Chkoun Ahna – On the Track of History
by Timo Kaabi-Linke
As ‘Chkoun Ahna’ at the National Museum of Carthage comes to an end, we asked curator Timo Kaabi-Linke to reflect on his curatorial premise and the – sometimes heated – reaction to the show. Nowadays, he says, Tunisian artists and curators “are fighting for the rights of their profession”…
“All efforts to purify Tunisian heritage and sort out a homogeneous cultural identity are doomed to fail. Tunisian history was and still is a cross-cultural joint venture.” This was the initial idea behind ‘Chkoun Ahna’, an international contemporary art show in Carthage. “Chkoun Ahna” is spoken in Tunisian dialect and written in Roman letters. The exhibition included works of 26 artists coming from Tunisia and countries that have historical ties with today’s Tunisia. More than half of the artworks were specially commissioned for the exhibition. It is the first edition of the Carthage Contemporary project that will continue to explore the tensions between the “contemporary” and the “past” through the means of the visual arts.
When co-curator Khadija Hamdi and I started to think about facilities and opportunities to produce an international art exhibition during last year’s summer, the discovery of the Byrsa Hill was the key to all questions we had in mind. We were looking for a curatorial concept that was typical for Tunisia and at the same time open enough for an international exhibition. As we found the old Punic ruins topped by Roman structures and surrounded by Byzantine and French architecture, we immediately understood that history – the representation of the past – is more than only represented in Tunisia, it’s really present and more than that, it’s nearly everywhere. Furthermore we learned that Tunisian history is quite an open concept that includes many cultures from different regions. This was not only the beginning of ’Chkoun Ahna’, an international contemporary art exhibition on the archaeological excavation site of Carthage-Byrsa, but it was also the primordial condition for Carthage Contemporary that will become a bi-annual meeting for contemporary art.
The overall concept of this project is to move to different places and to reveal historical relations and tensions between the present and past. I believe that artistic practices and artworks that mirror our contemporary life will also help us to better understanding it as a being in time.
A few weeks following the opening of the exhibition, a time filled with such optimism of what was possible moving forward in the ‘new Tunisia’ we were sadly struck with more unrest. It was not directed or at all related to ’Chkoun Ahna’, but against specific artworks on display as part of “Printemps des Arts” (the annual art fair which takes place in Marsa, Tunis). It was in fact just a convenient pretext for an extreme group of Salafists to launch an attack.
The difficulty is that when building a new democracy, many people do not think that art and culture is important in society. When it appears that the Minister of Culture is not openly supportive nor actively condemns autodidacts, the situation becomes significantly more problematic. In present-day Tunisia, it seems that divisions between the “intellectuals” – many of whom studied abroad and speak English and/or French – and others in Tunisian society are becoming more acute. At the most extreme level, some artists and intellectuals have received death threats and been forced into hiding.
Nowadays, it feels as though we are basically fighting for the rights of our profession, for free artistic expression. The Tunisian Collective for Freedom and Arts and Culture, a collective bringing together practitioners from all areas of culture, theatre, music as well as the visual arts, calls out to artists and Muslims worldwide to support their cause.
Nadia Kaabi Linke has decided to gift her specially commissioned work, Smell (2012) to a Salafist who visited ‘Chkoun Ahna’ and liked the piece. This gesture is certainly not without irony, and recognizes that the multiple layers at work in the piece encourage multiple readings – that the use of the Jasmine flower, which gradually deteriorates through the time the work is exhibited, could also allow the work to be viewed as a salutation of the Muslim declaration of belief. The Salafi promised that from now on he will take care of the work, and when flowers get lost he will add new flowers. This way he will keep his confession of faith by restoring a contemporary artwork and both “sides” can be content with the result.
Further reading: Universes in Universe has covered this issue, and also included a link to the petition – see: http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/nafas/articles/2012/news_tips/petition_tunisia
Timo Kaabi-Linke works as curator and writer and lives in Berlin, Germany, and Tunis, Tunisia. His research work combines sociological and philosophical approaches to art and technology and questions the very concept of contemporaneity as well as the geo-coding of contemporary art marketing. He is co-founder of Carthage Contemporary.