Stencil graffiti of current Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, with the caption, "Don't fall in love with power".
There’s something new going on in the streets of Tunisian cities: graffiti art. Since the fall of former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s government, Tunisian street artists are reclaiming public spaces that were once tightly controlled by police and secret services.
The political turmoil that has gripped Tunisia since the January popular uprising has been accompanied by a shift in the country’s arts scene. Previously inexistent alternative art groups, like the student-run Ahl El Kahf, are using their newfound freedom to paint their hopes, fears and political views for everyone to see
"Our paintings represent the martyrs of the revolution"
Elyès Mejri is a painter. He's one of the members of the alternative art group Ahl El Kahf.
We came up with the idea of Ahl El Kahf over a year ago, but it only took off when the revolution started. We were a group of friends, mostly art students in Tunis, and we were frustrated by the absence of “underground” art forms in our country. We chose the name “Ahl El Kahf” [“Cave People” in Arabic] as a reference to a tale told both in the Koran and Christian texts. It tells the story of a group of men who take shelter in a cave in order to hide from the angry king. In their hiding place, God puts them into a deep sleep, which lasts for several centuries. For us this story symbolizes the spirit of underground culture, which is transient and forward thinking, and stands apart from what one sees on the surface.
When the first sit-ins were organised in front of the Prime Minister’s offices, we began painting our graffiti in the streets. Zied, one of the members of the group, took photos and posted them on Facebook under the name “Ahl El Kahf”. Things took off from there.
Our work is a hybrid of several forms - painting, stencil graffiti, collages. Before we go out to paint, we choose the perfect location, usually a well-known or symbolic building. We adapt our work to the type of surface we paint on, by using the cracks or flaws in a wall, for example. Then we paint the surface on which we are going to do the stencil. We use X-ray paper because of its precision and its resistance. We cut up the paper and draw the shapes on the walls using spray paint. It’s a bit more complicated than ordinary graffiti.
Our paintings usually represent famous political figures or martyrs of the revolution, but we also use designs by Banksy (the famous British graffiti artist). On April 9, which is Martyr’s day in Tunisia, we teamed up with several NGOs to paint portraits of Mohamed Bouazizi [the young man who sparked the nation-wide uprising after he set himself on fire to protest corruption in his country] and other martyrs of the revolution on the walls of Tunis.
"We play cat and mouse with the police"
All of this is obviously risky. We play cat and mouse with the police. We often take advantage of demonstrations to do our drawings because at these moments the police are busy dealing with protestors and leave us alone. Otherwise we work at night and pedestrians discover the result when they get up the next day.
We are not surprised by this censorship, in fact we expected it. After all, street art is new in Tunisia. And in terms of censorship, Tunisia is not an exception. Even in Europe and the US, graffiti artists have to be crafty. Indeed, what we draw has a very short lifespan: authorities are quick to erase all traces of our work. The fleeting nature of this type of art can be frustrating, but it’s an integral part of contemporary activist art. Petitions have been launched on the Internet for our graffiti not to be painted over We were very touched by this recognition of our work.
"Where are the snipers ?"
Graffiti on Palestine street in Tunis. Homage to Leila Khaled, a Palestinian activist.
British street artist Bansky’s famous rat, with Lybian leader Muammar Kaddafi’s face.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Lorena Galliot.