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In early May, the Kamel Lazaar Foundation invited key figures working in the growing art world of the Maghreb region to JAOU, an intensive weekend of panel talks, discussions and gallery openings in the city of Tunis.
Already in its second iteration, JAOU Tunis seeks to establish itself as a platform for art from the region by encouraging local and international exchanges. It was the specific challenges of the region, however, that were the main subject of most discussions. “Though there is an active ‘creative intelligentsia’ across the spectrum in this part of the world, it has seldom been cultivated in any formal sense and is missing the organization, structure, titles, and formality that would typically frame it in western countries,” said Lina Lazaar, daughter of Kamel Lazaar and manager of the foundation. It was therefore necessary, she added, “to appreciate that here, while the creative spirit is very much alive, it must be ‘teased out’ in a lighter, less defined, and less imposing way.”
While the lack of institutional support for art in the region poses perhaps the greatest challenge, many speakers adopted a pragmatic approach and viewed this rather as a chance for community building, unrestrained by the slow decision-making processes of institutional models.
Anthony Downey, Editor-In-Chief of IBRAAZ, headed a panel discussion with Aaron Cezar, Director of Delfina Foundation, London; Dina Matar, Director of Centre for Media and Film Studies, SOAS, London; and Marie Muracciole, Director of Beirut Art Centre, Lebanon, which focused precisely on the need for new models of art organization. Muracciole emphasized the ideas expressed by French philosopher Jacques Rancière in his “The Emancipated Spectator” as guidelines in the search for such models. In fact, Rancière’s critical theory came up several times in the weekend’s discussions, and Redha Moali of the Art Center Dar Al Ma’Mûn in Marrakech, Morocco, announced that “The Emancipated Spectator” is one of the texts that Dal Al Ma’ Mûn’s research center for literary translation (Arabic-English-French) is currently working on.
The immense potential for community building in the region quickly became apparent on the day of gallery openings. The support and collegiality among local gallerists was not a usual sight for anyone coming from the West. Openings in Tunis are social events, with drinks, music, and lively discussions. This, we were told, would never have happened before the 2010 Jasmine Revolution. Back then, people would not engage in conversation with a stranger, and any loud event would immediately attract police presence.
Some of the art highlights of the tour included the group show “Survivances” by Nidhal Chamekh, Fakhri El Ghezal, Atef Maatallah at Galerie Elmarsa. With works ranging from photography to drawings and collages, the show engages with locales of memory and estrangement. Another great discovery was the work of young autodidact Ymen Berhouma at AGorgi gallery. While Berhouma usually works in painting, she exhibited a show of sketches and collages, which render intimate manifestations of her psyche in elegant and pithy small format works.