Tunisia: An Art Scene In Renewal

Rachida Triki
Professor of Philosophy, Art Historian, Curator
University of Tunis, Tunisia

Translation from the French by Thomas Donahue and Alexandra Gueydan-Turek

Texte en français

The art scene in Tunisia today is in the midst of drastic changes. For more than a decade, artists have increasingly rejected traditional styles of painting and exhibition. Featured in public art shows and the media, their new creations have reinvigorated the artistic dynamic on a national level. Whether paintings, photographs, multi-media installations, video, or performance art, these revolutionary works – most often by artists of the new generation – offer a kaleidoscopic vision of the country’s present-day sociopolitical situation. Contextualized in fictional settings, the works recapture subversively a reality that was for many years withheld from the Tunisian people. Frustrated by the long-term rejection of their work and the biased cultural policies of the current government, artists have turned resistance into an insatiable desire to create the here and now in postrevolutionary Tunisia.

We can consider this phenomenon as a contemporary art movement that expresses a desire for freedom through diverse and original artistic forms. First and foremost concerned with their independence and singularity, these artists also recognize that they are situated within two larger discursive points of view: Tunisianess and world citizenship. They no longer concentrate their efforts within a renewal of any particular cultural heritage but rather explore new creative models for a lived present. They make use of diverse objects and new media to reimagine real situations, utopias, and social or individual fictions. Their artistic approaches and choices of materials, while similar to current formal practices of Western visual artists, set them apart because of the originality of their compositions and the questions they pose. In particular, young women artists whose media include videos, photographs, or installations have created works that stretch from autobiographical to universal points of view. They constitute artistic processes of dis-identification that subvert the misleading yet common representation of the “Arab woman.”

As citizens of the Global South, it stands to reason that in the era of globalization these artists are confronted by contradictions within their own society. They face two important obstacles: on the one hand, novel artistic expressions find little traction in a public space that is indispensable to both their artistic design and its subversive impact; on the other, their projects can be prohibitively expensive because of the lack of local funding and the absence of a real art market. Indeed, among the few art galleries concentrated in the northern district of Tunis, only two attempt to give artists visibility on the international art market.

In view of these difficulties, many artists today take matters into their own hands by transposing socio-cultural phenomena onto the aesthetic environment. Their engagement is defined by the desire to create with respect and dignity. The revolutionary process that Tunisia has been undergoing since January 2011 was supported, even before that date, by a clear artistic dynamic, characterized by its use of the digital network. As informational, fictional, and creative visual devices have been deployed, the events of recent months have demonstrated to what extent new media has allowed the present to be made real.

This democratic dynamic has above all generated a renewed interest in photography, a medium increasingly popular among young artists who draw on their own lives for their creative inspiration. Photography offers them an opportunity to raise and discuss current issues pertaining to their specific environment in all its vitality. For them photography entails a creative process that frees the artist from the constraints of a particular style or an identifying culture. Some young artists have worked on scenes of insurrection and repression or on the new social urban and rural landscape, making a name for themselves through exhibits of their work in both public and private spaces. This new genre of artistic photojournalism has attracted the interest of art dealers who had until recently remained indifferent. The abundance of such art even contributed to the recent decision to create a Maison de Photographie, an idea initiated by these young artists.

For at least five years, Tunisia’s artistic scene had already included a number of women photographers whose presence became slowly but surely more prominent because of the novelty of their artistic approach. By and large, their works privilege an existential dimension on both a conceptual and sensory level. For decades, anti-democratic practices had brutally repressed all freedom of expression and public assembly, resulting in a creative withdrawal and a turn to works with an emphasis on the private and intimate in order to escape censorship. That response, however, also modeled a subtle interrogation of just how the marginalized individual-citizen has been subjectivised.

Today, whatever the medium, these remarkable works are novel constructions that often use a critical and futurist stance to create current utopias in everyday life. This artistic and civic engagement has opened up the creative field and allowed artists to better apprehend the complexity of the present.