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Volume 66, Number 1January/February 2015

In This Issue

In recent years, street art has grown from an edgy, often illegal practice associated with urban decay to something almost fashionable associated with civic vitality. One of the people responsible for this change is Mehdi Ben Cheikh, a French-Tunisian who in 2004 founded Galerie Itinerrance in Paris, which is dedicated to showing street art. His goal is to make art accessible to everyone and, in particular, do something special for Tunisia. “What I would like to do is talk about the Arab world in a different way, a positive way,” he says.

The result, this summer, was the Djerbahood Project, which enabled more than 100 artists from more than 30 countries—including a dozen or so from Tunisia—to paint more than 200 works on public walls in Er-Riadh, a village on the Tunisian island of Djerba. Creating works from a little cat on a postal mailbox to full-wall murals, the artists donated their time and work, and, in keeping with the ethos of street art, no money was earned out of the exhibition through merchandising. Sponsorships from numerous corporate and private donors made certain that artists could participate and that the host community was put to no expense. 

Craft-preservationist Amel Messedi, owner of a gallery in the village center, explains that Ben Cheikh chose Er-Riadh because of its historic tradition of tolerance among Muslim, Christian and Jewish residents, and also because the architecture often features unadorned plastered walls painted white or light creams or yellows. In addition, there are several nearby abandoned areas, including a decommissioned prison and a former abattoir. 

In the spring, after receiving permissions from the Ministry of Tourism and the mayor of Djerba, consultations with residents began. At first, there was little interest, says Amel Messedi. A handful of foreigners who own houses in Er-Riadh gave their consent to use of their walls. Other residents were assured that the artists would be tactful and that the designs and colors would be appropriate to the village. The grittier designs, more typical of western street art, would be executed in the abandoned buildings on the outskirts. 

Of course there were doubts. “Everyone who agreed,” Amel Messedi explains, “signed a document allowing the use of their wall for a year. After that, it could be painted over—although we very much hope that the project will go on.” An indication of the popularity of Djerbahood is that, apart from a little natural deterioration, the murals have very rarely been damaged or defaced. 

“Calligraphy was always the great Arab art, and suddenly here it is again, painted all over our walls! ”

“It was all very civilized,” says Khiara Allani, owner of the charming Dar Dhiafa, a hotel created by joining several old houses. “We were told that we would be shown sketches of what was going to go on our walls, and if there was something we really didn’t like, we could have it painted out. In fact that almost never happened, and there were surprisingly few complaints. 

“When people saw what was being painted on other people’s walls, including mine,” she continues, “they went to the organizers and said: ‘We want something too!’ Enthusiasm began to grow and snowball.”

The walls of Dar Dhiafa now host two pieces. One is by Zepha, a French artist who, like many street artists, maintains only one name. Facing a mosque, it is among several magnificent calligraphic compositions, all in different styles, scattered about the village; Zepha’s is a formal, even classic circular arrangement.

“It gives me great pleasure,” says an elderly man who, like most residents, preferred not to give his name to journalists. “Calligraphy was dying here in Tunisia. Who writes books by hand these days? There were still a few sign writers, I suppose. But calligraphy was always the great Arab art, and suddenly here it is again, painted all over our walls by young men! Very original, very alive, but growing from the same roots, like an old olive tree regenerating.”

The second Dar Dhiafa painting is part illustrative and part calligraphy, and as many other paintings do, it uses the local architecture for its effect. Framed within a doorway, a little girl blows a dandelion whose seeds become wishes for peace and prosperity in Arabic, and they float away across the adjoining wall. This piece is by Lebanese artist Yazan Halawani, who also adorned a quiet corner of another street with calligraphy and a portrait commemorating the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died in 2008 in Houston, Texas. 

Other calligraphic works are freer, even dramatic, stretching for meters along the facades of buildings. Some of the most striking are by Tunisian artists, such as Inkman’s beautiful rosette in light and dark blue, Shoof’s bold, black composition, or the French-Tunisian eL Seed (he adopted the name while studying the Spanish epic El Cid), whose giant compositions sometimes spring from building to building in a style he calls “caligraffiti.”  In 2012 he was commissioned also to paint a Qur’anic verse on the minaret of the Jara Mosque in Gabès, on the Tunisian mainland, which is interpreted in English (by Abdullah Yusuf Ali): “Oh mankind! We created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other.” 

Other examples come from Palestinian 3ZS and Libyan Maatoug Y, as well as an impressive calligraphic contribution from Deyaa of Saudi Arabia, who has work on display in a number of cities in his country. In fact, Saudi Arabia was represented at Djerbahood with three artists, including Maz and Az, both from the Dhad family. One of Az’s murals has a complex piece of calligraphy, and in front of it is a woman holding a lotus painted by Iraqi-British artist Myneandyours in a reference to the classical “island of the lotus eaters” of Homer’s Odyssey that is often identified with Djerba. 

“It was the best summer of my life,” declares a boy of 10 or 12 years when asked what he feels about Djerbahood. It was so hot, he says, the artists painted at night, “and my father let me stay up, so my friends and I ran around and watched them. It was really fun, and when I took cold drinks out to the man who was painting at our house, he let me do just a little bit—I’ll show you.”

“It was very good for them,” comments a woman passing by, joining the conversation. “It opened their minds.  It changed their perceptions. They came into contact with foreigners working, doing something, not just on holiday. The artists were very nice, and since many spoke Arabic or French, there was a good deal of communication. And, of course, the children learned some geography. Now they are curious to know where Peru or Puerto Rico are, or for that matter Russia or Kenya or Japan, because they associate them with particular artists or pictures.” 

When asked which paintings are their favorites, residents give answers that can be surprising. An elderly lady, sitting on her doorstep, expresses her preference for a mural showing a classic Citroen Deux-Chevaux with a little black cat looking at it. “That was the first car I ever went in,” she says. “And that is my cat. I really like having them on a wall here.” And two very traditional women neighbors—who are exchanging bunches of herbs for dinner when I meet them—express contentment with a large (and very untraditional) mural of a cyclist on the wall of one’s home, which faces the house of the other.  

Other children prove pleased—and not at all insistent—to offer their views and show off their favorite pictures. Sisters, aged eight and 10 and dressed for school, their hair in neat pigtails, take me to a series of paintings of a woman putting on the traditional, draped dress with horizontal stripes, a style now rarely worn, having been replaced by the more convenient djellaba. Both the costume itself and the soft earth colors of the painting look as if they could be Roman, something from Pompeii, and, surprisingly, it is not by a Tunisian artist but by Hyuro, of Spain. Their second favorite: The man on a donkey dangling a heart in front of its nose, by Sunra of Tunisia.

“Gentler in style than most urban street art, Djerbahood’s diversity aims to offer something for everyone.”

Far gentler in style than most urban street art, Djerbahood’s diversity aims to offer something for everyone. There are numerous pictures of traditional figures, both men and women, such as an old musician and a Bedouin herder blown by the desert wind, both by Bom.K of France. Horsemen by Jaz of Argentina are reminders of the conquests of North Africa by the Romans, the Beni Hilal and other Arabian tribes. (Jaz, on principle, uses materials at hand: Here, he pounded the local red brick into dust and made it into a paint-paste with fuel from the ever-present mopeds.) 

There are also comic and satirical scenes, as well as fantasy creatures, such as the beautiful unicorn by Faith47 of South Africa, which guards an abandoned building at the turn of a little lane. There is also a wealth of small works, details that can be easy to miss, such as the post-box kitten by C215 of France, who scattered painted cats all across the village—much as the real ones are a ubiquitous, endearing feature of Er-Riadh’s streets. His simple transformation of the everyday yellow letter box into something special and charming seems to exemplify the spirit of Djerbahood.

Still other paintings refer to other aspects of life in the village. For example, a motorcycle slung between two cacti at a motorbike repair shop (by Malakkai of Spain) whimsically contrasts reality and art in a town where, besides bicycles, motor scooters are the main means of transport. Other paintings become part of the architecture, as in the case of the tiles painted onto arches and facades by Add Fuel of Portugal and Logan Hicks of the usa.

“There was not supposed to be anything political,” says a shopkeeper. “We didn’t want that sort of trouble here.” 

But the mere fact of a street art display in Tunisia is something of a political statement: Until very recently, creating graffiti or public art carried a prison sentence because it was associated with political organizing and dissent. Although political satire is rarely explicit, other aphorisms and inscriptions scattered throughout some works allude to the philosophical positions of individual artists, such as Frenchman Sean Hart, whose quips in bold white-on-blue state (in French), “Build Optimism,” “Live in the Moment,” and “Listen to the Silence.” Elliott Tupac of Peru offers “La vida es un suspiro” (“Life is a sigh”) in elaborate blue calligraphy over the doorway of a ruined and partially overgrown building on which Puerto Rican Alexis Diaz painted a large green hamsa, or hand, the folk-sign of luck and aversion of the “evil eye.”

Color, especially the blue-and-white so very typical of Tunisia in general and Djerba in particular, also worked as a motif to link the art to its surroundings. Artists paid tribute to their hosts when choosing to work in these colors, which complement the paintwork on many doors and window grills. Of course, there were calligraphic examples along these lines, and one in particular—a vast composition by Zepha who, unusually, uses both the Arabic and the Latin alphabets—is largely in shades of blue and black. Looking down at it, in the eclectic mix of styles that make Djerbahood so lively, is a giraffe, accompanied by a blue butterfly, by Mosko of France. And Curiot, of the usa and Mexico, takes a purely Mexican theme of stylized flowers and strange chameleon-like creatures, and he translates it into the local color idiom. 

At one point, a young man studying art and media at the University of Tunis volunteers to take me to see the far less gentle, far more urban paintings on the outskirts, in the derelict prison and slaughterhouse, in abandoned houses and even in a ruined palace. All these spaces are transformed by the paintings, given new life and interest; conversely, the surroundings lend the paintings an extra dimension. Here, it is by and large non-Tunisian artistic territory—although there are exceptions: Wissem El-Abed’s three faces hang between a vacant wasteland and a building site. The indefatigable ROA of Belgium painted here a number of large works, often incorporating elements of architecture such as domes, which become eggs. In a collapsing building, a huge scorpion creeps up the wall while a chameleon seems to have laid two typically Djerban oil jars. There were other remarkable, surrealistic paintings by Dome of Germany, in black and white, again with strong mythological elements—and not anything most people would want to encounter when stepping outside to walk to the corner bakery. 

To my question, “How do you feel about it, now that it has happened?” one of the residents replies: “You know, before it happened I was less worried about the paintings than by an invasion of outsiders, a loss of our privacy—you know what I mean? But in fact, it has not been bad. The painters came in groups, not all at once, and they behaved well. And so, on the whole, do the visitors. And I think it has been good, very good for our young people: it has opened their eyes. Before it happened, I was afraid we would have problems—the children running round after the foreigners asking for sweets or whatever. After all, what would you feel if it were your neighborhood? No, I am very pleased at how it has gone and very proud: there are people all over the world who know about Er-Riadh.” 

Caroline Stone Caroline Stone divides her time between Cambridge and Seville. Her latest book, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness, translated with Paul Lunde from the medieval Arab accounts of the lands in the Far North, was published in 2011 by Penguin Classics.
Kevin Bubriski Kevin Bubriski ([email protected]) teaches documentary photog-raphy at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. His most recent book is a retrospective volume Kevin Bubriski: Nepal 1975-2011, published last year by Radius Books.




This article appeared on page 12 of the print edition of AramcoWorld.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 2015 images.