Taking to the streets again: Why Tunisia is one of North Africa's top hotspots for graffiti art and culture
Every summer, in the village of Erriadh, near the city of Djerba in Tunisia, artists are invited to paint graffiti at Djerbahood, changing the walls for good.
Created discreetly in 2014, the festival bloomed into the most vibrant urban art event in the whole of North Africa, putting Tunisia on the map of world graffiti.
According to Mehdi Ben Cheikh, a gallery owner and the organiser of Djerbahood, the fact that the village has 2,000 years of history is an inspiration for the 150 street artists he invites to express themselves, artists of 34 different nationalities.
"For those who knew Tunis before the revolution, it seemed like the city filled with words almost overnight"
This year, Mehdi Ben Cheikh managed to get in some of the most known artists in the field, including Invader, Inti, Ardif, Shepard Fairey aka Obey, and eL Seed, the most famous Tunisian artist in the world.
Born in France in 1981, he started breakdancing and graffitiing in the late 1990s and is now known for his ‘calligraffiti’, mixing urban arts and calligraphy.
Such an event also inspired much younger artists like Oumema Bouassida, alias Ouma, born in Tunis and now based in Sfax.
She is probably the first Tunisian woman artist to paint with a hijab. Now 30 and a mother, she is strongly committed to changing perceptions through art and organising social projects.
Speaking to The New Arab, Oumema says that it would never have been possible before the shift of 2011.
“To me, everything started with the Tunisian revolution. I always loved drawing but before the revolution, I would never have imagined painting outside. My father is a graphic designer, and he used to draw by hand before all the software appeared, and I grew up watching him.
"One day, when we were watching television, I saw the work of graffiti writers for the first time, and I told him that I wanted to start doing that. He replied that people do that in Europe, but I couldn’t do it in Tunisia… ‘It’s not possible here’… Then the revolution happened.”
And for her, it meant sudden freedom, a moment to start expressing herself.
“Before the revolution, women wearing the hijab were not accepted in public space or even just the streets,” Ouma adds.
“It was even hard for hijabi women to go study. I wanted to go to art school. During Ben Ali’s time, police were everywhere, controlling our behaviour on every street. But thanks to the massive changes induced by the revolution, at 19, I did my first mural, on the walls of my high school.”
Oumema wanted her first mural to have strong colours and bold letters. Luckily, the director of her school gave her permission and a long story started.
Now Ouma is a well-recognised young artist and facilitates training sessions and workshops for children and teenagers.
She is also using her work to raise awareness on the issue of emigration, and the tragic level of young people trying or hoping to leave Tunisia because of lack of prospects, economic crisis, joblessness, and political turmoil.
For Italian researcher Luce Lacquaniti, author of the book The Walls of Tunis: Signs of Revolt (published in Italy by Exorma), the first sign of the 2011 revolution was indeed graffiti on the capital’s walls. “For those who knew Tunis before the revolution, it seemed like the city filled with words almost overnight,” she wrote.
Since the fall of former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, more and more Tunisian street artists have started reclaiming public spaces that were once tightly controlled by the police and secret services.
Collectives like the student-run alternative art group Ahl El Kahf, started painting messages of hope and expressing their fears and political views for everyone to see.
They teamed up with several NGOs to paint portraits of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man who set himself on fire to protest corruption in his country on 17 December 2010, and of other martyrs of the revolution, on the walls of Tunis. Their work includes painting, stencil graffiti, and collages.
Other young artists followed, like Shoof, Vajo, Elyès Mejri, one of the members of Ahl El Kahf, Inkman, Eska-one and MEEN-ONE. And thanks to them all, Tunisia is now one of the North African hotspots for street cultures.
Shoof is an offspring of Tunis’ medina. Hosni Hertelli – his real name – also uses the Arabic alphabet to interrogate the different cultural influences in contemporary Arab societies.
As for Oumema says she is still “working hard on her art skills, looking into the different types of spray paint available in Tunis.” She went to her first graffiti festivals around 2014, and started working with other local artists, in Tunis and then Sfax.
She now leads workshops for the youth and remains inspired by the ones who managed to reach international recognition, including the Berlin-based woman artist MadC and eL Seed, who painted murals all over the world, from Cairo to London, including Paris, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the slums of Cape Town, Lebanon, Algiers, Toronto in Canada, and on the demilitarized zone in between North and South Korea.
Since the 2011 Tunisian revolution, eL Seed himself has started to use his art as a tool of political expression consciously, and he encouraged the Tunisian younger generation.
He uses his work to spread messages of peace and unity and underline human existence's commonalities. His Arabic letters can be found on walls all over the world and consistently aims at unifying communities and redressing stereotypes.
Recently, he participated in the making of a film, directed by Narinderpal Singh Chandok, El Seed Beyond The Calligraphy (available on Amazon Prime since mid-July), which retraces his journey from a Parisian suburb to his reconnection with his Arab roots and global acclaim.
Melissa Chemam is a French-Algerian freelance journalist and culture writer based between Paris, Bristol and Marseille, and travelling beyond.
Follow her on Twitter: @melissachemam