Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Transit in Casablanca

After cold but restful holiday in Tunisia, I was happy to head South
to the warmth of Bamako, Mali. On the way my connecting flight was through Casablanca where I spent a day. I had hoped to catch up with the artist Myriam Mihindou but unfortunately with all the technology at our disposal we missed each other. I accidently came across Myriam's (Gabon) photographic work which was part of the off exhibitions at the Bamako Biennale of African Photography. In fact i was so enthralled that i did an interview with her and her co-collaborator Pelagie Gbaguidi (Benin). Since then i have tried as much as possible to follow her work which has matured considerably.

detail video installation (2003)

Myriam works in a varied of format such as sculptural installations, video but primarily in photography and explores issue of cultural metissage, dispacement, rupture, nodamism, history and memory amongst others. The professional observations and interest will continue from afar in the hope that one day soon - our schedules permitting - we will have time to really talk. From the little I saw of the beauty of Casablanca it now features high on my list of countries to visit sooner than later. After Tunisia and Morocco I realise that my knowledge of the history, culture and politics of the northern countries of Africa remains superficial at best.

Haiti Project

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Cultural Tourism in Tunisia

As I was on holiday, I was determined not do studio visits. In any case i was never far away from culture directly or indirectly. As fate would have it one of the guest i had contact with happened to be connected to an art magazine in Paris. At this stage we were both only really interested in bargains at the souks with a bit of tourism thrown in. So off we went to Nabeul and old Hammamet in search of 'authentic' tunisian culture. The souks were a total disappointment full of manufactured 'artefacts' and fake designer bags. The tourist industry and industrialisation seems to have killed off the artisanat trades. But my friend did manage to pick up some very nice carpets at incredible bargain prices. After a watered down version of a couscous lunch we headed back to the sanctity of the hotel. The next day I was given a personalised tour of the retrospective exhibition of one of Tunisian's leading artist Abderrasak Sahli at the Musee de la Ville de Tunis. A good size space that had been beautifully restored.

Display of Abderrasak Sahli's exhibition in Tunis

My last day in Tunisia was to be spent in Tunis with friend and curator Rachida Triki Professor of Philosphy of Aesthetics of Art at the University. With her husband also professor of philosophy of History at the University of Tunis, I got a first class introductory course into the cultural history of Tunisia. This was splintered with ‘fieldwork’ to culture spaces such as 1 or 2 galleries, Carthage and the beautiful Sidi Bou Said. Tunisia is really beautiful country and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Tunis is almost a perfect city. Due to a flight mix-up up with my airline that decided to leave 7hrs early than scheduled without notifying me. I had another day to spend in the city. This was spent at the Souk where I got hooked in the jewellery section which had absolutely beautiful hand crafted silver jewellery with semi precious stones. The prices were unbelievable so i helped myself to quite a few.

I was fascinated with the intricate design of metal work that adorned the windows and doors of most houses.

Remaining Roman ruins at Carthage.

Souk shopping

Tea time in a beautiful cafe in Sidi Bou Said.
Tunis is a very beautiful city and extremely developed. It is the most European of African cities. Its infrastructure is first class and would leave alot of western cities gasping and some of the societal statistics are staggering. Over 80% literacy, 100% accommodation with 85% owner-occupier, self-sufficiency in food, and good manufacturing base which means basic necessities are made in the country hence affordable to the populace. The city is clinically clean and after 2 days the perfectness of the city began to give it an air of artificiality.

The visual art scene is relatively small in Tunisia, with the older generation of modernist painters holding tightly to their dominant positions. Rachida commented on the lack of a collective art community resulting in individual isolated activity. There are few art galleries, and very minimal committed public support. The younger generation of artists have yet to devise a strategy that breaks not only the generational stranglehold but also stymies creative degradation. It goes without saying that the contact between Tunisia and sub saharah african is almost non-existent. That is changing especially now that the headquarters of the African Development Bank - formely in Ivory Coast - has relocated to the Tunis. There is a small but growing population of West African professional elites now living in Tunisia. This has inevitably led to more contact and has resulted in arousing the curosity of the Tunisians about their fellow Africans who they know nothing about. Mobility between North and West Africa is still difficult, inconvenient and expensive but that should change over the next 12 months. Increased movementled to reduction in price and mobility of ideas, trade and people will increase considerable. This pressages an important future for intra Africa exchange and development and artists and other cultural workers will form an important part of this mobility.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Postcard from Tunisia

Happy New Year

2007 greetings from sunny but chilly Tunisia. After a hectic 2006, I decided to have a well deserved break from the stress and pace of Lagos. December is also an opportunity to get in touch with one’s inner self and meditate on things past,present and future. So I jumped at the opportunity to head to North Africa for the first time. But to my surprise, getting to North Africa from West Africa was going to be a feat as challenging as the border crossing with Cotonou. Once again I am confronted with the problem of mobility within the African continent as the travel agent informs me that I would have to go through Europe and pay an exorbitant fare to boot. To me that was an unacceptable option and I was determined to find a route through Africa that wouldn’t take all week. With some clever re-routing through Cotonou I was on my way.

Tunisia was a cultural shock. I thought I had landed somewhere in Europe, it was freezing. Thinking I am still in Africa I had few warm clothes with me. In fact I had landed in the middle of their winter, but i remained undeterred. The drive from Tunis to Hammamet was smooth. The roads were impeccable and the scenery was breathtaking. I revelled in the shape and sizes of the mountains that the driver said were part of the famous Atlas mountain (news to me) that went through about 3-4 countries in Northern Africa. I guess the equivalent of the also famous River Niger. Within 45 minutes we were in the tourist town of Hammamet and my abode for the next week.

I was to lodge at the 5* Hadsdrubal Hotel Thalasso and Spa Resort and the room from my suite was breathtaking as the pictures above demonstrates. The belly dancing was on New Year's eve where we were treated to a sumptuous 6 course mean. I think i gave up on the 4th course. Hasdrubal wasn't chosen only Thalasso and Spa. The owners of Hadsdrubal are art lovers and the hotel doubles as a gallery of sorts. The walls and other appropriate space of art – mainly modernist figurative but mainly abstract paintings of Tunisian artists with a splattering of Iraqi artists too. The collection has been built up over the past 25 years by the art consultant to the owners of the hotel chain.

Hadsdrubal in the process of building it biggest, most luxurious hotel to date in the town of Djerba.
Within its premises will also be located the first private museum. I had the opportunity to speak with the art consultant and buyer for the Hadsdrubal Mr Amouri about past and future plans for the new space. He acknowledged that the art collection has to be reviewed and the new strategy will take the museological process into consideration. It was heartening to learn about their commitment to open up across the continent and embrace contemporary art from other parts of African which until now has remained completely oblivious in Tunisia. They also intend to develop an artist in residence programme to encourage dynamic interaction between contemporary artists on the continent and beyond.