Protecting traces, a look at contemporary Tunisia

What is known about the contemporary Tunisian art scene? What is left of it following the 2011 revolution that led to the fall of rais Ben Ali?

The two curators of the exhibition “Fragments of Contemporary Tunisia”, Thierry Fabre and Sana Tamzini explain their work as a presentation of an art of revolution, the result is a subtle and intelligent approach. They wanted to show how in a country where no contemporary or Modern art museum has ever existed, where collectors are practically non-existent, where the minister acquires artworks that remain hidden in archives whose location is unknown, local artists have made the choice for resistance and independence.

For the second installment of the exhibition “Traces… Fragments d’une Tunisie contemporaine” the five selected artists incarnate the intensity of the Tunisian arts scene, united by a key issue: vestiges of the past, ancient history, national traditions and their longevity in Tunisia. Thierry Fabre states that “we are built from these benchmarks, but there must remain vestiges of them in order for this progression to take place.” These traces are exactly what the government of Ben Ali, as well the current government, are trying to erase. Ben Ali removed all traces of Bourguiba who himself wiped out the Beylical history of the country. “Fragments II” opens with a photography by Faten Gaddes The street / Statue de Bourguiba à la Goulette (2009), symptomatic of this obsession with erasing the past.

The statue of Habib Bourguiba, first president of the Tunisian Republic and instigator of Tunisian independence stood at the center of Tunis, it has since been relocated to Goulette by his successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.  

The following series, Fragments d’une révolution (2011) by Wassim Ghozlani was realized between January and February 2011 during the protests that led to the deposition of Ben Ali. Among the scenes of populist revolt, two photographs in particular stand out. The first, depicting a makeshift camp in the ministerial district, mattresses litter the floor providing respite for protesters.  Tags and banners act as clues to the revolutionary nature of the scene. Today, nothing is left. The second photographer depicts two Salafis from behind, returning defeated from a meeting concerning the closure of brothels. Elsewhere photographer Augustin Le Gall, based in Tunis since 2011, recounts the story of Riadh Ezzawech in Arifa. Petites histoires du monde invisible (2013). Ezzawach, an Arifa practicing stambali, acting as a medium between the human world and the realm of spirits. The Arifa incarnates more than 20 spirits, called upon for miscarriages, aquaphobie, folly.

​The last remaining Arifa is the final trace of an ancestral belief, that of Jinns and other evil spirits that haunt men. This immaterial patrimony is today being threatened by extinction.

Houda Ghorbel and Wadi M’hiri present the video Perles de famille (2014). United by blood and by marriage, the couple combines memories of childhood with family photos. These images give way to that of a hand sweeping through grain used for a traditional Tunisian dish, mhammsa. The images continue to flow.

Finally we find images placed on glass. The author Abdelhak el Ouertani (1872-1896) has only recently been identified, and pays homage to the architectural patrimony of Tunisia. Among the 150 images, el Ouertani studied 27 principal religious monuments from Tunis, a considerably valuable document for historians including Aby Warburg, the first art historian to take an interest in ephemeral manifestations.

These artists are ardent witnesses to the present whose traces must be saved.

Traces... Fragments d’une Tunisie contemporaine.
MUCEM, Marseille
Fragments II, until January 29, 2016.


Photos : exposition Traces... Fragments II-MuCEM © Agnes Mellon, photographie de Faten Gaddes The street / Statue de Bourguiba à la Goulette (2009)  | Wassim Ghozlani, série « Fragments d'une révolution » (2011). Collection de l'artiste. © Wassim Ghozlani / Hans Lucas | Augustin Le Gall, Sans titre « Le dernier Arifa ». Petite histoire du monde invisible (2013) © Augustin Le Gall | Houda Ghorbel & Wadi Mhiri, Perles de famille, capture de la vidéo. Vidéo de 8'38 (2014) © Houda Ghorbel & Wadi Mhiri.