A Cultural Revolution – A peak at Tunisia’s impressive post-revolutionary art scene

I recently spent a few days in Tunisia doing research for an article I was writing about political developments in North-African country. I lived in Tunis some years back, and this was the first time I’d been back after moving away.

Tunisia, for those who don’t know, has been through almost a decade of political upheaval, transiting from an authoritarian regime overthrown in revolution, to a democratic system that still needs to consolidate itself. When I went back there now, it was because there are signs that the transition process has stalled, and that Tunisia’s new-born democracy is having difficulties. Most of what I found can be read elsewhere but there’s one issue that I’d like to explore here and that is the effect the political changes have had on Tunisia’s exceptional art scene.

When I lived in Tunisia, I was struck by how vibrant Tunisian art scene was. From a historical perspective it is perhaps not so surprising; Sidi Bou Said, outside of the capital Tunis, was a mandatory stop on the artistic road of the French expressionists and the characteristic blue and white buildings still house a myriad of small art shops.

That is a heritage that contemporary Tunisians have taken up; the 2011 revolution produced a massive artistic response. Young Tunisians once freed from censorship, embarked on a veritable artistic splurge. The released energy was everywhere, in painting, in music, in filmmaking.

It wasn’t only about youthful vitality, though. In a small gallery close to the house I lived in, I saw one of the finest artworks I’ve ever seen and that I still think of as an absolute masterpiece. The works exposed in the gallery were the finalists in a competition for which the artists had been asked to interpret the revolution. Most contributions were paintings and there were a lot of massive, almost bloody works, souls exposed, artists tormented.

It was striking that in a political revolution, most artists looked inward, they looked at themselves in the middle of the chaos that surrounded them and used art, successfully or not, to communicate their feelings.

All but one, for in the middle of the floor of the exposition room, stood a small bronze sculpture. About one metre tall, it appeared somewhat insignificant between all the loud paintings. Yet if there’s one thing I regret, it is that I never took down the name of the creator of the wonderful little thing. It portrayed a middle-aged man, in his sixties perhaps, that leant his arms onto a window frame, looking out. You could virtually feel the wisdom of an old man in every single carving, as if he were saying to you ‘I am old. I have lived my life. I have lived through changes before’, inspiring you to look at contemporary events in a historically more sound perspective.

Perhaps what was most striking about the sculpture was the fact that the man was looking out at the world, not interpreting events from a personal, introvert perspective. I thought immediately that perhaps other artists, as well as the rest of us, would do well to remind ourselves, at times, that it is not all about us. Events will have an impact on us personally, true, but even artists could do well sometimes to change focus sometimes.

Be it for the statue or not, Tunisia’s vibrant art scene impressed me when I lived there, and it continues to impress me today. During my recent visit, a friend of mine pointed out that Tunisian youth, because of all the changes their country is going through, have a permanent pressure inside of them and that art in whatever form it comes, is a way of letting go of the pressure.

That’s true everywhere, but in the Tunisian case, you need to remember that these artists only recently gained the right to express themselves freely. They do not take their freedom of expression for granted, rather they embrace that right through producing art, heaves of art. We can only hope that Tunisian authorities will embrace it too, by supporting cultural entrepreneurs and not least by inviting foreign collaborators to Tunisia, so that Tunisian artists can develop their talents also in an international setting.

Certainly, the art industry can never be a main economic pillar of a country, but as a side industry, and especially in a country like Tunisia, which is desperate for economic innovation, it certainly can do no harm to leave space for the obviously talented Tunisian artists to unfold.

Some international institutions have already spotted this. In what seemed to me a rare cooperation, the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Francaise, have collaborated in creating a movie competition for young Tunisian filmmakers. This year, participants were asked to produce a short movie over the topic “I have found love”. The winner of the competition would get to have his or her picture shown at the Berlin Film Festival. I was lucky to be able to attend the screening of the six finalists at the National Theatre in downtown Tunis the night before leaving and all I can say is that if you ever get the chance to see the beautiful little piece Pomme d’Amour, I recommend you do.

The article I went to Tunisia to write, was about political developments, about migration, about use of torture. I didn’t have to dig deep to find out that all is not well. Yet as most of the people I talked to pointed out, the major change from the previous regime, is that Tunisians now have freedom of expression. They can speak, sing, draw, write freely, without fear of repercussion. Surely, the latent energy I spoke of above, the pressure that Tunisian youth live under, has built up under years of censorship and it is only natural that it is now being released.

That is an explanation that makes Tunisian artists a little less exceptional, but it doesn’t discredit its quality. Revolutions, fortunately, don’t happen every day. Tunisia has been through a political revolution that in turn has produced a cultural revolution. That has happened elsewhere too, but I don’t think the quality of the art that has been produced as a result, has been as high as it is in Tunisia. I also think few countries have mustered the sheer energy that you find among contemporary Tunisian artists.

I want to think that this is one of those rare moment in time that also the international art world should try to capture. I am incredibly grateful that I have been able to.

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