Jaou Tunis straddling the fault lines of an art world on the brink of change

As the Jaou Tunis festival kicked off in the Tunisian capital, curator and writer Simon Njami asked: “How do we start to live, to think together?

Launched in 2013, this year’s edition was held at the city’s Old Stock Exchange, a former trading floor which is now lined with North African kilim rugs in a madness of color and traditional design – they are on walls, on floors and as upholstery on chairs. The three-week event ended on Thursday.

Bringing together thinkers from across the Middle East and North Africa region, Asia, Europe and the United States, the city-wide initiative discussed how the art could emerge from an increasingly polarized world.

During each of the four days of the symposium, the halls were filled with young art history students, listening, discussing and sometimes dancing to the beat of the artists’ video excerpts. The round tables were supplemented by a series of photographic exhibitions, under the title Jaou Photo.

The parties were so popular that bouncers had to be hired to keep the queues in order, while the main exhibition, curated by Karim Sultan, deliberately wooed a large audience: with more than 100 photographs set up on scaffolding in the main artery of Tunis, Habib Bourguiba Avenue. , and posted on billboards across the city.

We are far from the lucrative origins of the event: Jaou Tunis is organized by the Kamel Lazaar Foundation, created by the Swiss-Tunisian businessman Kamel Lazaar, at the origin of Swicorp, the first investment bank business in the Middle East. It is now run primarily by his daughter, Lina, who cut her teeth as an analyst at Sotheby’s.

Despite this history, Jaou Tunis has always been characterized by its connection to the local community in Tunis – and, in reflection of the atmospheric meaning of “jaou” in Arabic, its general mood of relaxed openness.

“Art in the Arab world plays an important role,” Lazaar said in a profile for Art Basel earlier this year. “It has an urgency that is not the case everywhere else.”

In perhaps its best-known iteration, in 2015 the foundation held a series of lectures at the Bardo Museum, which months earlier had been the site of a terrorist attack. Tourists were besieged at the museum for three hours and more than 20 people died. Reclaiming the space, Jaou Tunis organized a conference on how the art world might respond to violence, with contributions from Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Antonia Carver and others.

This edition of Jaou Tunis revealed the world of art in full mutation. Editor and writer Stephanie Bailey, along with Lina Lazaar and Karim Sultan, steered the show around the title “What can we learn and unlearn when we talk together?” which raised questions about the rise of nationalism in a time of extremes and what we might take from earlier moments of Arab-Asian or Global South solidarity.

“We have to face the fact that the story continues to unfold in the present,” says Bailey. “If you think about the rise of nationalism – and the lost dreams of the Non-Aligned Movement – it becomes really important to accept that even if there were failures in the 20th century, that does not mean that the project [of solidarity and decolonisation] is finished.”

The Sultan's exhibit continues on billboards across the city.  Photo: Firas Ben Khalifa

Artists and participants included Otolith Group, Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, Urok Shirhan, Hito Steyerl, Mothanna Hussein and Saeed Abu-Jaber of Radio Alhara, Yasmina Reggad, Shuruq Harb and Athi-Patra Ruga, among others.

In addition to Jaou Photo, the event also hosted a selection of works from the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement in Geneva, such as that of Sarah Abu Abdallah Rosarium and Naeem Mohaimen Those who don’t drown.

The long round tables allowed the participants to delve deeper into the subjects, who took advantage of the non-academic context to experiment with new ways of thinking. Sound became an important mode of creating unity, with its shared vibrations uniting an audience, and ideas around cross-pollination and multiplicity came back through the discussions. “Darkness is not a mere absence, but an abundance,” said Nigerian-British artist Evan Ifekoya.

New terms and contexts have emerged amid the change, such as the duty of care that art galleries and artists owe to their audiences – for example, in presenting potentially traumatic images. Does the use of images of brutalized Palestinians or Africans stranded on the Mediterranean end up transferring the violence onto the viewer – and what is the artist’s responsibility in this regard?

The art world has endured a politically difficult summer, with allegations of anti-Semitism against Documenta, the major five-year exhibition held in Kassel, central Germany. For many, the Documenta affair reveals the gap between how Western nations understand their responsibilities to the Global South in the aftermath of colonialism, and the freedom the Global South has to represent itself.

Although artists and thinkers from the Global South – a term that also came under the microscope in discussions – are nominally feted by Western institutions, the topics and ways in which they speak are still often seen as prescribed by expectations and Western sensibilities.

The organizers of Jaou Tunis positioned the event on the fault lines of this discussion. For four days, visitors, artists and curators tried to understand what ability to speak was possible or even useful, without tending towards the police effect of identity politics, where identity determines the field of application of its subject.

“We end on critical poetics because that’s the theme of the whole program,” says Bailey. “It’s really important that we remember that we talk and learn from each other in the art space. We’re not an academic space. It frees us from getting attached to words that are rooted in theories and beliefs. stories.

Many Jaou artists are participating in the Sharjah Biennale next year, such as Gabrielle Goliath, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme; Hadjithomas and Joreige; and Joiri Minaya. Others are artists followed by many curators, such as Ifekoya, nominated last year for the Turner Prize with the collective Black Obsidian Sound System.

The event also took place days before Simone Leigh’s Loophole of Retreat: Venice conference, held at the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, to address the intellectual and creative work of black women. It also came after multiple attempts to rethink the structure of the exhibition, such as curatorial collective ruangrupa’s disavowal of formalism – an over-adherence to prescribed forms – at Documenta.

It remains to be seen how the intellectual work of artists will fare in a world of cancel culture, division and abandonment of nuance – but this collection of august, prickly and thoughtful artists and curators, deeply enmeshed in the debate in Tunisia suggests that change is already underway.

Updated: October 21, 2022, 2:50 p.m.

About Oscar L. Smith

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