Last weekend in Tunis, artists and visitors spilled out of an abandoned Ottoman-era palace, where the painted ceilings buckled with humidity and the canvases on the walls were eaten by mould. Looking for a ride back to our hotel, I wandered through the old Medina with two of the artists in Jaou Tunis, the self-started art festival that has achieved the proportions of a biennial. We passed rubbish left over in alleyways, young boys kicking a football, and a stiffened cat; one of the artists stopped to take a photo, and the other admitted to a collection of photographs of dead cats in the streets of Beirut – an admission of a shared hobby that appeared vaguely romantic at the time.
Bursting out of the narrow Medina streets and onto Bourguiba Avenue, the main site of the protests during the Jasmine Revolution, we walked past the heavily fortified French Embassy, with its soldiers cinematically hiding behind sandbags. In a parking garage under the National Theatre, which had just disgorged a stream of young, heavily made-up ballerinas, we found the car and drove northwards out of the city.
Jaou Tunis takes stock of a country seven years after its revolution, balancing some demerits – high youth unemployment and a rise in extremism – alongside a feeling of openness and governmental stability that is rare in the Arab world. With four pavilions curated by four Arab women, this edition of the festival ostensibly took the four elements of earth, wind, fire and air as its theme. But its real subject was the confluence between past and present as the region seeks to assert a new identity.
Four pavilions by four Arab women
“Tunisia post-revolution was filled with expectations and dreams and aspirations, and this turned into disappointment when the Islamists won,” explains Lina Lazaar, the founder of Jaou Tunis. “And then there was chaos and the economy went down – and the terrorist attacks happened. Then there was unemployment, and then migration. It’s this whole bubble of complicated information and we thought, let’s go back to the basics, what unites us.”
The four pavilions were each housed in significant sites throughout the city: a French colonial church-turned-boxing ring, the Ottoman palace, a former printing press, and a mausoleum. The artists were mostly young and Arab, and eschewed directly political works for reflections and observations on contemporary life in Arab cities. “These artists aren’t making political art,” says Myriam Ben Salah, who curated the “water” pavilion. “But they are making art politically.” The festival, though it notably invited more international press people than in previous years, gives the impression of Arab artists talking to each other: there isn’t a lot of explaining or refracting of the Arab experience, but rather a celebration of the Tunisian, Lebanese, Moroccan and Palestinian diaspora’s art scenes.
The “water” pavilion was held inside the church repurposed as a boxing ring. Photographs of the boxers, taken by Lebanese artist Ayla Hibri, ringed the wall, and the Tunisian-French artist Alex Ayed (who drove us out of Tunis) made a corporeal, tactile sculpture out of soap. A video by Mounira Al Solh recounts the stories of keen Beiruti swimmers in the Mediterranean Sea, who describe the sea as a lover and obsession.
Khadija Hamdi-Soussi's "earth" pavilion, in a yard within the old Medina that houses the mausoleum for a saint, excavates the influences of research and archaeology on representations of the present, as in Hazem Harb's collages of historical images of Palestine. The Ottoman palace holds Aziza Harmel's "air" pavilion, framing the past as almost ghostlike. Fotini Gouseti, from Greece, shows a woven carpet made of silk neckties, encapsulating a story about a Greek mountain village living under the shadow of long-ago events from the Second World War. Narimane Mari exhibits Red Beans, a riveting, perplexing film of a group of children on an Algerian beach whose situation teeters on the verge of violence. And in the "fire" pavilion, curated by Amel Ben Attia and held in a former printing press, Asmahan Tlig danced the famous story of a free-spirited singer, Habibi Msika, from the 1930s who was lit on fire by her lover.
Lazaar's history of ambitious projects
Lazaar, Tunisian by birth, grew up in Switzerland and studied statistics at the London School of Economics before switching to study art at Sotheby’s, where she later worked. With the help of her father’s foundation, the Kamel Lazaar Foundation, she has initiated a number of quietly, but genuinely subversive projects.
In 2012, when married to her first husband, Hassan Jameel of the billionaire Saudi family, she instituted the first Jeddah Art Week – which, called Art JAW, is a progenitor for Art Jaou. “It was the first time ever that men and women mixed with live music in the Kingdom,” she says.
For the 2013 edition, she canvassed Filipino domestic workers to find photographers among them, and exhibited their work for the great and good of the Saudi art scene. Last year, she realised the first Tunisian Pavilion in 50 years at the Venice Biennale, using the visa credentials afforded by the event to bring migrant workers legally to Venice for three-month periods.
2013: responding to terrorist attacks
Lazaar launched Jaou – which means “joy” and “atmosphere” – in Tunisia in 2013, and previous editions have likewise waded directly into difficult territories. The 2015 Jaou Tunis was held a few months after the terrorist attacks on the Bardo Museum, the city’s extraordinary repository of ancient mosaics. Jaou Tunis convened a symposium on art and extremism in the Bardo itself, and installed the show “All the World’s a Mosque” in a site amid the Roman ruins, a cathedral, and a mosque.
“It was our way of responding to the Bardo attacks,” Lazaar says. “We created a debate on Islam’s ability to become secular. Is there room for a secular Islam in a place like Tunisia? It was hugely controversial – 6000 people came that opening night.”
Jaou Tunis remains a mom-and-pop organisation, albeit one backed by a wealthy foundation and a growing number of partners. A large part of the project seems motivated by the galvanising presence of Lazaar herself, who not only pulled this event off with a small team, but with a growing family – she has three boys under the age of three.
There is evidence, though, that Jaou Tunis has outgrown its own infrastructure: the "water" pavilion, for example, was only up for four days because the boxers wanted the site back. The other pavilions remained up for four weeks, but the festival seemed to lack the local publicity push of a citywide biennial. Lazaar's next project is setting up a white cube space in Bahr Lazrak, a poor neighbourhood that emerged in the political turmoil after the revolution and is known as a site of radicalisation for Islamic youth. The space there will serve twin purposes of giving Tunisian artists a non-commercial space in which to experiment, and allow the residents access to a different discourse. She has also talked about bringing the contributors of Ibraaz, the online publication that she has run since 2011, to Tunisia for regular discussions at the site.
But unlike a number of art initiatives by well-off denizens from economically developing cities, Lazaar’s focus is as much on trying to make Tunisia an art hub than on supporting Arab art more generally.
“Our effort is throughout the Arab world,” she says. “We are very much driven by the need and passion to engage with Arab artists from all walks of life.” The project is also deeply imbricated with its social ambitions: “The power of art is being able to, in a very gentle and non-threatening way, bring people together who wouldn’t normally be speaking,” she continues. “We need to flatten the structure. Culture can only be genuine and meaningful if everyone is able to be on the same level.”