Exterior view of “All the World’s a Mosque” at JAOU Tunis, 2015. Courtesy JAOU Tunis.

Exterior view of “All the World’s a Mosque” at JAOU Tunis, 2015. Courtesy JAOUTunis.

Jun 11 2015

All The World’s A Mosque: JAOU Tunis 2015

by Alexandra MacGilp

The third edition of the JAOU Tunis arts festival, which took place during the last week of May, was inevitably framed by the tragic events that struck the Bardo National Museum earlier this year. Twenty-one people, mostly foreign tourists, were killed by Islamic extremists who attacked the museum in mid-March. During the 2015 JAOU Tunis, this beautiful building became the venue for a symposium titled “Visual Culture in an Age of Global Conflict,” and a memorial to those who lost their lives greeted visitors at the museum entrance. As one wondered through the institution’s breath-taking collection of mosaics, one was met with a sudden jolt upon discovering genuine bullet holes in the glass display cases. This raw reality, and the idea of culture as a battlefield, was reflected in JAOU Tunis’ symposium and its timely discussions. Though the event had already been planned to take place at the Bardo National Museum before the attack, once the incident happened, rather than cancel the program, the organizers decided to redouble their efforts to hold the symposium, gathering about 250 guests and 50 speakers for the occasion. They didn’t want to let the terrorists set the event’s agenda—though, in a way, that couldn’t be avoided. JAOU’s statement of intent appeals for art to be used as a tool to spread a message of tolerance—a message that is inherent in the teachings of Islam.

The event’s climax was the opening of the exhibition “All the World’s a Mosque,” staged in a warren-like construction of 22 containers, situated next to a large mosque and a Roman amphitheater in the city of Carthage—a site that reminds us of Tunis’s rich pre-Islamic past. The exhibition, curated by JAOU founder Lina Lazaar, who put together the show in a matter of weeks, passionately proposed that religion should be a matter of personal faith rather than a dogmatic ideology. The show featured established and emerging artists from the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, including Adel Abidin, Ammar al-Attar, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Wael Shawky and Mounir Fatmi. What impressed me most were the enormous crowds of people, who queued to get through the metal detector at the entrance. It was a necessary precaution given the potentially provocative nature of the show’s thesis—that Muslims should be free to worship as they see fit. I saw Tunisians of all ages and backgrounds waiting to witness the show, by far outnumbering the local and international art crowd. 

The JAOU program was packed with talk events, predominantly in French, but also in English and Arabic, followed by exhibitions and dinners. Highlights of its symposium included a fascinating lecture performance by artist collective Slavs and Tatars, entitled Al Isnad or Chains We Can Believe In, that looked at the unfashionable connection between faith, art and patronage in today’s world. Also noteworthy was Sultan al-Qassemi’s timely lecture on political content and satire in Middle Eastern art, which ended on an optimistic note with calligraffiti artist eL Seed’s project on the Jara Mosque in Gares, Tunisia, which calls for reconciliation during this time of societal transition within the country. There were also, at times, heated debates around the issue of state funding for the arts in the Maghreb region (the area encompassing the greater Northwest Africa). I was interested to learn more about Tunisian choreography, after hearing a panel led by the country’s pioneer dancer and choreographer Hela Fattoumi, who discussed the difficulties in using the body in a culture where that is taboo. George Abrid of Beirut’s Arab Center for Architecture talked passionately about the need to document and defend endangered modernist buildings in Beirut. 

All generations of Tunisian artists were represented in the JAOU’s other exhibition programs. There was a group show of young local artists entitled “Réminiscence” at Entreprise Talan, and a playful solo exhibition of emerging artist Malek Gnaoui, which explored the metaphorical notion of the “black sheep” and took place at Selma Feriani Gallery in the beautiful back streets of Sidi Bou Said. Mid-career painter Halim Karabibene was featured at El Marsa Gallery, and elsewhere were presentations of senior artists such as Nja Mahdaoui, Jalel Ben Abdallah and Hédi Turki.

The JAOU events gathered together art patrons and professionals from the Gulf, the Levant, the Maghreb, Europe and the United States, who—after the festival—continued their discussions over a series of dinners hosted by the Kamel Lazaar Foundation, an international cultural initiative focused on the arts of the MENA region.

JAOU Tunis was held on May 28–30, 2015.

“Performing Archives/Archiving Performance: Contemporary Art Practices Across the Middle East,” a roundtable discussion at the JAOU Tunis arts festival, 2015. (Left to right) Ibraaz editor-in-chief Anthony Downey; artists Nadia Kaabi-Linke; Hiwa K.; Héla Ammara; and Tania El Khoury. Photo by Hydar Dewachi.