"The After Revolution" Highlights Tunisian Art in the Wake of Arab Spring
Two and half years after young Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi triggered the beginning of Arab Spring when he immolated himself in front of his local municipal building, Tunisians are still struggling to re-define and re-build their nation. “The After Revolution,” sponsored by the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) as part of the World Nomads Tunisia Festival, is a celebratory — yet cautionary — look at the tiny North African country in the wake of the “Jasmine Revolution,” which toppled the 25-year long autocratic presidency of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The three-venue exhibition includes graffiti at 5Pointz, photography at White Box, and a provocative exhibition of multimedia works at FIAF that engage with the growing presence of extreme Islamists in Tunisia.
Almost all of the works in “The After Revolution” are a response to the ultra-conservative Salafist movement, which believes in a literal interpretation of the Koran and a return to a puritanican form of Islam. Having been banned under the secular regime of Ben Ali, Salafists have gained traction under the moderately Islamic Ennahd goverment, that has been in power since the revolution; they have been accused of destroying heritage sites throughout Tunisia, and earlier this month, were blamed for the murder of Shokri Belaid, a secular political opponent. The group was also responsible for inciting the riots that broke out at the 2012 Printemps des arts art fair in response to works by Nadia Jelassi and Mohamed Ben Slama, the latter of whom has works in the FIAF show along with other young Tunisian artists Héla Ammar, Amel Ben Attia, Nicène Kossentini, and Mouna Jemal Siala.
The exhibition’s Tunis-based curator, Leila Souissi, explained that she “chose mostly women, because right now in Tunisia, women are the most fragile with the Islamist government that we have.” Ennahd has been under scrutiny for its stance on women. Last August, the party came under attack for a clause in the constitution that describes women as complementary to men, rather than equal to men, though at the same time the party has also increased the presence of women in political spheres. Recognized as one of the most secular nations in the region, Tunisia has historically granted women freedoms many of their neighbors do not. (According to the United Nations Human Development Indicators, Tunisia was ranked higher than America in terms of gender equality immediately following the revolution, but has since fallen to just below America's ranking.)
Four of the five artists in the FIAF show are women, and almost all of the works depict female figures — a video piece portrays a woman being covered bit by bit in a black fabric until her face is not visible; a series of photographs show a woman isolated in a tiny room holding a giant key; in a painting, the silhouette of a woman lies submissively below a Salafist style black flag inscribed with the 99 different words for Allah; and in a series of three photographs is a woman with swirls of water pouring from her mouth because, as Souissi explained, “even if we talk, they don’t give a damn about what we say.” Souissi continued, “Art is the reflection of what we are living now. It’s kind of a resistance.”
Describing Kossentini’s animated video of a traditional Tunisian mosaic, Souissi said, “Tunisia is like this type of mosaic. Women, men, Muslim, democratic, violent — we have to find a way to live together. We have no choice.”
“The After Revolution” is on view through June 1, at FIAF, 22 East 60th Street, New York.