In Tunisia, graffiti takes to the minaret in defence of tolerance, artistic freedom

Sara Elkamel, Sunday 19 Aug 2012

Recent clashes between Salafists and the Tunisian art community prompted graffiti artist El-Seed to transform a religious landmark into a beacon promoting peace and freedom

Photo from the artist's official Facebook wall:

A number of recent attacks on creative freedom and the scope of artistic expression have sparked substantial debate in Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s native land. French-born Tunisian graffiti artist El-Seed decides to relieve the tension through art.

Armed with paint, the artist completed Tunisia’s largest mural on 17 August, but the location is the catch; he painted on the country's tallest minaret, at the Jara Mosque, located in the industrial city of Gabes.

Gabes, which is also El-Seed’s hometown, was the ideal location for his bold project. "I decided to do the mural because it was close to my heart. It had been a while I had wanted to paint a wall in Gabes," the artist told Ahram Online.

The minaret of Jara Mosque in Gabes had been left unpainted since its construction in 1994. Now, almost a decade later, it hosts a message of peace through colour.

The mural, which has been embraced with open arms by the mosque’s Imam, was painted on the 57-metre high minaret, and is meant as a message of tolerance and mutual respect.

“The primary purpose was, and is, to inspire people to get together and build community around positive action,” El-Seed told Ahram Online via email. “Both sides of the minaret are painted with a verse from the Quran encouraging tolerance, dialogue, and curiosity of 'the other.'”

The mural comes amid recent clashes driven by religious sects, specifically Salafi Islamists — most notably at the beginning of the year with the fining of Nabil Karoui, head of Nessma TV, for airing Persepolis, a film the court claimed disturbed public order. Equally disturbing news came in June when censorship was applied on some art works displayed at this year's Printemps des Arts. Meanwhile, last week a Salafist group blocked a theatrical performance in Menzel Bourguiba, claiming that it provoked the feelings of the people and violated the principles of Islamic law.

Those incidents motivated El-Seed’s initiative to alter the Gabes religious landmark into a site of public art.

El-Seed first explored the art of graffiti in 1998 in Paris, where he spent his childhood. Later, when he moved to North America, he started combining graffiti with his passion for Arabic calligraphy (usually associated with the Quran and religious scripture). The artist likes to mix traditional script and contemporary pop-culture, giving birth to a distinctive urban graffiti.  

The minaret project does not set out to decorate the mosque, but rather to render art visible as an actor in the process of cultural and political change. El-Seed believes that art could play a critical role in the emerging political future of Tunisia.

Tunisia’s art scene flourished with the Jasmine Revolution of December 2010. The booming of the Arab graffiti movement corresponded with political uprisings spreading throughout the region.

“There is a common assumption that artists create revolutions. However, in Tunisia, it seems more that the revolution has created artists,” explains El-Seed. “After the sudden burst of expression enabled by the revolts, Tunisians began to take back public space.”

The graffiti artist himself came back to Tunisia one year after the revolution to paint a mural in Kairouan, the Tunisian city and UNESCO World Heritage site, that celebrates and commemorates the uprising and the people’s unity.

El-Seed’s project is funded by the independent United Arab Emirates-based Barjeel Art Foundation, founded by art collector and Arab affairs pundit Sultan Al-Qassemi.

Al-Qassemi crossed paths with El-Seed at the 2011 Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival, but he was already familiar with his artwork. They met again in Paris this June, and that’s when El-Seed revealed his graffiti plans to Al-Qassemi. The project, Al-Qassemi told Ahram Online, intrigued him so much so that he decided to back it completely.

El-Seed's artwork bridges the gap between conservatives and the artistic community in Tunisia, according to Al-Qassemi, and that’s why he decided to support it through the Barjeel Art Foundation.

“I think art is a powerful medium that can be used to build bridges, not only between the Arabs and the rest of the world, but equally as important between Arabs amongst themselves,” says Al-Qassemi.

El-Seed believes there is a misconception spreading through Tunisia and the world that art and religion are either in opposition, or not at all connected. Incidents of violence against artists in Tunisia have perpetuated this view, and according to El-Seed, “the media has made it seem as though these marginal anti-social groups creating havoc are mainstream, when in fact they are not.”

“There are no tensions in a general sense between religious sects and the art community,” continues El-Seed.

El-Seed’s project aims to dismantle barriers between different factions of Tunisian society, a challenge no doubt. But the mural has also been challenging for the 31-year-old on a personal level. “The fact that the mural was to be on a minaret; this is something I have never done. It definitely tested my limits physically, in terms of design and execution.”

Arab street artists are a crucial factor in the region’s transition to greater freedoms and democracy, and they have been continually pushing their limits, pushing for greater dialogue in the street, and in society at large.

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