Jaou Tunis straddles the fault lines of an art world on the brink of change

The city-sized festival in Tunisia's capital addresses some of the most pressing, and most difficult, questions of the day

Karim Sultan curated Our Time, Even in Dreams, an exhibition of photographs that lined Tunis's central boulevard. Photo: Wael Silex
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As Jaou Tunis festival began in Tunisia's capital, curator and writer Simon Njami asked: “How do we begin living, thinking together?”

Launched in 2013, this year’s edition was held at the city’s Ancienne Bourse, a former trading hall that is now lined with North African kilim rugs in a splurge of colour and traditional design — they are on the walls, on the floors and as upholstery on the chairs. The three-week event concluded on Thursday.

Bringing together thinkers from across the Middle East and North Africa region, Asia, Europe and the US, the city-wide initiative discussed how art could emerge from an increasingly polarised world.

For each of the symposium’s four days, the rooms were packed with young art history students, listening, chatting and occasionally dancing to the beats of the artists’ video excerpts. The panel discussions were complemented by a series of photography exhibitions, under the title Jaou Photo.

Evening events were so popular, bouncers had to be hired to keep the queues orderly, while the main exhibition, curated by Karim Sultan, deliberately courted a large audience: with more than 100 photographs installed on scaffolding down Tunis’s main drag of the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, and installed on billboards across the city.

It is a far cry from the event’s moneyed origins: Jaou Tunis is organised by the Kamel Lazaar Foundation, set up by the Swiss-Tunisian businessman Kamel Lazaar, who started Swicorp, the first investment banking firm in the Middle East. It is now run mostly by his daughter, Lina, who cut her teeth as an analyst at Sotheby’s.

Despite this backstory, Jaou Tunis has always been characterised by its connection to the local community in Tunis — and, in a reflection of the atmospheric meaning of “jaou” in Arabic, its general mood of casual openness.

“Art in the Arab world plays an important role,” Lazaar said in a profile for Art Basel earlier this year. “It has an urgency that is not the case everywhere else.”

With a focus on photography, Jaou Tunis included a homage to the Tunisian photographer Sophia Baraket, who died at the age of 34 in 2018. Here, an image she took in 2013 at a visit to a school in El Kef, Tunisia. Courtesy Jaou Tunis

In perhaps its best-known iteration, in 2015, the foundation held a series of talks at the Bardo Museum, which just a few months prior had been the site of a terrorist attack. Tourists were held under siege at the museum for three hours and more than 20 people died. Reclaiming the space, Jaou Tunis held a conference around the subject of how the art world could respond to violence, with contributions by Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Antonia Carver and others.

This edition of Jaou Tunis revealed the art world undergoing a moment of radical change. The editor and writer Stephanie Bailey, with Lina Lazaar and Karim Sultan, oriented the programme around the title "What Can We Learn and Unlearn When We Speak Together?", which raised questions about the rise in nationalism in an age of extremes and what we might take from earlier moments of Arab-Asian or Global South solidarity.

“We need to confront the fact that history keeps enacting itself in the present,” says Bailey. “If you think about the rise of nationalism — and the lost dreams of the Non-Aligned Movement — it becomes really important to accept that while there were failures in the 20th century, it doesn't mean that the project [of solidarity and decolonisation] is over.”

Sultan's exhibition continues on billboards across the city. Photo: Firas Ben Khalifa

Artists and participants included the Otolith Group, Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, Urok Shirhan, Hito Steyerl, Mothanna Hussein and Saeed Abu-Jaber from Radio Alhara, Yasmina Reggad, Shuruq Harb and Athi-Patra Ruga among others.

In addition to Jaou Photo, the event also hosted a selection of work from the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvrement in Geneva, such as Sarah Abu Abdallah’s Rosarium and Naeem Mohaimen’s Those Who Do Not Drown.

The lengthy panel discussions allowed the participants to dig deep into the subjects, who took advantage of the non-academic context to try out new ways of thinking. Sound became an important mode of creating togetherness, with its shared vibrations uniting an audience, and ideas around cross-pollination and multiplicity recurred across discussions. “Darkness is not mere absence,, but abundance," ” said the Nigerian-British artist Evan Ifekoya.

New terms and contexts appeared in the midst of change, such as the duty of care that art galleries and artists have towards their audiences — for example, in presenting potentially traumatic images. Does the use of footage of brutalised Palestinians, or Africans washed ashore on the Mediterranean, end up transferring the violence onto the viewer — and what is the artist's responsibility in that regard?

The art world has weathered a tough summer politically, with allegations of anti-Semitism against Documenta, the important five-yearly exhibition held in Kassel in central Germany. For many, the Documenta affair reveals the gap between the way Western nations understand their responsibilities towards the Global South in the aftermath of colonialism, and the freedom that the Global South has to represent itself.

Though artists and thinkers of the Global South — a term that was also put under the microscope at the discussions — are nominally feted by Western institutions, the subjects and ways in which they speak are still often seen as prescribed by Western expectations and sensitivities.

Jaou Tunis’s organisers positioned the event on the fault lines of this discussion. Throughout the four days, visitors, artists and curators tried to understand what capacity to speak was possible or even helpful, without moving towards the policing effect of identity politics, where one’s identity determines the purview of one’s subject matter.

“We end on critical poetics because that's the theme of the whole programme,” says Bailey. “It is really important that we remember that we are speaking and learning from each other in the space of art. We are not an academic space. it liberates us from tethering ourselves to words that are anchored to theories and histories.”

Many of the artists at Jaou are participating in the Sharjah Biennial next year, such as Gabrielle Goliath, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme; Hadjithomas and Joreige; and Joiri Minaya. Others are artists that many curators are keeping an eye on, such as Ifekoya, who was nominated last year for the Turner Prize with the Black Obsidian Sound System collective.

The event also took place days before Simone Leigh’s Loophole of Retreat: Venice conference, held at the Venice Biennale's US Pavilion, to address black women’s intellectual and creative labour. It also came after multiple attempts to rethink the exhibition structure, such as the curatorial collective ruangrupa’s disavowal of formalism — an over-adherence to prescribed forms — at Documenta.

How artists’ intellectual labour will fare in a world of cancel culture, divisiveness and a movement away from nuance remains to be seen — but this collection of august, spiky and thoughtful artists and curators, deeply enmeshed in debate in Tunisia, suggests that change is already under way.

Updated: October 21, 2022, 2:50 PM