Tunisia’s Dream City puts art back in public life

Two dozen artists from 16 countries created 15 presentations and some 240 performers put on eight shows at Dream City.
Saturday 19/10/2019
Young dancers perform near the Old Medina of Tunis. (Dream City)
Broadening perspectives. Young dancers perform near the Old Medina of Tunis. (Dream City)

TUNIS - While two landmark elections took place in Tunisia, Tunis’s Dream City festival provided an escape from politics.

The biannual arts event in Tunis’s old city featured multidisciplinary shows throughout the medina, bringing cultural life into urban space.

“The festival aims to democratise contemporary art and, especially, to dominate the public space that is also a political space. One cannot speak of an artist without speaking of the context of the artistic work,” said Sofiane Ouissi, a festival founder. “It is about making public space more open and making art open for the public and even getting in contact with art on a daily basis.

“It is a collective effort that seeks to answer questions at the heart of the social, political and artistic debate and to make citizens collaborators. The community as well as the artists are involved in making the public space an artistic platform and to connect the citizen to its artistic and socio-political context.”

Founded in 2007, the cultural show is an opportunity to appreciate new art and discover hidden corners of the medina. Participants are given a map of downtown Tunis pinpointing locations of shows

The festival also aims to push back against censorship and recentre art in public life, said event founders Sofiane and Selma Ouissi.

“We seek to broaden the perspectives of artists to enlarge the space of reflection for artists to be able to accommodate more shows,” Sofiane Ouissi explained. “The work of the festival is a chart and a currency. It also seeks to promote the idea of working with citizens and to implicate them in the shows.

“The artist usually constrains himself or herself to the work of art but the festival seeks to change and shake this idea. The artists don’t limit their shows to the creative force but rather incorporate ways to have the art open to the public.”

Dream City is unique in that its shows are collaborations between established artists and city residents, including unemployed young people, historians and students committed to bringing out the spirit of the medina.

“For most of the creations, the artists have a free card for their projects but also to find collaborators and participants in Tunis. These collaborators are young Tunisians who participate with our guests in the Medina as it is a space that could be open for larger projects. In this sense, we invite artists to explore the place, to move around and to work with people in this space,” playwright Jan Goossens explained.

Two dozen artists from 16 countries created 15 presentations and some 240 performers put on eight shows at Dream City. The shows took place in 24 locations in the medina, some centring on historical landmarks. Other shows were in parking lots and abandoned theatres.

Lebanese artist Tania el-Khoury’s “Gardens Speak,” dwelled on the memories of Syrian activists and victims. Serge-Aime Coulibaly, from Burkina Faso, explored the stories of 15 young men through moving choreography staged on a medina rooftop.

In Tunisian artist Malek Gnaoui’s installation, “0904,” an artistic museum featured archives of prisoners in Tunis’ infamous “9 avril” prison. It was displayed in the form of a library.

Gnaoui said the endeavour was an important way to document Tunisia’s history and commemorate its painful chapters.

“No one knows the story or history or the people who were there in the deserted prison,” Gnaoui said. “I wanted to recreate the architecture of the place by holding a memorial inside the place but it was not possible.

“After its demolition, the prison of 9 avril almost got erased from memory. It has an important historical value but little exists regarding the issue. The idea is to restore the memory as part of making peace with the history.”

He added: “There are things that we were able to see and other things we can only hear about and the idea was to recreate the most authentic vision of the prison. During workshops, I met these prisoners whose stories made up the literature of the prison. It is through their eyes that I recreated their memory of the prison.”

Dream City included workshops focused on political, social and cultural issues.

“How can we live without art?” asked Salma Samoud, a student at a workshop. “We cannot. Art helps address many issues, protest and voice our concerns… Artists and creators are essential in planning, vitalising and animating the social spaces.”