Amid rising cries of Degage, get out, the people of Tunisia ousted their despotic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country with his kleptocratic wife Leila Trabelsi. It was 14 January 2011 and for some the Tunisian revolution had succeeded and ended, for others perhaps it had only begun. In the days that followed the myriad houses and businesses once occupied by the ruling dynasty were abandoned, set upon and targeted with the rage and jubilation of a free people.
With rising discord between Tunisians who identify as Islamist and those who identify as secular, concerns of elite coastal and exploited interior dwellers, the discourse on power and identity, keeping a public space, or public sphere, for sounding concerns and free expression is paramount. While some Tunisians may express lament at what they describe as wanton destruction, the burning and looting of homes and businesses associated with the ancien regime, others describe feelings of discomfort, not a fear but an uneasiness, when setting foot inside these structures.
For others, such as the Ahl Al Kahf collective, the opportunity to transform the derelicts of domination into a vivid creature, imbued with creative forces and the potential of re-articulating power and maintaining public spaces, is the raison d’etre. Nafas notes that Ahl Al Kahf’s work “pays homage to global figures of resistance and playfully attacks those dictators remaining in the Arab countries.” However some Tunisians have expressed skepticism about the significance of these acts, known in the language of Chantal Mouffe and others as artistic activism.
Other than often presenting itself as a challenge to the commodification of art, are these public-sometimes anonymous-gestures capable of addressing the abuses of power in corrupt and oppressive regimes, and contributing to their downfall or at least restructuring? Politically motivated public art’s most idealistic often cited purpose, borrowing from the manifestos of past movements, is to present a challenge to accepted norms in an attempt to shatter dominant worldviews and introduce a counter narrative, to jolt people into thinking and acting more freely, or so has the famed Shepard Fairey often claimed. Of course Fairey is something of a commodity himself who has proven in several legal battles that he is more interested in branding his images than the free exchange of images.
In one way public art, as visually stimulating social engagement, could be included in the discourse on social media for social change. When we ask questions about the utility of facebook or twitter in bringing down repressive regimes or challenging power we should include public art as a more material form of that same non-hierarchical mechanism for social change.
As Alva Noe recently mused in a New York Times op-ed piece, the art and neuroscience discussion-admittedly still in its infancy-has produced little new in terms of answering questions on how the brain works, and arrives at aesthetic preferences. The discourse on art and resistance is arguably also somewhat in its infancy but the global collection, particularly that springing from the Arab Spring, offers a wealth of fantastic pieces for examination, appreciation, and possible future analysis.
One can also inquire about possible cultural lessons learned from the form of certain pieces. For example, one stencil below states in Arabic ‘freedom of expression’ with the image of a naked women. One could inquire why the women form is more often associated with the cry for freedom of expression than the male form. Doesn’t a giant penis statue shock the public as much as that of a giant naked women statue? The nude is not the nude, as it turns out. In late October, for example, a female artist constructed a giant white naked women statue and placed it on Tunis’ main pedestrian Avenue Habib Bouguiba. The intent was to call into question the notion of freedom of expression. The artist had planned for the piece to remain through the elections, starting as white it would be painted and added to as the date to the election drew near. However, as Myriam Ben Ghazi explains, the statue caused such an outrage that it had to be removed the same day that it arrived.
Some symbols are universally transferable and turn up in cities across the globe. The A.C.A.B, All Cops Are Bastards, tag is one example that can be found around the globe. Others receive a great deal of their significance in relation to the other symbols and images within their social space. That of the footballer overhead bicycle kicking the head-ball-of Ben Ali is undoubtedly a more powerful image in a culture that becomes transfixed on football, soccer, matches. Or, for many Ben Ali encouraged obsession with football as a distraction from politics. The significance of a football player kicking Ben Ali’s head in this sense is given deeper meaning. Deciphering the hidden messages of certain manifestations of street art, as with much contemporary art, often requires a subtle awareness of history and the artist. That is, one might find no meaning or pleasure in Cy Twombly, read Roland Barthes on Cy Twombly and then suddenly find an intense trove of meaning. In such a way, understanding deeper social and political significance of street art may require something of an awareness of the society that produces it. But this is not necessary, of course. We can still look upon works of graffiti and stencils and appreciate them for pure aesthetic reasons, indeed as many of us do. With this being said, let’s turn to a collection of images.
In the more elite coastal suburb of La Marsa, about 18 kilometers from downtown Tunis, up on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Tunis one can find the house of Imed Trabelsi. Imed is the nephew of Leila Trabelsi, a family name now stained with the connotation of corruption. I had the chance to visit this demolished, reconstructed space today. Here are a series of photographs.