Popular Expression in Tunisia

Tunisia Exhibit Poster

Popular Expression in Tunisia: From Handicraft to Calligraffiti

Geographers of ancient Rome referred to Tunisia as Ifriqiya—a name later extended to the entire continent of Africa. Throughout its long history, Tunisia has been a crossroads of civilizations, creatively combining old and new, tradition and modernity, producing arts and crafts that have become icons of its various historical periods and regional identities. This exhibit, Popular Expression in Tunisia, focuses on the Arab Spring period (2011 – 2014) through a rich set of graffiti posters by numerous Tunisian artists, from the novice to the famous. Some are spontaneous protest expressions by such groups as Zwewla who played cat-and-mouse with the police in 2012; others are by world-renowned artists such as eL Seed (calligraffiti.) The Tunisia Exhibit provides an overview of these multiple layers of culture. Given its key location on the Mediterranean, Tunisia stands at the center between the Arab Islamic East and the West, between Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. Enriched by all these cultural influences, Tunisian popular expression has a wide range both historically and geographically: Roman household mosaics illustrating Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid; Berber textiles; Islamic tile work and calligraphy; Bedouin woven rugs and desert poetry; Andalusian urban crafts such as silk weaving; glass paintings of traditional apotropaic symbols (protection from the evil eye), of contemporary scenes, and of illustrations of the Arab epic of the Taghreeba (Westward Adventure) of the Arab ‘Bani Hilal’ tribe; Karagoz puppets of the Ottoman/Turkish warriors such as Ismail Pasha; oasis products of woven reeds and palm as well as natural beauty and medicinal products. Given its distinctive regional signatures in the arts, Tunisia has become a case-study for the protection of community cultural rights associated with its folklore, characterized by its being passed down from generation to generation in each locality, its community-oriented expression defined by local standards, traditions and expectations, its ownership by the community rather than through attribution to individuals, and by its daily uses, continual innovation and development. Tunisia is the birthplace of the recent Arab Spring Revolution, a revolution mainly by apolitical youth who sought “Jobs, Liberty, and Dignity,” and whose frustrations exploded into powerful chants of the opening lines of Chebbi’s poem “Will to Live,” and of the French command “Dégage!” [Get Out!], against the authoritarian president (Ben Ali), who was eventually forced by peaceful protest to flee into exile. Tunisia has made significant progress toward democracy and a transparent rule of law. In summer 2014, having achieved a new forward-looking Constitution, a new election law, and a strengthened charter of women’s rights, Tunisia is living a democratization experiment that is likely to become exemplary for the other emerging countries in the region. Oregon State is hosting this exhibit in support of the NEH Project, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia: Literature, The Arts, and Cinema (June 23 – July 11, 2014), and to celebrate OSU’s more than 30 years of academic exchanges with Tunisian universities, including the OSU Study Abroad Program in Tunis (inaugurated in 2004.)