Spring in the air. Out to the countryside, destination Takrouna, a Berber community perched on a hill on the plains above Hammamet.
Takrouna is known as the site of a hard-fought battle for territorial supremacy between German and Allied troops in WWII. Now, sixty years later, post-Arab Spring, it’s a new wave invasion, backed by the Goethe Institute and co-funded by the European Union. Old enemies are now allies. The event reinforces the core Tunisian narrative: outsiders arrive, fall in love with the place, set up home, bring new ideas, fight each other, and then leave. Tunisians take the bits they like and wave the invaders goodbye. So… this the invasion.
Standout work was the installation by German artist Elke Seppmann. During the one-day scoping at Takrouna, looking for inspiration, Elke encountered an abandoned house, all vaulted ceilings, exposed brickwork, flaking plaster. The central courtyard open to the sky, a labyrinth of corridors, a honeycomb of smaller rooms. A villager mentioned a plan to convert the space … and so the artwork Hotel Takrouna was born.
She invited local villagers (including around 50 schoolkids) to enter this compound and to reimagine the physical space transformed into a hotel. Using simple black charcoal sticks, they then transferred these visions onto large sheets of white paper, which were then posted around the walls, at once transforming the area into a living museum.
It evoked an architect’s plan, or collages from a designer’s style book. Perhaps most effective was the ‘bedroom’ where light filtered through the white paper with a shadow of a vase and flowers, providing a luminosity to the bed and bedside tables.
The artwork managed to portray the ghosts of the past generations, who had lived, loved, laughed and died in this private courtyard, hidden from the eyes of the outsider. At the same time, it’s a modern dream: it captured the aspirations of future generations, and their own vision of a ‘dream hotel’. Interestingly the vision was far more ‘globalised’ than berber: the hotel look was achieved with classic ‘furniture and fittings icons from a shared modern visual hospitality vocabulary.
The school kids’ contributions revealed a more local and personal vision:
‘My house in future very beautiful’ one local artist has written …
Another youth, a football fan, has written: it’s my number bab jdid (new door) (14) and included the obligatory identity mark: ESS / est .. Ironically this is the very same ubiquitous graffiti that greeted us as we entered the village. Political slogans come and go…But the football identities remain constant, at the same time uniting and dividing the people.
The same ‘fuck’ global meme was lurking behind another display. An Egyptian artist had interviewed local people about their lives, and then transposed ‘sound bites’ onto small pennants, suspended from clothes hangers.
It was later explained that these pennants represent ‘identity’ which can be worn like an outfit. I liked the idea, but not the end product. I’m never comfortable when women artists deliver ‘twee’ product, with flowers and neat handwriting. Reminds me of good girls sitting quietly and stitching cross-stitch samplers. If there was a sense of irony, I didn’t feel it. It was also intriguing that the artist chose not to paint over the graffiti. She explained that the juxtaposition of the ‘beautiful’ with the ‘ugly’ was the point. I agreed, but from the other perspective: I thought the graffiti was kind of beautiful. Especially the specific ‘fuck america’ sprayed in silver on white. Like a good luck message on a wedding gift wrapper.
The installation that most grabbed public attention was the one assembled from serried ranks of ‘export quality lettuces’ in the courtyard of one of the few remaining inhabited houses.
The artist explained the concept: “The people of Takrouna have abandoned the mountain, and live on the fertile plains, attracted by the opportunity for employment tending vegetables and salad. The lines of lettuce on the courtyard are mirrored by the lines of greenhouses below.” On the terrace, as on the plains, it’s women’s work.
The lettuce installation delivered surreal moments reminiscent of ‘happenings’ in the late 60’s. The home-owner was setting up the taboun oven, and crammed it full of olive branches. For a couple of minutes dense white smoke billowed forth and both lettuces and lookers were lost in the swirling clouds.
Suddenly the fuel burst into flames, the air cleared to reveal local youths had invaded the canvas. They were inside the frame, moving the elements, eating the installation. The artwork simply a backcloth for their endless photos of themselves and each other.
The artist valiantly entered the arena, seriously explaining her oeuvre to a bewildered and yet courteous audience.They clapped and continued chomping
Here’s a link to more photos of the evening performances… it looked great.. wish I had been there. I tend to be a bit sceptical about aid-funded art projects but the images show the extent of local support, how it gripped the attention. Hundreds of visitors put Takrouna back on the map. For the best of reasons.