In linking this artist’s work to Tiannamen Square and other global movements, Isaac’s interview shows how art works alongside other modes of social action. I am reminded of the statue of Democracy that stood in the Square, made by students in four days out of foam and papier-mache, which stood for five days before it was driven over by a tank. Replicas now stand around the world, including at the campus where I teach. — Editor
by Isaac Oommen
Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall, the Market Women’s Revolt, the Colour Revolutions, the Boxer Rebellion.
Today, they talk of the Jasmine Revolution, the Arab Spring, and how it all started in Tunisia.
A revolution is not the cheesy part with the Che Guevara t-shirts, El Seed says. All that is bullshit. For me the real revolution started when Ben Ali left.
With close-cropped hair and beard, he stares out of his apartment window in Montreal. There are red squares flying in the breeze.
With what happened in Tunisia, and being Tunisian, I saw a duty as an artist to speak out about what was going on in my country. There is a huge wall in Kairouan that we did a piece on. It was not so much a way to celebrate the revolution but the unity of the Tunisian people.
I started the project on December 17 – the day that Mohamad Bouazizi immolated himself in 2010 and started the revolution – with the people of Kairouan. Random people came up to me and asked what I was doing, and when I told them I wanted to change the huge white wall, they offered to join me. So I showed them what to do. At the end there were six people working with me on this mural. This is to me how to start a revolution.
As he leans forward, closer to the glass window, he sees more of the red squares. He thinks how the squares would look with Arabic calligraphy on them.
Sometimes I say I am French; I have citizenship. But I don’t really feel French. People in America and Canada can say they are that, but if you are in France and Arab or Muslim you feel targeted. Arabs are the new communists.
Somewhere in the distance, there might be a call to prayer.
They built this mosque in my city in a suburb of Paris last year. For 25 years Muslims in my city prayed in a basement; then they prayed in a warehouse. Then the municipality said that they were going to build us a mosque. I was asked to paint a mural, which I did. The mosque already looked more like an Apple store than anything. I did a subtle design – a nice way to introduce Muslim art to people. But some people told me that could not work because they did not want everyone to know that the building was a mosque.
In the clouds above the crowds and brick buildings a plume of thick black pours downward, ending just above a high rise. It forms perfectly, the letter “alif” in Arabic.
I used to paint before and have translations. But the thing is that takes away the focus of your eyes. I started asking “if you want to know about what I’m doing, why don’t you learn my language?” People say to me that I should write something that everyone else can understand.
He strokes his beard along his jawline.
Maybe I don’t want you to understand it. That’s a way for me to affirm my identity. I don’t have the complex of the colonized one that wants to be understood by the colonizer.
The old television in the corner of the apartment flickers once.
When you look at the mainstream media, you see they put a lot of romance into the revolutions. They name them after flowers since these smell good, and cue the violin music.
He does not bother to look back into the room. Instead, he stares at the clouds. Sirens can be heard now. The sun is setting in golden light.
As Tunisians, we are still in the process of the revolution and building our country and identity back. Tunisian people lost their pride in what Ben Ali did. When the Tunisian freedom fighters fighting France were done, they were all killed and erased from history; it was made to look like Habib Bourguiba was at the reigns. In Tunisia people internalized the paradigm that the leader will do things for you. I believe the only way now that Ben Ali is out is to break the cycle.
The telephone rings. He picks up. A mural commissioned at a university in Dubai. He smiles, puts the phone down and grabs a messenger bag from the corner of the room.
I really believe people will invest themselves in any project the way they did with the wall because they really want to take back what was taken from them over the years. If you are going to do something you need to give to people their own value, and they need to get back their pride. When you create murals with people, it’s a way to share with them: it’s the democratization of art and at the same time you are giving to them something. That’s the power of street art.
As he opens the door someone says “Eid Mubarak” in a soft tone. Outside the window, pots and pans are clanging.
The people of Kairouan painted with me a message that is a quote sometimes given to Imam Ali and sometimes to a poet from Kairouan. “I’ve seen the times in a different way, neither the sadness nor the smile remain. Kings build castles, but neither the king nor the castle remains.”