It is four years since street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive and activated the extraordinary chain of events that became the Tunisian uprising. The uprising deposed the dominant state narrative only to reveal the flux of competing cultural, economic, and political paradigms currently affecting Tunisia.

It is in this context of post-revolutionary flux that Mehdi Ben Cheikh, the founder of the Galerie Itinerrance, has organized the ambitious and daring street art project called Djerbahood. The project, sited in the village of Erriadh, on the island of Djerba, brings together more than 100 street artists from more than 30 countries. Organizing such a large-scale international project in a small local village was no small feat, but with the authorization of both the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism and the mayor of Djerba, and in dialog with the inhabitants of the village, Ben Cheikh has successfully drawn together the interests of the state and local public with the interests of the cultural community that this project activates.

The small island town of Erriadh, off the southern coast of Tunisia, is a tranquil place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians have lived in peace, side by side, for centuries. Notable is its distinctive and evocative architecture: The houches, traditional Djerbian houses, with their high walls, arches, and domes, when viewed from outside, look like miniature fortresses or palaces. The character of these stunning domiciles, immediately reminiscent of times long passed, is somehow bound to the modern, appearing both historic and contemporary. Although Djerba has long been a popular tourist destination, Erriadh has always remained off the vacationists’ radar. Today, thanks to Djerbahood, it has established its place on the map.

It is not by accident that this project came to be hosted in this village. The high white walls of the houches present themselves as ideal canvases to the street artists, while challenging them to negotiate their work within the frame that such an unusual urban setting provides. Diverse artists such as eL Seed and Phlegm, among many others, have risen to this challenge, visually accommodating their artistic productions to the traditional aspects of the village, and overcoming the considerable task of adding charm to a place already so beautiful.

But public art should not be purely embellishment; it cannot be reduced to its conversation with architecture or simply instrumentalized as artistic urban outfitting. Public art should be in the public interest. Djerbahood, by drawing together diverse communities, cultures, practices, and forms in the pursuit of common interests, succeeds in forging such a moment. Where it falls short, however, is in the content of the artworks. The works, confined within their aesthetic, lack a criticality which could have considerably developed the social dimension of the event.

That said, in the political and cultural context of Tunisia, the gesture of turning the village of Erriadh into an open-air contemporary art museum can be seen as a progressive social act, advocating freedom of expression and multiplicity. Perhaps more importantly, Mehdi Ben Cheikh has offered a valuable gift to the habitants of Djerba: the revitalization of its tourist economy. Beyond enhancing the openness, safety, and beauty of the island, Djerbahood has brought the attention of the world to its shores at a time when the tourist economy had evaporated.

It is plain to see that the Tunisian revolt of 2011 has scared the tourists away. Tourism, being among the most important and lucrative sectors of the Tunisian economy, and one of the main sources of income in places like Djerba, is in dire need of resurrection.

Since former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in January 2011, Tunisian street art has blossomed. The development of this urban phenomenon has offered a new, though still rather limited, space for expression: a space for verbal expression, a communal place to raise voices together, and now a space for the younger generations to express themselves artistically. Street art is still new to our culture, yet many young Tunisians identify with this contemporary form of art, not purely for its rebellious content, but also as a reaction to all those years of silence.

Djerbahood is a crucial project for the development of this form of art in Tunisia. Tunisian street art not only encourages youth to sharpen their awareness of their surroundings both aesthetically and politically, but makes concrete and explicit the power of the public in the destiny of the state.

Aziza Harmel is a Tunisian young artist living and working between Berlin and Tunis. She is the founder of the Ayna
Project, which is a research platform on the position of the intellectual today.

From Public Art Review #52, where this article appeared as Art in the Arab Street.