow but with beautiful resistant shells”
These concerns were at the heart of the sometimes heated exchanges during the symposium. Participants argued that art in Tunisia continues to be dominated by the upper-middle classes, excluding the dynamic community of street artists as well as creators from the rural areas. Artists denounced laws and certain bureaucrats from the Ben Ali era working within administration who, they claim, continue to bar artistic expression and attempts at reform by the newly-elected representatives.

But it was the financial strangulation which appeared to pre-occupy many other artists present. Respected Tunisian film-maker Moncef Dhouib clashed openly with the recently-deposed Minister for Culture Mourad Sakli over “the impossible bureaucracy barring (artists) from subsidies” available at the Ministry.

Dhouib claimed it nipped artistic projects in the bud and had forced dozens of film-makers and creative artists to abandon their careers. He explained: “There are 7,000 employees there overlooking 2,000 Tunisian artists and eating up over 70 per cent of a budget which is supposed to feed into our works!”

Mourad Sakli
Mourad Sakli

Sakli, an internationally-recognised musician himself, roundly denied the charges, claiming the state budget for culture of 0.85 per cent was the highest in the Arab world, and that over 700 culture institutions had been established around the nation. “After the 2011 revolution,” he told the audience in the Bardo basement seminar room, “civil society became a lot more active and this is reflected in the cultural policies and new laws the successive governments have instigated.”

Government authorities plead mitigating circumstances in explaining its difficulties in instigating meaningful legal, social and economic reforms to help artists. A debilitating international recession, steep drops in tourism revenue and a form of artistic anarchy have put a brake on several initiatives, they claim. “We’re still in the apprenticeship phase as far as freedom of expression and democratic processes are concerned,” insists Sakli after the symposium. “And that implies all the unfortunate abuses we’ve seen. There is work to do with the younger generations, from kindergarten upwards, in order to guarantee this responsibility towards artistic freedom.”

For the former Carthage Festival director, a greater involvement from the private sector is also vital to guarantee artists the creative space they so crave. Sakli insists there are government subsidies and infrastructural support out there, but Tunisian artists are still grappling with the know-how to use them.

Olfa Feki

“That’s only in theory,” denounces Olfa Feki of the Maison de l’Image she cofounded in 2014. “These new laws are never applied, and artists are discouraged by the mind-numbing bureaucracy where projects are lost, you’re sent from post to post, people refuse to take any responsibility, there is a general paralysis. The only projects which seem to get speedy approval are linked to gastronomy or tourism.”

Dhouib believes 80 per cent of an artist’s energy is spent trying to find public subsidies and several have given up as a result. “But we’re persuading the private sector to get more involved,” he says with a wry smile under his bushy pepper hair. His trademark moustache twitches. “It’s a slow process all this, but we’re still here, an open conversation with a top politician like this shows we’re changing little by little. My symbol has always been the turtle: we creators are slow but have a beautiful shell that’s resistant.”

“Without censorship we have nothing to lean on”
Not all Tunisian artists share this cautious optimism. And the challenges to their artistic freedom do not necessarily only come from ultra-conservative religious groups. The latter made headlines back in 2012 when their followers attacked an exhibit in La Marsa because artist Mohammed Ben Slama used ants to spell out the word ‘Allah’. By a quirk of the calendar, the Jaou symposium coincided with ‘L’Autre(s)’, an exhibition in central Paris organised by two Tunisian artists, Sonia Said and Jaleleddine Abidi.

The modest event centred on the visions of war and peace by a dozen artists from the Arab world. At the opening, Abidi was scathing about the artist’s lot in contemporary Tunisia: “Corruption has become rampant,” he tells me, “artists have to circumvent the state administration and find new ways of getting their artworks into the public eye. We have created alternative networks which do not depend on public money. Painting is one thing but theatre has become the best form of communicating widely, usually in the street or far from the major cities.” Before leaving his homeland, Abidi had devoted his energy to working with local youth in the isolated western region around the Jebel Chaambi mountains.

From his exiled home of Paris, the 33-year-old has an unusual take on the realities for artists since the 2011 revolution: “There is currently no limit to our freedom of expression in Tunisia. And this handicaps the artist. In the past, they used censorship as a trampoline, it set up the walls we tried to break through. Now that’s gone, we’ve got nothing to lean on.”

Invited painter Houda Ajili believes there is a question of class hampering Tunisia’s artist community currently. “There is an elite group based in the outskirts of Tunis, Sidi Bou Said, La Marsa and its Café Saf Saf,” she explains during her visit to Paris.

The curator of the Salon d’Automne International en Tunisie is scathing: “There is a union of fine artists with about 500 members in Tunisia. Only ten percent really fructified after Ben Ali’s overthrow. Those others, artists on a Sunday, have nothing to do with art. They took advantage of the revolution, while a minority lived it firsthand, on the barricades. I didn’t touch a paintbrush for three years, I didn’t have time, I was in the streets all the time soaking it all up.”

Said Aïdi, Health Minister

Selective government support
Ajili survives thanks to grants from abroad and a Commission of Purchase set up by Tunisia’s Ministry of Culture. This structure uses its budget of 1 billion dinars a year (450,000€) to purchase up to two works per artist. Newly-appointed Minister for Health Said Aïdi sympathises with the frustrations of many in Tunisia’s artistic community. We met at an exhibition supported by Jaou called ‘Réminiscences’ where new artists were showing their works in a hangar in Tunis’ outskirts normally reserved for industrial wares.

“Of course people are impatient,” he says. “This society is searching for a new identity, it’s lived through an earthquake. Even if it’s a positive one, the revolution must grow into something new and the government cannot intervene, civil society must regulate itself. Unless, of course, there’s a personal attack, slander, and so on, and we have laws to counter this. We must grow, and we can only do that if there is free expression which can be articulated whilst respecting those around us.”

We pause in front of a collage by Slimane El-Kamel called ‘Mémoire-miroir’. The painting is what the artist calls a metaphoric map. On it, a Salafist is placed next to a naked woman and a copy of The Origin of the World, the female sex first drawn by Gustave Courbit.

Slimane El-Kamel and his painting ‘Mémoire-miroir’

“This is an extraordinary tableau,” comments Aïdi. “It reflects the Tunisia we love: open-minded, full of the colours we have and the audacity to mix modernism and a heritage which is several thousand years old.”

His face turns somber: “The consequences of frustration and impatience can be terrible. As Health Minister, I’ve observed an increase in suicide attempts recently. It’s only through culture and education that we can bridge the divides that are present in Tunisian society. In the past, the youth couldn’t express their talent, let alone share it. Yet culture must be shared or it becomes schizophrenic. Nowadays, you can have artists like El-Kamel challenging us without fear of censorship or repression. And that can be the cement to unite us.”

From the street to art galleries
This role for artists was powerfully articulated by academic and artist Nama Khalil. Her exhaustive paper ‘Art and the Arab Awakening’, published in Foreign Policy in Focus exactly three years ago has lost none of its resonance. Acknowledging that Tunisia has been at the forefront of the artistic upheavals witnessed throughout much of the Arab world, Khalil insists artists “are making art that engages in critical discussions about politics, religion, culture nationalism and identity.”

The US-based academic, a fine artist herself, pursues: “They are questioning the relationship between the state and cultural production and imagining new ways for culture to transform society.” Khalil explains the longstanding animosity towards ministries of culture in Arab nations, which usually saught to defend state ideology. When the revolutions swept through the region, the artists took their works into the streets, new public spaces where their artistic activism reflected and inspired the uprisings. Nowadays, she concludes, “art creates a dialogue between the artist and the audience. Under the old authoritarian systems, this dialogue was often uni-dimensional. As a result of the tumult in the Arab world, the dialogue has expanded considerably. In fact, it has helped to foster a more vibrant civil society and to point the way toward more durable democratic institutions.”

At the cutting edge, Khalil claims, are the street artists whose ubiquitous symbol during the Tunisian uprising was the upraised fist. “Tunisian revolutionary art was expressed primarily in street and poster art and inspired street paintings in Libya and beyond.”

At May’s Réminiscences exhibition, Slimane El-Kamel cuts a shy figure, looking like someone who had ambled into the hangar accidentally after a kick-about in one of the capital’s dusty backstreets. Yet he is very much a living example of Khalil’s reflections.

El-Kamel was part of a group of youth in Sidi Bouzid where Tunisia’s revolution was sparked off 17 December 2010 by Mohammed Bouazizi’s immolation. Within days, El-Kamel and his artist friends dove into the uprising body and soul. “Bouazizi’s sacrifice tore away the fabrics of illusion around us,” he tells me shyly. “I read a lot about this. As a result, my work has become anchored in a sociological approach to art. It’s partly inspired by Guy Debord (ed., French philosopher, founder of the International Situationist movement in the 1950s) and his book ‘Société du Spectacle’. But I’ve added a local flavour. In my works, I like to make elements meet for the first time, like that Taliban posing next to the anonymous vagina painted by Courbit. I hope it creates poetry, something between love and war, life and death, indifference and commitment, reality and tv-reality.”

Tunisia’s post-revolutionary administrations do not always sit comfortably with El-Kamel’s approach, however. “It’s not easy, I continue to be pressured, and my work has often been refused or censored. But I’m able to teach students my vision at an arts institute so I don’t depend on the state to live. This frees me.”

Street artists at the forefront
Since Ben Ali’s overthrow in 2011, Tunisian artists have been cautiously toying with taboos. At times this has led to violent confrontations as witnessed in the June 2012 riots mentioned earlier.

At the time, Sofiane Ouissi, co-director of the biennial art festival Dream City, suggested to reporters the following explanation: “Under the old censorship and oppression – it was conspicuous; we could locate it; it was clear for us. But now, since it was displaced, it has come into the public space, you never know where dictatorship is going to emerge.”

This has not discouraged artists challenging these public spaces. As Luce Lacquaniti amply describes in his book ‘The Walls of Tunis: Signs of Revolt’ collectives such as Zwewla and Ahl El Kahf continue to invest walls throughout much of the capital with political and social slogans.

According to the photo-journalist, they did much to chronicle the historic upheavals and challenge the cliches: “For Zwewla,” Lacquaniti tells a journalist, “it’s not about secularists, Islamists or politics. It’s about the redistribution of wealth, more employment and economic growth, especially in the more marginal regions of Tunisia.”

Oumaima Manet
Oumaima Manet
Oumaima (in the middle) and fellow dancers
Oumaima Manet (in the middle) and fellow dancers

26-year-old dancer Oumaima Manai is convinced this streetwise energy has not dwindled in the intervening four-and-a-half years since the revolution, but nor have the tensions. The choreographer began her precocious career in the Ballet National de Tunis as a five-year-old and is currently one of the country’s leading dancers.

“We appropriate the space accorded to us in the street,” she tells me at the Bardo museum where the brutal slaying of 22 people occurred on 18 March 2015. Together with her two dancing accomplices, she contemplates the bullet-hole still visible in a glass containing encasing a young Bacchus statue. She shakes her head and turns to me.

“The street provides us direct contact with the population. People don’t choose to come to see us, they don’t always accept it with grace, of course. But there are always ways of side-stepping their reprobation.”

Street performances are still a new and disputed phenomenon, insists Manai: “They question our vision of the body. You feel that tension just by walking in the streets here, and it’s especially centred on the feminine body, its shapes. But that’s a debate raging throughout the Arab world, our relationship with the body.”

Her recent work ‘Tounsi’ metamorphosises this questioning into a solo around a ‘bonbonne de gaz’, a large blue gas container commonly used in Tunisian kitchens for cooking: “It symbolises the domesticised woman,” says Manai who emphasises that she does not anchor her work in the 2011 revolution. “But it’s also an explosive object. I like working with calculated risks. The bonbonne can be a partner or it can blow up. It’s a way for me to explore the body in a different way.”

For Hela Ammar, “artists here are fighters and they have to battle it out to survive.” This Tunisian artist-photographer allies her creativity with a hardnosed career in law. At the Jaoui symposium Ammar presented photos comparing the 2011 revolution with pictures of demonstrations dating back to the 1920s. “History just repeats itself,” she tells the attendance, “the same demands and slogans were used a century ago.”

Later, she elaborates to me, standing next to one of her giant photos which part of an exhibition called ‘Traces… Fragments d’une Tunisie contemporaine’: “We struggle but it’s great because there’s none of that formatting that plagues artists in the West.”

Ammar quotes willingly the names of Atef Maatallah, Ibrahim Mattous, Ismaël and Fakhri el Ghazel as artists with works that centre on injustice and iniquity in today’s Tunisia. Along with these young creators, her own works are currently seducing art critics abroad, with a landmark exhibition in Marseille enjoying respectable success.

Ghrazi Mrabet

These are necessary international outlets at a time of unceasing turbulence in this small nation. “I have a feeling we’re living Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilisation within our society,” exclaims Ghazi Mrabet, one of the country’s most high-profile human rights lawyers and cofounder of the Al Sajin 52 (‘Prisoner 52’) collective aiming at reforming one of Tunisia’s most hotly-debated laws, N°92-52 (see below, Background and Context).

Mrabet has spent years defending artists, particularly musicians, in cases centred on freedom of expression. “There are two forces going head-to-head here: the secular (laïc) vision turned towards the modern world, espousing the great ideas of the French revolution. And another current that is based on an extreme interpretation of Islam that has been imported from the Orient. They are converging here, it’s something we live in a crazy way every day. We are discovering these two radically different Tunisia’s at the same time. It’s tough but somehow exciting to live through.”


Daniel Brown is a journalist based in France and Vice-chair of Freemuse.

All photos © and courtesy of the author EXCEPT the third photo showing the exhibition ‘All the World’s a Mosque’ in daylight which is © and courtesy of Kamel Lazaar Foundation.

This article is part of a Freemuse  INSIGHT  series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published in September 2015.

The artists had been invited in May 205 to Jaou, for a three-day symposium which also exhibited their visions of modern art in the face of the seismic upheavals in much of the Arab world. The artists were from a wide swathe of Arab states, stretching from Morocco to Iraq, via Bahrein, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, as well as their respective diasporas. The symposium set in the Bardo museum climaxed with the inauguration of an audacious itinerant installation, All the World’s a Mosque. This labyrinthine exhibit conjugated works by 26 artists who had answered the organisers’ urgent call for another vision of what Islam is today.

Floating over the 26 works is the deep voice of singer Ghalia Benali. The call to prayer by the Belgian Tunisian singer is also groundbreaking: no woman apart from Egyptian diva Um Qalthoum has sung the call publicly before. “And even then,” Benali explains, “Qalthoum deepened her voice to sound like a man.” She adds: “I took such pleasure recording it that I couldn’t sleep afterwards. I chose a segment called Rast. For us Muslims Rast has a special significance because it’s the first sentence you hear when you enter this world. Your father usually whispers it into your ear when you’re born.” And Benali twirls away down a corridor to the beat of her prayer.

» See also Daniel Brown’s article about legislation in Tunisia:
Artistic freedom: Tunisia walks a narrow tightrope


Background and context

One of Tunisia’s most controversial laws, No. 92-52, was concocted under the Ben Ali regime to combat the use, trafficking or promotion of all drugs. This legislation condemned those found guilty of possessing drugs to one to five years in prison and a heavy fine. Opponents at the time denounced abuses of this law by the ruling party, police and magistrates who they claimed systematically planted bogus proof of drug taking to muzzle dissident voices, particularly outspoken youth leaders. Uniquely, law No. 52 harbours an article, no. 12, which stipulated that no attenuating circumstances can be considered by judges when sentencing. Such widespread abuses were rarely criticised despite the repeated flouting of freedom of speech they incurred.

23 years later, the former military strongman has fled but much of the legislation is alive and thriving: according to human rights NGOs like Human Rights Watch (HRW), almost a third of the 25,000 Tunisians behind bars have been sentenced under this law.

“Most of these are simple consumers,” claims the former director-general of prisons Habib Sboui, quoted in the French daily Libération. Dozens of those incarcerated have been artists, mainly musicians and street artists, who were found guilty of consumption of zatla, the local slang word for hashish. Authorities claim they introduced legislation this summer which will soften the punishment and allow judges to accept attenuating circumstance. A claim local human rights organisations are contesting, asserting it could even prove worse for freedom of artistic expression.

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