How Street Artists in Tunisia Turned the Arab Spring into Art

The island of Djerba's open-air street art museum

In July and August of 2014, the Tunisian island of Djerba, known as the “Island of Dreams,” was literally a dream come true for 150 street artists from 30 different countries. An invitation to make a canvas out of the walls of a quaint Tunisian village might sound strange, but these artists were not about to pass on one of the most prominent moments in street art history.

untitled, ROA2014 (From the collection of Street Art 13)

The event followed in the wake of the 2011 Tunisian Revolution against the authoritarian rule of then president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Among the many activists involved in the movement were artists, whose freedom of expression were strictly censored under the regime’s rule. With the first democratic election post-revolution, 2014 saw a rise in artistic expression in even the most public of places. Here are some of the street artists who tell this tale on the city walls.

1. Uniting through acceptance: eL Seed

Tunisian artist el Seed used street art to peacefully embrace unity and fight intolerance. Decorating the tallest minaret in Tunisia with a verse from the Quran, he told CNN, "My goal was to bring people together, which is why I chose these words," said eL Seed. "I like graffiti because it brings art to everyone. I like the fact of democratizing art.”

Jara Mosque Miranet (From the collection of Street Art 13)

2. Finding inspiration in struggle: Vajo

Although the 2011 street art revolution began to give a younger Tunisian generation a voice, the country still struggles with poverty, unemployment, and political corruption. Street artists, such as Vajo, have chosen to find creativity in the darkness and use hardship as artistic inspiration. “If there are no problems, there is no art,” he told Citylab. Vajo’s work features multiple, shifting geometric designs to represent how objects and concepts can be flexible and open to change.

Untitled (From the collection of Street Art 13)

3. Creating a melting pot: Saner

The summer of 2014 put local street artists' work on display, but also saw the fellowship of artists abroad come together to share in the post-revolution message of freedom. Tunisian street art didn’t just look inwards to Tunisian culture, but included and involved the work of people from different heritages and cultures. Mexican artist Saner added a sprinkle of his own culture throughout his works in Tunisia. As he describes to Street Art News, his pieces incorporated “the South American folklore and culture while exploring powerful folkloric narratives with his signature imagery.”

Untitled (From the collection of Street Art 13)

Saner’s contribution to the Djerba’s street art was a blend of his own Mexican heritage, patterns, and colors with local, traditional imagery. The result is a statement of cross-cultural collaboration and love.

4. Promoting freedom of speech: Roa

During the Arab Sprint, street art was used as an outlet to express independent thought. Street artist Roa says, “Graffiti is one of the most liberating art expressions of the world – you don’t do it for money nor for an institution, it’s a free expression and it frees you creatively from a lot of restrictions.”

Untitled (From the collection of Street Art 13)

Roa often painted large scale and unique portrayal of animals, usually reflective of a particular location's flora and fauna. However, he also twists these, and makes them dark or disturbing, here acting as a critique of society and censorship.

5. Creating beauty: Wisetwo

Not everyone used their art as a form of activism, or to make political statements. Kenyan artist Wisetwo avoids controversy and uses street art to make something he deems beautiful. “Trying to merge [politics and art] is not an easy task,” Wisetwo says, “That’s not the concept of my expression. This world has too many problems. Trying to fix them is not my thing. I just paint, make places look beautiful.”

Wisetwo’s work aims at displaying cultural symbols as an aid towards personal growth, relaying the message of the complexities of humanity, and offering the solution of spiritual release.

Untitled, Wisetwo, 2014 (From the collection of Street Art 13)

The artists who took over Djerba were committed to making a statement, while also respecting the local culture, beliefs and values. Their graffiti and murals are a perfect example of using a place as your canvas.

Credits: All media
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