Making of MISE EN LUMIERE in Tunis

Written by Bettina Pelz. Published on 17 December 2022.

Reporting from a public art project dedicated to pioneering Tunisian women

Commissioned by the Mayor of Tunis Souad Abderrahim and the AIMF (fr: Association Internationale des Maires Francophones), MISE EN LUMIÈRE was a public art project dedicated to pioneering women from the past to the present. From 16 to 18 November 2022, at six iconic sites of the city — from Bab Bhar to the City Hall, including the City Museum and the City Theater, the Zitouna Mosque, and the Cathedrale St. Vincent de Paul — pioneering Tunisian women were highlighted by artistic architecture projections by an international group of artists.

Cathedrale St. Paul. Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor

Najet Abderrahim provided an informative text on 16 pioneers stretching from Elyssa, the founder of Carthage in the 9th Century BC to present days politicians Najla Bouden and Souad Abderrahim, she referred to Arwa La Kairouanaise, Aziza Othmana, and Om Millel as women that influenced the Tunisian mentality. She cited the first Arab woman physician Tawhida Ben Cheikh as well as the first Tunisian woman pilot Alia Menchari. She included athletes such as Ons Jabeur and Raoua Tlili, artists such as fine artist and designer Safia Farhat as well as Fadhila Khetmi, Habiba Msika, or Saliha from the performing arts. The named ones are thought to be examples of the many more women pioneers that shaped present-day Tunisia’s culture and identity. For the first time, women that changed the political, scientific, technical, and socio-cultural tissue of the country were celebrated in framework interweaving women role models and iconic site, experimental artistic approaches and innovative digital technologies.

Cathedrale St. Paul. Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor

The text material was the foundation for the artistic team that worked on all the sites and co-worked in various constellations to manage the short-term commission. There were five visual artists involved and four sound-related artists. The info on the sites as well as the visuals such as images, maps, and models were traveling freely between all the artists’ studios, the same for the audio materials such as field recordings, variations of the narrations, or first experimentations. In the week before the public event, all materials were finalized and tested onsite. Almost all had to be altered again due to mismatches between plans and buildings, shifted positions for the projectors and general safety measures. Artists, technicians, and community managers worked hand in hand solving all issues in time.

Zitouna Mosque. Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor

Artistic contributions were made by Gudrun Barenbrock, Dawan, Detlef Hartung, Dora Hichri, Zeineb Kaabi, Anja Kreysing, and Haifa Ouerfelli. Aymen Gharbi and Bettina Pelz directed the program. All participating artists have been part of an INTERFERENCE exhibition or an INTERFERENCE YOUNG MASTERS program. All of them developed independently visual approaches for architecture projections, based on either the features of the site or referencing distinguished women models. In the artistic practice they are acquainted working with digital technologies, responding to heritage sites, and engaging with societal issues. All of them were enthusiastic to contribute to this new opportunity to render women’s achievements visible.

Bab Bhar. Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor, Gudrun Barenbrock.

The city gate Bab Bhar was reserved for the iconic historical figures Arwa La Kairouanaise (8th Century CE) and Aziza Othmana (1606–1669). Arwa La Kairouanaise is remembered as the enabler of the “Kairouan Contract” which is the mutual agreement for monogamous marriage. Princess Aziza Othmana was a protector of the poor and influenced her times through her courage, intelligence, independence, and generosity. The selection concluded with the present-day award-winning athletes Raoua Tlili (*1989) and Ons Jabeur (*1994). Raoua Tlili is a Tunisian Paralympic multi-gold medalist competing mainly in category shot put and discus. Ons Jabeur is the Arab and African tennis trailblazer, making the US Open and Wimbledon finals and winning WTA tournaments in Berlin and Madrid. She ended the 2022 season second in the world rankings of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

Theater. Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor

At the CITY THEATER Fadhila Khetmi (1905-1992), Habiba Msika (1903-1930), and Saliha (1914-1958) were highlighted as three outstanding women artists that changed the standards of women’s roles in the performing arts.

City’s Museum. Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor

For the City Museum, the artist Safia Farhat (1924-2004) was selected because she was the only woman artist of the arts and crafts network ”École de Tunis”. Later she was the first Tunisian woman to publish a magazine, and the first woman to direct the Tunis Art Academy.

City’s Museum. Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor

From the sciences, the first female physician in the Arab world, Tawhida Ben Cheikh (1909-2010) was extrapolated. She was the first woman doctor in the Arab world who founded the first hospital service providing family planning and birth control as well as the first clinic specializing in birth control, ensuring that the issue of women’s rights in Tunisia remains a priority, more than in all the other countries in the Arab world.

City Hall. Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor

The City Hall was committed to the path-making politicians of the past referring to Elyssa, the founder of Carthage, and to the present Najla Bouden (*1958), the Prime Minister of Tunisia, and to Souad Abderrahim (*1964), the Mayor of Tunis – both the first women in their positions in the Arab world. Regarding technologies and engineering, the first female Tunisian pilot Alia Menchari was the example of choice. In the 1980s, she was the first Tunisian woman to become a pilot, and later she was the first woman captain of an aircraft in the Arab world. She is an icon for girls and women entering male-dominated professions.

The preparatory testing is a key moment in working with large-scale architecture projections. The synchronization between the artistic idea, projection technologies as hard and software, the site, and the environmental setting is always complicated, and in this case, it was complicated due to the choice of iconic sites along Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The central thoroughfare of Tunis is brightly lit and well-secured. The authorization process was complex and turning off the public lighting was almost impossible. Around 150 papers were needed to allow testing and presentation, and the timeline for working on site was less than a week. In the end, the projections for the City Hall were the last ones to be finalized, not even an hour before the opening.

In parallel to the curatorial and production activities , the art mediators had started to gather and were keen on knowing what exactly will be at which site to prepare for the interaction with the audience. They had met for 3 joint workshops, each dedicated to one of the key aspects of the project: 1 _ the cultural history of the sites, 2 _ pioneering women in Tunisia throughout history, and 3 _ the contemporary artists contributing to the project. Onsite, they met with the artistic directors and the artists and learned about ideas and intentions; they joined the tests to understand the specifics of a site, the knowledge about the technologies applied, and to investigate the security needs. During the presentation period, 22 art mediators were present, usually in tandem at each site, and as tour guides to allow the audience to experience the artwork as well as to provide insights into curatorial and artistic concepts.

Most art mediators are students and young professionals of diverse backgrounds ranging from art to business, from craftsmen to artificial intelligence engineers. They are acquainted with collective research and learning strategies, discussion, and critical reflection. Most of them have worked as artists’ assistants before to understand artistic processing and artists’ needs while building something new. They are driven by the idea to provide access to contemporary art to all audiences and they have a key role in crowd management.

In the making of MISE EN LUMIERE, the pioneering aspect was present in every step: For the first time, all the iconic sites of the city’s center were bathed in light that has been modeled by artists.