Tunisian art festival brings heritage sites to life

Jaou Tunis displayed creative works of art in iconic historic landmarks, including Tunisia’s abandoned shrine of Sidi Bou Krissan and the palace of Dar Baccouche.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Creative talent. A work by Yesmine Ben Khelil at Dar Baccouche.                                                                                                        (Khaoula Ben Amara)
Creative talent. A work by Yesmine Ben Khelil at Dar Baccouche. (Khaoula Ben Amara)

TUNIS - Four abandoned sites in Tunis were converted into interactive art galleries for a contemporary art festival dedicated to Tunisian heritage and patrimony.

Jaou Tunis, an annual festival bringing together artists, curators and international partners recently completed its fifth year, displayed creative works of art in iconic historic landmarks, including Tunisia’s abandoned shrine of Sidi Bou Krissan, the deserted palace of Dar Baccouche, the former church of L’aouina and the first Tunisian printing house of Ceres.

The locations were named (in Tunisian Arabic) after the classical elements — water, fire, earth and air — a play off the festival’s title, Jaou, which means both “atmosphere” and “enjoying one’s time” in Tunisian Arabic.

Festival organiser Lina Lazaar said each location tackled a theme connected to its history and elements of contemporary art. The abandoned printing house of Ceres, for example, was among the first places to print publications that helped shape Tunisia’s postcolonial identity, she said.

This printing house was transformed into the “fire pavilion” during the festival, with curator Amal Ben Attia overseeing various artistic performances and installations.

“This exhibition is called ‘Naar,’ which means ‘fire’,” said Ben Attia. “It reflects on fire as a sign of life. This fire we carry inside us is the passion that could veer unto destruction or tenderness and it is also about the idea of resistance through fire.”

“The fire pavilion will pay tribute to the life of Tunisian singer, dancer and actress Habiba Msika, who was set on fire by her jealous lover. We [had] a performance that depicts the end of her life,” she said.

“This venue depicts the ambivalence of fire. On the one hand, it is a place where we print books so it must not catch fire but, on the other, it displays works of art that speak of fire.”

Sidi Bou Krissen hosted the “Traab” (“earth”) pavilion, under the direction of curator Khadija Hamdi. A researcher in Islamic art, Hamdi used the exhibition to explore the religious significance of the shrine, which she envisioned as an imaginary museum of contemporary art.

“I wanted to work on the shrine as it was the closest to my background and to my inspiration,” said Hamdi. “Excavations have always inspired me as they would reveal the past. To fully know and grasp the past is the best key to understand the future.”

“These artists worked on found objects and the idea of revealing these objects. We are here at Traab unearthing an old shrine. It questions the idea of preserving the patrimony,” she added.

Algerian artist Yazid Oulab also participated in the Traab pavilion, displaying works that incorporate multiple meanings of the Arabic word.

“I wanted to investigate the connotation of the word ‘traab,’ which also refers to ‘mud’,” said Oulab “This shrine as a religious site serves to highlight the spiritual idea of the earth.”

Palestinian artist Hazem Harb used photography to refashion archives into artistic works that help preserve the national memory, he said.

“I work on refashioning the Palestinian memory and organising the collective memory of Palestine,” said Harb. “I want to rewrite the archive from a modern perspective that is different from that which has been propagated by Zionists who claim that the Palestinian people have no memory or heritage.”

“I am reimagining archaeology of Palestine through photography in a place that also speaks of archaeology, which is this imaginary museum. In my opinion, there is no museum that represents the archive and the archaeology of my country,” he added.

The “Hwe” pavilion, named after the element of air, takes visitors through one of the oldest palaces of the Medina of Tunis, Dar Baccouche.

“‘Hwe’ invites visitors to consider what is present and absent,” said curator Aziza Harmel. “The idea is not related to nationalities but to a common vision. The location and the palace translated this need for a space since I was looking for a domestic space.”

“Hwe is the air, something that is invisible but also present. There are other things on display that are both present and absent,” she added.