Monday, 29 June 2009

Art from North Africa

In a time when the Americans are moving out of Iraq I want us to remember what occupation of another Nation really means and the scars they leave behind. I wrote this piece just over 2 years ago but I am reminded of how upset I was when I wrote it and how powerful art can be...

Love it or hate it....just don't ignore it.


Meeting the Artists in Tunisia

Last week I was in Tunisia after deciding last minute to take a short break to start out the New Year. Forever dreaming of seeing more of Africa I thought it best to bite the bullet and hook up with some remarkable African artists. Of course I was thrilled and excited by the prospect of being on African soil again. Once more living amongst the Creatives, those known and unknown, all working tirelessly, struggling to be heard. I found, to my delight, that it was a fantastic choice and finally I was living amongst the original, "Vandals" of North Africa. They made me feel truly at home.

The original inhabitants of Tunisia were the Berbers, now absorbed into the Arab population and accountable for much of its culture, especially the introduction of the, now, national dish, "Couscous". The first cities in Tunisia were built by the Phoenicians, a maritime trading nation from the Lebanon, whose Carthaginian colonists carved out an Empire that even dared to challenge the might of the Romans. The challenge ended in the destruction of the Phoenicians and a Roman invasion. The Romans left behind more than just ruins such as the mosaic delights found in the destroyed city of Carthage and the majestic amphitheatre of El Jem, also the intriguing lion eating men of Haidra, now the Algerian/Tunisian boarder town. The Romans established Tunisia's original infrastructure and introduced the olive and cork trees that dominate the countryside even to this day. Tunisia has had it fare share of invaders from the Roman, the Turks, the French and even Islamic invaders yet instead of becoming cultural schizophrenics there is a definite strong sense of National identity. Tunisia is very proud of the country's moderate Muslim outlook and also the country's unique interpretation of the Koran and seems extremely confident in Tunisia's position within the world of Islam.My journey starts in Monastir, a former fishing port on the Sahel coast. The town is infamous as the birthplace of the first President of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba - 20th March 1956 (Tunisian Independence Day). On arriving at the airport the air was surprisingly cold and one could detect a pleasant scent of the sea and fresh citrus fruit ripening on the branches. Following a quick tour of the town and the Golden Statue of Habib, I jumped on a bus and travelled up the coastal road to a small town just outside the capital, Tunis, the beautiful hideaway known as Hammamet. On the one and half hour journey up to Hammamet the scenery was magnificent, breathtaking in fact, with lush green mountains on the left, warm dusting roads and beautiful views out to the Mediterranean Sea, to my right. Personally, I was surprised at the level of development the country has experienced since Independence with new roads; petrol stations; street lighting and the overall upkeep of the central Squares throughout the country were immaculate. Strangely the Tunisian don't have an abundance of natural resources like neighbouring Libya and Algeria but still the country has a 5% development growth year on year. Ironically, with figures like these within a decade of two Tunisia is likely to become more developed than France.

Hammamet in January is a rich, fertile yet sleepy town waiting for tourists, money and the heat of Spring. Everybody was busy painting, whitewashing their shops; restaurants and guesthouses. They pay little heed to the ramblings of the occasional tourist at this time of the year. Hammamet itself, houses some of the best contemporary artists in the country. My first port of call was to see Baker Ben Fredj and his wife Nadia at their art gallery in the town centre. I spent several days talking, thinking, photographing, eating, walking and drinking expresso coffees and large whiskeys with the Ben Fredj's. Baker introduced me to his famous artistic neighbour Abderrazak Sahli, the best-known artist in Tunisia, who constantly travels between homes in Paris and Hammamet. The time spent with the two artists and their family's was most enjoyable but I was greedy to meet more Tunisian artists, especially those from the capital, Tunis. Baker and Nadia encouraged and insisted that I meet up with the President of the Union of Artists in Tunis. The man in question was Baker's University lecturer and friend, Sami Ben Ameur. They rang Sami on his mobile and we were to meet the following day. That evening I went to bed remarkably early and woke refreshed ready for the day ahead. I came down to breakfast and consumed an atrocious German breakfast consisting of beetroot, hard-boiled eggs and watery cabbage. I uncomfortably left the hotel and proceeded to stuff myself into an awaiting yellow taxi, which took me to the Louage (local bus station) finally heading for the capital. Firmly carrying my newly bought bright orange satchel I squeezed into the tightly packed minibus and after a matter of minutes it quickly filled up and we were well on our way. The sights on the way up to Tunis were wonderful. The sun was beating rhythmically overhead and the grandiose mountains loomed over the minibus outstretched to the horizon, casting unruffled shadows to those below. The mountains were full of seasoned trees alive with greenery while, the cool, fresh, clean sea breeze blew in from the coast. We arrived in good time and I was eager to make my way to the heart of the city. Nadia had kindly given me an art catalogue from the Union of Tunisian Artists, which I rapidly produced out of my new beige camel satchel on arrival in Tunis. I clambered out of the minibus and swiftly leapt into another yellow NYC style cab and in my best French asked the driver to take me to Maison de la Culture Ibn Khaldoun, El Magharibia, Rue Ibn Khaldoun. Of course the driver couldn't understand a word I was saying and I ended up hot, sweaty, fed up and furiously pointing at the address on the back of the catalogue. The driver smiled, shrugged his shoulders and took me into the city centre. The two of us silently sat nervously side by side, perpetually puffing away at our cheap Mars Light cigarettes, smoking rapidly to avoid conversation with the occasional eyebrow lift followed by an awkward smile. Oddly enough this was probably one of the most enjoyable drives of my trip. As I went to open the car door the driver handed me a notebook and asked me to leave feedback. So I did and wrote, "Thoroughly impressed with your communication skills. Full marks for the driving and if smoking becomes an Olympic sport this driver should be put forward for Team Tunisia."

I arrived at the Union building mid morning and made my way to the top floor. By the fourth floor I was sweating profusely and panting like an unhealthy aging mutt and by the fifth the Union had literally taken my breath away. Red faced and resting both my arms on the door frame I seemingly barred all natural light from entering the room. I attempted to introduce myself. Finally, I made a rather pathetic whispery introduction to two exceedingly glamourous ladies sitting quietly at their desks, astonished by my behaviour. "Hi, my name is Joe. I'm from England. Is Sami Ben Ameur here?" I airlessly gulped.

Confident that I had made an extraordinary first impression I continued by puffing out my best pigeon French. The women looked blankly at each other then back at me. Silence; and after a short and uncomfortable pause I eventually and sheepishly resorted to my trusty catalogue and the furious finger pointing technique. I tried to explain about the efforts I had made on the Internet with various websites about African Painters, whilst at the same time trying desperately to explain about the importance of MySpace and YouTube but to no avail. While I was ranting, kneeling on the floor and fumbling around with the women's computers trying dreadfully to bring up numerous websites an elderly man wearing glasses on his forehead entered the room. He opened his case, brought out a pen and calmly started inoffensively to write notes. This charade with the gorgeous women and the congenial gentleman onlooker lasted a good ten minutes, explaining what it was that I did, have done, would like to do scenario. In due course the old man quietly took his glasses off his forehand and carefully brought them down onto the bridge of his nose. He slowly lifted his head and put his hand to his mouth and cleared his throat with a polite cough. After a dramatic pause he articulated in perfect English. "What is it that you do exactly?" I let out a surprised laugh and shook my head, I briskly introduced myself and promptly returned with, "And you are, Sir?" he abruptly replied and spoke with the confidence only an aging artist has, "Well, I am the Iraqi artist, living in Tunisia. Samir Nanoo. Nice to meet you!" I recognised his name immediately as he was one of featured artist in the catalogue and I had been speaking about his work with Baker Ben Fredj and Abderrazak Sahli in Hammamet.

"Wow, Nanoo. Samir Nanoo. Really it's an honour to meet you," I shamefacedly replied.

Together, we went out of the office and took an interesting tour around the gallery with artworks randomly placed all around the room, some good, some not so good. As we wondered between the different artists we spoke candidly about the quality of the artwork and the general state of contemporary art in the country. I enjoyed the man's company and when he invited me for a coffee outside I was delighted to accompany him to the nearby local café. Samir told me he was born in 1944 in Iraq and moved to Germany seventeen years ago and he had chosen Tunisia to make his Arabic home for security reasons. We talked about his son and how he was an Oman in England and he told me how he had brought him up to be clear-headed and quintessentially good and how proud he was of him. I reached into my bag and pulled out a camera to make a record of our meeting. He stood fantastically grand and egotistical as I photographed him in a rather public place. "He is an artist!" I explained and to Samir delighted followed with, "Don't you recognise the artist?" People looked confused as we swiftly made our way out of the café. We made our way onto the busy Avenue Habib Bourguiba between Place de l'independence and Place d'Africque, which is a typical French style tree lined avenue, with an effective tram system running up and down along with plenty of angry, hooting drivers. We stood in the middle of this confusion and spoke about Samir's new work. He withdrew a series of images from his black workbag.

As he showed me the images he explained the news he had received from Baghdad. He quietly explained to me that the inmates in the American prison in Baghdad, who were there under suspicion of terrorism or anti-establishment behaviour, had been given no rights, no freedoms of expression, no liberty, whatsoever. The prisoners were treated as the true enemy and were tortured and some even died. Many of the inmates weren't criminals or terrorist, weren't even anti-establishment in anyway, mere civilians. They knew that they were being bullied and used as scapegoats. Infuriated by the incarceration, some of the inmates in a moment of despair felt that the only thing they had left to do was post their views on the walls of their cell. They decided to cut their legs and arms with their own fingernails and to use their own excrement to post messages back to their families and loved ones with their fingers. They cut and smeared through the night sending love and well wishes to their friends and family members. The cells were awash with desperate Arabic script displayed curiously on the walls. Come the morning the American Guards saw the cells and shouted;

"You filthy Arab! You filthy Arab, bastards! What have you done, you filthy bastards? Are you expecting us to clean your filthy mess? Ahhh…what can WE expect from you dirty Arabs..……?….You dogs…You low-life Osama Bin Laden loving scum."

Throughout the day the Americans tortured the prisoners and over a series of several weeks the noble American soldiers systematically killed their so-called terrorist hostages. Their thinking was; "the fewer the better." When the dust settled and the bodies were taken from the cells a Muslim Oman came to pick up the dead from the cell. He stood in the room stunned. He looked carefully at all the walls, studying vigilantly what graffiti was written. Attentively reading all that had been seemingly smeared onto the walls. Tears started to fall down the Oman's cheeks as he read the smeared Arabic script.

Firstly he read:

"Ismail. My only son - As your father I want you to be the best a man can be!"….

Then beneath read – "Fatma, I have loved you from birth, find happiness and a good man. Love Daddy."

Then below– "Brother Yusuf. I love you . Remember me always!"

And finally – "Mother. Here is your son. I love you and will forever love you. Father don't forget me! Your son Omar."

The Oman walked out of the prison, tears streaming from his cheeks. As Samir finished his story, he too had tears welling up in his eyes and said, "I was so touch by these messages that I felt duty bound to speak out on their behalf", and he continued to show me his interpretation of the graffiti on the cell walls. Picture by picture. Samir's work is so extremely important and needs to be seen and spoken about. It is only now when I have return to the comfort of home that the full impact of his story hits and continues to hit me. What are we doing in the name of Democracy? What a mess we have gotten ourselves into?……

© Joe Pollitt, 2007

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