The city of Carthage is a tale of multiculturalism and globalisation before these terms had currency in post-colonial studies and the free market rhetoric of neo-liberal expansionism. The name of the city has roots in Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Etruscan, Arabic, and Ancient Greek terminology. It has also been populated by Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs over a history that reaches back to the 1st millennium BC and was a significant locus of international trade until recently. Amongst its present-day ruins, tourists flock to see not only the extant remains of the Roman Forum that once stood there but the view from the hill of Byrsa, a purview of influence over a crucial Mediterranean route that once made Carthage one of the most important pre-industrial cities in the world (perhaps second only to Alexandria during the Hellenistic period). Today, however, Carthage is a suburb of Tunis with a population of no more than 25,000 people. As with all great cities, Carthage has indeed seen better days.
Nevertheless, and perhaps more tellingly, there is a notable endeavour amongst Tunisians (and Carthaginians) to see a commitment to and a revival of cultural production in a country that was stifled until recently by the 24-year autocratic rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his flunkies; a time during which any cultural endeavour was seen as a threat to the interests – however narrow – of a nepotistic and ultimately corrupt state that effectively ruled through terror and the spilling of blood. Carthage, and by extension Tunisia, is currently undergoing considerable change that not only confronts this legacy but does so in a very public manner. Mindful of international opinion, and despite the west’s concern that militant forms of Islam would emerge post-revolution in the country, recent elections saw the return of a democratically elected ruling coalition dominated by the moderate Islamist An-Nahda party and led by one-time political prisoner Moncef Marzouki. This is democracy in motion – and if the west doesn’t like it, it should perhaps look to its own systems of autocracy and its subservience to the free-market ethic of profit before all other things. To date, there have of course been internal concerns about the direction Tunisia is taking, with a dominant secular history – stemming from the policies of Habib Bourguiba, its post-independence ruler from 1957 until Ben Ali seized power in 1987 – providing a context for what remains a predominantly Muslim population. For many in the west, this is a contradiction; however, Tunisia seems to showing the way to others in the region who are emerging from what the Lebanese author Samir Kassir called the ‘Arab malaise’, a generation or more of mis-governance and despotism that has stultified growth in the region and left populations distraught and angry with their rulers. Where better, then, to ask the question ‘who are we’ and more importantly, where are we going, than in Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, and in 2012.
It is with precisely this question in mind that the curators of CHKOUN AHNA – a term that can mean both ‘who are we’ and ‘about us’ – put together a show in the National Museum of Carthage, a significant building on the hilltop of Byrsa. The building and its environment speak eloquently to both the past and the present of this region and the show, billed as the first international contemporary art show at the museum, was equally sensitive to the exigencies of time and place. This was evident upon entering the building, where Croatian artist Boris Kajmak had placed a filigreed metal threshold at the entrance to the show. A Threshold is a Line Between, 2012, which was commissioned for the show, alluded not only to the idea of a threshold, being both inside and outside at once, but also to the sense of transitional spaces being destinations of sorts. It also signalled a state of being ‘under construction’ that is a permanent rather than static gesture – a state that continued throughout this show and was evident in works that used materials associated with construction (or, indeed, destruction).
Ayşe Erkmen, for one, refashioned an earlier work – first seen at the South London Gallery in London in 2009 – that employed, so to speak, protective helmets more commonly seen in the construction industry. Construction, 2012, featured handwritten text on builders’ helmets that read: ‘The source of art is in the life of a people’. This somewhat utopian phrase was written in both Arabic and English on wall-mounted helmets and is a direct reference to a hidden layer of flooring that lies beneath the gallery floor of the South London Gallery. The original hand-crafted marquetry floor was designed by the illustrator and social reformer Walter Crane (1845-1915) and encapsulates not only a cornerstone of Victorian idealism – the educative power of culture and the self-improvement wrought by it – but also more contemporary concerns with the social and political resonances of the aesthetic as a practice that draws upon communities and collaborative gestures. Given the engagement, for better or worse, of many artists across the region with revolution and activism, it will be interesting to see if the source of art does indeed remain in (and emanate from) the life of the people or succumbs to curatorial, if not market-led demands, and thereafter situates itself in the imperatives of international shows about ‘Arab’ art and the fickle diktats of market taste.
In a work by Félix Fernández Fernández, scaffolding suspends a bifurcated bed in the centre of one of the galleries, the violence of intimacy interrupted only barely subdued by the hallowed resonances of a gallery space. Leap Beds, 2005 creates a theatre of formal disjunction, its materials spliced and re-organised across time and space. It also also gives way to the exterior elements of CHKOUN AHNA, as we emerge onto a balcony to see Amina Menia’s intervention into the gardens of the National Museum of Carthage. Following the outline of a former church, Menia has reinstituted an amphitheatre of sorts using scaffolding props painted a vibrant ‘health and safety’ ordained yellow. This work resuscitates an already over-burdened space – that once contained the Cathedral of Saint Louis and a Roman necropolis – giving it, in true Roman fashion, a communal sensibility and opening it up as a space of dialogue if not disagreement, the latter inclusion of dissensus being perhaps one of the key elements under negotiation in present-day Tunisia: who has the right to convene and who has the right to disagree? Again, a sense of being in transition or, indeed, under duress, pervades this site-specific space and prepares us for one of the more striking works in the show. First seen in Sharjah in 2009, Nida Sinnokrot’s Ka (Carthage), 2009, takes the raised-arm symbolism of an Egyptian hieroglyph and transposes it into the structure of two full-sized bulldozer arms held aloft. The bulldozers, similar to those used in the clearances of houses in the West Bank and Gaza, not to mention those used in constructing new Israeli settlements there, suggest both a pleading to the gods and a form of irreconcilable despair. Sinnokrot has noted that in a Palestinian context, this work means one thing: the struggle between settlements and forms of displacement. Whereas, when first seen in the Gulf states – where he used a crew of South Asian migrant workers to construct the work – it spoke to the building boom there and the politics of migrant labour and human rights that has become a salient feature of half-built cities there. In Carthage, where the bulldozer arms are now supine and prostrate, the sense of despair is still in evidence but a sense of resignation has entered the work, a sense of an entreaty falling on deaf ears.
The theme of display continued in a work by Pauline M’barek, Trophy Stands, 2011, which uses stands formerly used to hold African masks that, now denuded of their masks, look more utilitarian in their function and resemble farmyard tools. The dramatic lighting, however, still belied their former function as structures to display the otherness of Africa and its customs to Europeans, a sense of otherness that continues to permeate to this day. Saâdane Afif’s National (Tunis), 2012, also involved an exchange of sorts, this time in the form of clothing. Three items of clothing, in red, blue and white, recall the French flag whilst the clothes themselves were sourced from flea markets in Tunis – having been transported from France in the form of aid – and pay an homage of sorts to the historical links, if not inequities, between the two countries.
In steering away from overt comments on politics and revolution, CHKOUN AHNA, somewhat paradoxically and no doubt intentionally, delivers a show that is all about revolution, but revolution in the sense of transition and the interrogation of a fixed sense of nationhood or indeed being. Everything seems under construction and no one voice emerges as domimant in either political or indeed cultural terms. In one of the works that did address the current stand-off between those who want to uphold the secular underpinnings of modern-day Tunisia and those who want to impose a more literalist and puritanical version of Islamic theology, Nadia Kaabi-Linke presented a stark black flag embroidered with jasmine flowers, the latter a symbol of Tunisia and an ever-present smell in its countryside and souks. The text on Kaabi-Linke’s Smell, 2012, reads: ‘There is no God apart from God, and Mohamed is his Prophet’, which is effectively the Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness of God and the acceptance of Mohamed as God’s prophet (Shahada). The phrase itself has been widely co-opted by Jihadists since 2000 and by the Taliban since at least 1997. It has become, likewise, a rallying cry for a Salafite version of Islam that is not only literalist and prone to atavism, but not much given to contemporary forms of visual display or, for that matter, debate. The jasmine flowers will rot over time and the black Salafite flag become more dominant; however, this would seem – in a show that ably explores transitional states in physical, metaphysical and non-material terms – to be more of a cautionary tale about the need to counter any attempt to indoctrinate a hard-line stance into the consciousness of Tunisians today who, lest we forget, ignited this call for change across the region in the first place back in December 2010.
Whereas a significant number of recent shows have attempted to capitalise on artists who have engaged with the revolutionary zeal that has engulfed the Maghreb and the Levant, it was, finally, refreshing not to be bombarded here with the visual rhetoric of revolution distilled into a video work or the presentation of an artist-cum-protestor. It was equally refreshing not to have a show that co-opted aesthetic practice as a form of agitprop. This latter knee-jerk curatorial response tends to not only politicise artistic practice in terms of conflict – the de facto colonial and neo-colonial view of the region – and thereafter offer a reductive view of aesthetic processes, it also romanticises the very gesture of making art. Both outcomes are heuristically insidious when it comes to discussing the practice of art and how it can, in a time of revolution or not, re-articulate the parameters of what can be seen, said and heard in the first place, not to mention how such practices can co-opt, in turn, communities into discussions of what exactly is meant by the very term ‘community’ and how we come to determine notions such as belonging and, perhaps more importantly, exclusion. And in that moment, the aesthetic is absolutely political: it reframes the present and the horizon of potential futures and a community’s involvement in defining that future. In avoiding such a show, the curators – Timo Kaabi-Linke and Khadija Hamdi – have largely sidestepped the very clichés we are quickly coming to expect from shows about the so-called ‘Arab world’. As to where we go from here, or what was lost along the way, who knows? What remains certain is that as long as there are strong shows like this, then the very notion of uncertainty and transition will continue to be productively explored in cultural and, one would expect, political terms too.
Downey, Anthony. “Where to Now: Chkoun Ahna at the National Museum of Carthage, Tunis, 2012.” Ibraaz. Ibraaz, 30 May 2012.