The Divine Comedy of Mohamed Ben Soltane: Commentary and Creativity in Tunisia
December 14, 2011 1 Comment
“Before the revolution, I think, the art scene was closed so artists couldn’t make art in public spaces. There was real fear from almost everybody. We can say that it was hell and it is now paradise.”
A few days ago I had the chance to sit down with Mohamed Ben Soltane. As an artist, writer, critic and currently the head curator at the B’chira Art Center, the first contemporary art center in Tunisia, which opened in November 2011, Mohamed Ben Soltane is a leading force for creativity and social criticism in Tunisia. He has been called a ‘visual sociologist of our most repressed desires.’
He had just returned from a workshop in Cairo organized by Al Mawred Al Thaqafy. They explain on their website that they are a “regional, non-profit organization that seeks to support artistic creativity in the Arab region and to encourage cultural exchanges within this region and the developing world.” It seeks to liberate the imagination and stimulate progress, which it sees as social necessities. In 2007 Al Mawred had planned and organized a meeting in Tunisia to empower local artists but at the last minute the government revoked their permission. Why?
“They were helping young artists to make art projects. There was no link with politics because they knew that they can’t do anything political but in that period thinking is already political. They [the government] preferred not to help people that will make you think.”
He explained that before the revolution we would certainly have been monitored if we spoke together in public. We couldn’t have made our appointment in a public place without considering who would be there, who the waiters were, or who would be sitting next to us. Anyone could be an informant.
We met near the train station in Sidi Bou Said, at the Jasmine Cafe. As the waiter delivered our coffees Ben Soltane leaned in and, with a smile, informed me that before the revolution this cafe used to be called Trabelsi cafe.
I have been concerned with this issue of naming since I arrived in Tunisia. In the international press the revolution has been referred to as, inter alia, the Jasmine Revolution, the Arab Spring and the Facebook Revolution. Knowing that when Ben Ali came to power in a coup on 7 November 1987 he called it the Jasmine Revolution, I asked Ben Soltane about the perceptions among Tunisians that their revolution is being framed by the international community.
“It is like other people that you don’t know giving the name of your son. It is not normal. It was really bizarre because when Tunisian people were called the Jasmine Revolution I was saying, ‘what the hell?’ Who gave that name? It was really from outside and you feel that some people just took it like that and the first thing that you imagine when you listen to Jasmine Revolution is the people who died, the people that suffered, the people that were for 20 years harassed by the police every day in front of their houses. I don’t think that for them Jasmine is a good name. And even the Arab Spring, I don’t know who invented those words. It was the revolution for freedom and dignity.”
Mohamed Ben Soltane’s artwork is about collaboration and exploration of everyday objects and phenomena, distilling the essence of the banal and insinuating new meaning to previously un-assorted forms. He works with many materials to form his artwork, from video and photography to plastics and paints. His writing on art has pointed out the flaws in the international art system that maintains certain hegemonies in which the voices of Southern countries are not given an equal place. For him art and politics are inextricably linked. He writes that political decision makers and art collectors in the global North prefer to focus on that which comforts their preconceived notions, of the Arab world and the global South.
However, thanks to the revolution in Tunisia, which has spread throughout the Arab world in one way or another, many new voices are finding a place for expression and creation. He is overall optimistic for the future of Tunisia but he is realistic that the transition away from a dictatorship will take time and that there are obstacles that still must be overcome. We spoke about these obstacles and Tunisia’s future, the role of art and social change, and the interstices of international perceptions and local realities.
Michael Caster: What role do you see the art community playing in this? In many times, in many countries it is often the artists that push the limits, that encourage or force society to rethink, to look at themselves and their place, socially and politically in a different way.
Mohamed Ben Soltane: I think that we can demand much from the art society. There is a lot of people who also have to do their jobs. The civil society now is very important, in the legal and economic, the artistic. The artistic scene, the thing that they specifically have is to look at things from different angles. The most important thing that artists can do is to show people realities from different angles and that can make dogmatic thinking less important but it is work on the long term. In the short term maybe they can develop critical thinking. Caricature is a very important art. It must find its place.
MC: Willis from Tunis has been a very popular comic. Of course there was no place for this kind of satire before the revolution.
MBS: Yes but we need at least one very good caricaturist in every newspaper. There are too few at the moment but there was an exhibition and books about caricature and that’s really good.
MC: Cartooning for Peace?
MBS: Yes. This kind of art is more related to politics.
There is also art in the public space that can be very important. There are different art projects. There are art projects that make people interested and that make them participate, and art that doesn’t interest the people. I understand that. There is too much art in the public space that is the same kind of painting that you do in your home but you make it on a wall outside. It interests too few people and that is not art in a public space.
If you go to the municipality and take authorization to make street art it’s not street art.
MC: Before the revolution it seems that the only graffiti you might be able to find is reference to a soccer club. Of course this remains but the more politically engaged street art is confined to certain places. Can you elaborate on public and street art, how it is participatory and how it is engaging people.
MBS: I made a project from 2006. I presented it in 2009 and it was about inscription on the walls. I felt that it was really a space of freedom. It was not really street art because the people that were making the writings or drawings were not really established artists or did not present themselves as artists or even street artists but the street art is not really developed.
Ahl Al Kahf are doing a really good job but it is really new. It was not so developed until now.
Dream City are doing a good job. The idea is excellent but the projects selected are not all good. So maybe we need more time to make good projects in the streets.
MC: Dream City II was before the revolution. Is there a plan for Dream City III?
MBS: It will be next year I think. They are selecting artists now. The two organizers are very strong in cultural engineering and…
MC: Selma and Sofiane Ouissi?
MBS: They are very interesting because they present the new profile of cultural managers that we don’t have right now. They are young and I am sure that they will continue doing good projects.
In a conference in Istanbul two months ago I spoke about two experiences that for me are the most important now. These are Dream City and the Festival of Electronic Music…They present also digital art one time a year. It is festivals that have a larger public than the traditional exhibitions. They also help artists producing artworks and that is the most important thing to do for artists now, if you want to develop the artistic scene.
MC: I read about Dream City and it sounds incredible. The whole Medina is opened up to become the gallery and instead of a catalogue the people have a map and compass. What you see is how much energy and effort you put into it. It is a true discovery and an exploration and I spoke with some people who worked with Dream City. Mostly this was safe art, though. No one really put themselves in danger. Was this political art?
MBS: I think it was already political because it was for a large public. It was in the Medina, in a place that was not a priority in the politics but the interesting thing in the festival is that people in the Medina went to see and gave their opinion about the works…
It was really a cultural activity because it made new people discover art, not the same people who go always to the same exhibitions.
MC: It seems that there is a lot of interesting cultural events and art spaces in the Medina, with Centre Culturel Bir Lahjar, Club Culturel Tahar Haddad and Maison des Associations Culturelles. Old madrasahs converted into art centers. There is a lot happening, workshops for children doing silkscreening or photographs from the revolution.
MBS: I think it is a public space. They are state structures. So if they are from the state they can’t be really alternative. They do things. They did things for photography, for music. It was for a small public but interesting. The thing is, we forget too quickly that the state doesn’t do good culture. We think that the state will help us now making, I don’t know what, but it’s not true.
The state makes official culture and official culture is not the good one.
MC: I met a Jordanian artist, Abdel Qwaider, a surrealist, very much like Dali but he did a number of pieces after the revolution that were symbolic of Ben Ali, with the color purple and the chair. He liked the image of a purple snake tongue. You mentioned in your article about Nadia Jelassi who has worked with the image of the chair. Can you speak about these symbols. In semiotics we deconstruct form and meaning. With the meaning of the chair and the color purple, it has a specific Tunisian meaning. Can you elaborate on this?
MBS: In 2002 or 2003 I sent an anonymous letter to a newspaper about the color purple. Saying that ‘I don’t think the president loves the color purple so much so maybe people are doing too much and now all of them, all of us, hate that color. It would be good for the image of the president and for all the country if you make less purple so please…’ But they didn’t want to publish it.
The purple color was like cancer. And up to now we see purple.
If you opened a small store and you have the color purple then when you go to the municipality they will know that you are with the party.
One time I was in Algeria, in a workshop, and every group was presenting his work. There was a group that made a comic. The comic spoke about a king that loved purple flowers and one day he decided that all the country must have only purple flowers and he called everybody and told them that all the other colors had to be put off. Some of them made that. After that he called the army and said it is up to you to make only the purple colors and find people who are not doing this. People started resisting by making other colors in their houses. In the night they would go outside and put the colors. After years of repression the king knew that he had no chance to win so he took back his decision and left the palace. The Turkish guy who made the comic didn’t know that Tunisia is really like that. So I said to him, ‘It’s really political what you did.’ He said he will present it in Tunisia but I told him, ‘well it is up to you but it is not the best thing to do because they will find you.’
This color was really present and I don’t know, I think until now they have big containers of purple that they aren’t using anymore. Maybe they will give it to artists to make artworks. The other symbols, the chair is not specific to Tunisia.
MC: A symbol of Power?
MBS: Especially in the Arab countries.
MC: What about the posters? Businesses, restaurants, the police made them hang posters of the president to force people to show support for Ben Ali but on 14, 15 January everyone was tearing them down.
Someone told me this fantastic story about coming back from Avenue Habib Bourguiba on the night of 14 January. He went to his restaurant and tore down the poster. He tore it up and ate it. He said ten minutes later he was shitting.
It has this amazing force. Everyone tearing them down, burning them, driving over them in their cars. How did this feel before the revolution when you were walking around on the street, everywhere you see these pictures of Ben Ali?
MBS: I think we were surprised. We know what is dictatorship. We know what is torture. We know what is authoritarian system but we thought the president of a progressive country couldn’t be so ill with his own image. People were saying, ‘okay it’s a dictatorship. He wants his image to be shown.’
For a lot of people it was a sign of weakness. We didn’t know why…
The authorities didn’t give authorization for a big exhibition about photojournalism. I think it was in 2007. The exhibition was okay; all the artworks were in Tunisia but they prohibited the exhibition because there was a president who was making hello to the people and he was very big and the people were really small and he looked like the president [Ben Ali]. So the authorities said no. ‘It is not only that photo that we will take off but we prohibit all the exhibition.’
They were really afraid about images.
MC: There was the demonstration in La Goulette with the giant poster of Ben Ali before the election, the campaign ‘Beware Dictatorship can return’ to get people to vote. It does have this power, the image of Ben Ali, people reacted so violently. Now it is something that nobody wants to see. It makes you ill.
MBS: Yes but it’s more than that because when, in La Goulette, there was the project of JR (See Daylight Magazine, The Utopianist, Hypebeast and Street Art News), the one hundred people, the photographs, those photos were put in the public space in all Tunisia. They put the photos in that place, in La Goulette, and the people instinctively took off the pictures.
It was in a lot of places. It was in the Port du France, in Habib Bourguiba, it was in La Goulette.
The people don’t want to see any more big images of one person. Even if it is a poor Tunisian, because the project was taking one hundred pictures from all Tunisia, and from all kinds of people: big; small; black; white; and all that. The idea of the project was good but they were not expecting that people would not be okay with a face they did not know.
MC: It was not received as well as the attempt?
MBS: It was not as well received.
And I think also because they didn’t make the work locally but in all the country. If they went to La Goulette and spoke to people, took one hundred photos and put them on the wall it would be okay. But coming in the night and putting the pictures there, very big, people said, ‘No. We don’t want to see no more faces on that wall.’
MC: Something that I have been thinking about is this project of JR’s but also the Zoo Project, with the images of the martyrs. These have received a lot of attention in international press, from Al Jazeera, The Guardian to others, (see also Tunisia Graffiti Project), and also art magazines. I was quite curious how it was received here. The audience that it should be intended for is the Tunisian audience. Is there a disconnect between the attempt of these artists, the way it was discussed and viewed internationally to how it worked here?
MBS: Yes. It is an interesting question.For most people, they see objects. They don’t see artwork. They don’t have this idea of art as a big thing for intellectual people and all that. They see objects and they react if they like it or if they don’t like it. If you have the idea that art is a big value in the society maybe the artwork is not interesting but you see it and you say wow just because it is art. It is better that you see the thing, you don’t consider it as art or non art and you react.
JR was a very good example. If it was before the revolution people would not be really interested in the project. People interested in art would say it is a great project and it’s okay but it showed that the situation has really changed. In my exhibitions I like very much to present works to people who say ‘I am not interested in art and I don’t know anything about art.’ And normally the reaction is more open to new things than others who say, ‘I know very well art.’… It is normal that there is a lot of attention outside than inside. Maybe there are local small projects that even I don’t know about that are even more interesting than the JR experience.
MC: What about the Zoo project? With the life size caricatures of the martyrs. One of my favorites is an image of a group of children playing hopscotch to Democracy. How were these projects received?
MBS: I think it was a good project because it was really direct. You see human shape.
I don’t know the reaction. I was not present. I saw them in the gallery so it is really different. I saw pictures of them in Tunis. I feel that it is a project that could have success because it is a human shape you could recognize, speaking about the martyrs. It is a really good project.
MC: The end of Habib Bourguiba, the murals, a number of the artists said it was an important location because so many people passed that area everyday.
MBS: Yes but it was the same thing that I told you some times ago. They were making the paintings that they do in their homes and it’s not street art. I don’t know. They have the authorization of the municipality.
MC: It’s public but not radical street art?
MBS: Yes. For me it is an example of a misunderstanding of art in the public space.
MC: Can you speak about that. What is the role of art in the public space.
MBS: Art in the public space is designated to a large public and especially to a public that is not especially interested in art. You have to pay attention to those conditions. You can do art in the art space for artists or the artistic art scene. It is important that your work touches people with discussions, maybe with collaboration, with interactivity. I think art is designated to make people think and reflect and give their opinion. The role of art in the public space has to give a place to people. That is art in the public space in my opinion.
MC: Is there a big difference between what has been going on between public art and studio art, in terms of engagement and taking advantage of the newly opened public sphere that encourages exchange and discourse? Where does public art and studio art overlap or diverge in Tunisia?
MBS: I think there is good art and bad art.
If you are in your studio doing good art, it’s great. The artwork that we are speaking about is good art in a studio but it is not good art in a public space. There is also a bad understanding from the people toward the art scene or artists in general. For them, artists are privileged. They benefited from the old regime but it is absolutely not true. Two or three of them or a small part benefited but not in plastic arts or visual arts, more in music. The people are a little bit aggressive with artists. We can say that it is not the fault of artists. Maybe they had to do more than they did but I think there is that impression. That makes artwork in a public space difficult.
There are also methodologies and psychological work or how to make those kind of collaborations. For example, if you are not from the Medina and you do artwork in the Medina it is not easy. If you don’t go to speak with people before… Sometimes when I take pictures in the Medina I don’t say I am an artist.
MC: Otherwise you are seen as an intruder?
MBS: Yes. And it is a normal thing. Even when I was taking pictures I take pictures very quickly, without being there. You feel that people are waiting for you, ‘Why are you photographing my wall?’ There is a methodology and also a kind of elite and normal people here… Art must be less specific to a certain part of society.
MC: What is the best way toward that? You mentioned the notion of participation in art. What do you see as the way forward, to both create something that is not specific, that encourages people to participate, to share and grow together?
MBS: I think artists have a key role in that by education, especially.
There are solutions that don’t cost money, that can help artists, that can be very practical. Which is, artists make their books and the Ministry of Culture pay them to go to schools and present their works or make small projects with making children participate. It is really easy to find ten artists with very good projects who can do one school every week. It will be spread. It will be popular and very effective. Also, working with high schools or things like that. I think education is very important to show people that art is not only doing painting in a studio but it can be imagining new collaboration between people or new modes of curating things or finding solution.
I don’t see art as only art. It can be thinking in new ways. Never say it is impossible. Always find a solution. I work a lot with the material I find. For me a good artist is, they put you in a place and you are okay to make art. You don’t need materials or things like that. It is an exercise of creativity and creativity helps you in all fields.
MC: Now with the fear that some people have in Tunisia, and internationally, with Al Nahda, women’s rights is a big issue that a lot of people are concerned about and freedom of expression of course, with protests over Persepolis or other films to counter protests. The Ministry of Culture made a a statue of a naked women to be placed on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, to draw attention to freedom of expression in the days before the election but people reacted so violently that it had to be removed. Do you have concerns that before there was this pressure, this control from the government but that now this control will come from the people?
MBS: Yes, yes. That’s true. The story of that sculpture is more complicated because there were groups on the Avenue that didn’t want people to be together for a manifestation so they are not from the police but they work with the police and they terrorized people. One journalist that was there told me that he knew the faces and it’s not normal people. They work with the police and they decided to stop the event.
But many people, I understand them. For the first time in their life, the street and the walls are their walls. You come with an authorization; it’s like you come in their houses. It is exaggerated but I can understand it. For the other things I think we have a lot of work to do. Especially with young people because with old people it is more difficult. The things will get better I am sure. I don’t think that a dictator will be here again. It will be difficult for several years but we saw that Tunisia, that when it was really, really difficult the people made the right decisions. Like the two days after the 14th of January where it was really organized. The cars were circulating with no problems. There were no policeman. It will take some years but we are in a new process that will be better than before, if we don’t have the third world war.
For the first time in their life the street and the walls are their walls.
MC: Some people have said that with the reclaiming of the Trabelsi family homes, first there was the destruction, windows smashed, furniture stolen but then a number of collectives came in, like Ahl Al Kahf and brought life back into these places with color and words as a reminder. Maybe it is idealistic to say that this will have an effect. Some people might say that it doesn’t mean anything. What are your thoughts in terms of the cars and houses that were painted? Do you see this as a constructive step in that direction or is it just expression tout court?
MBS: The things that I find very easy is to take one canvas. If you are a painter and you find one canvas you will draw on it. With the same reflex, if you find a car you draw on it, you find a wall you draw on it, a house you draw on it. It doesn’t give a lot of new ideas. I think it is easy. It is okay. It’s good. It’s entertaining but we have to do more elaborative things.
MC: Such as outreach at schools and spreading a message to more places and more participation?
MBS: Yes. And also the democracy in the municipalities that will have a cultural budget for the people that live there, the people that have projects, so the local democracy is also very important. We suffer from centralization like a lot of things that we imported from France. Maybe it is time also to work in other directions, to see other cultures, other languages, to be more open to experiences.
MC: Tell me a bit about Fatin Roussi and her project Art dans la rue, Art dans la quartier (Art in the street, Art in the neighborhood).
MBS: She was the promoter of the cars that were painted but I don’t know the other part of the project.
MC: Tell me about Ahl Al Kahf. They are elusive, one could say, but what they are doing seems powerful and exciting.
MBS: I think that they were doing a good job. One time in that exhibition with the sculpture they had their name on the invitation as though they were officially participating and I was really upset about that but one day after they published a communique saying that they are not participating and that they never participate in an official or an established manifestation. And I found that the thing to do. I hope that they will continue and there will be other groups that will make good art in the public space.
MC: Often those who become active with public art are more radical politically. There is a connection between anarchist political ideas and street art. Has there been a place for Tunisian anarchists? What has been the connection between politics and art?
MBS: I think that good art is always in relation to politics and with social issues. We couldn’t make that kind of art before. We made a little bit of it but it was closed in the galleries for too few people and now I think that it will develop. The state will not give money for that but I hope that it will develop.
MC: What about internationally? In terms of funding from international galleries, collectors, organizations, have you seen an increase in interest in Tunisia?
MBS: It is clear that there is interest. A lot of people are coming from outside to see what is happening. The Arab associations, three of them, very big, came to Tunisia after the revolution to promote their programs. I think it is normal. Everybody who is giving money is giving money for a purpose. If the purpose goes with your ideas then you can participate in that. So there is money from very different regions.
For me the money that comes from the Arab regions is, it can be coming from the United States but going through these organization, for me it is very important because we are very connected with Europe and we are not connected with Arab countries and the idea we have of Arab countries is very bad. Egypt has bad ideas about Tunisia. Tunisia the same about Egypt but there are good artists and good people in the two sides. Really we have to meet and to work together. I am very interested to do those kinds of exchanges and to participate in those kinds of projects, more than Europe.
MC: Generally speaking, what are your thoughts about the future of Tunisia? Not just in art but in religious, social, political ways?
MBS: It will be hard for several years but we have to work hard, all of us.
MC: What will be the hardest?
MBS: I think the economic crisis will be the hardest. A big part of the revolution was economic and when you have economic problems you have more radicalization in religion and thoughts. We have to make the difference between the two. That will be very hard…
Maybe we have to find new economic solutions. And we are not the only ones responsible for the economic crisis so the solution must be global. It will be a third world war and can be destructive for all humanity or it will be a decision to make the whole system more normal, less injustices.