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Tripp, Charles (2016) 'Art, power and knowledge: claiming public space in Tunisia.' Middle East Law and Governance, 9 (2-3). pp. 250-274.

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Constructions of public space, like all political endeavours, are fluid, potentially unstable. They need constant maintenance, as well as the active commitment and vigilance of substantial numbers of the public. The same could be said of the republic itself. It is not surprising therefore that classical republican theory puts so much stress on civic virtue and the civic activism that it is meant to encourage. The past few years of Tunisia’s political history have provided multiple proofs of both, as well as of the links between them. And it is in this sphere that artists, especially those concerned with public engagement, have such a vital role to play. It is not simply that artistic freedom is a barometer of a free society. More centrally, the artist, as someone who brings a creative moral intellect to bear on things that may be taken for granted, can raise for discussion and debate issues that some would prefer remain hidden or glossed over. And in this endeavour, the creative artist has the advantage that she or he can both grab the attention of the inattentive, and in doing so, can deeply affect them. This can be troubling and enraging, just as it can also delight and amuse. However, it at least opens up the potential for new ways of seeing the world and of evaluating it. The public spaces of Tunisian cities were crucial in the revolution that overthrew President Ben Ali, helping to produce, direct and amplify the force of resistance. It was here that popular force became manifest. And here the role of visible, shared performance has been central. Through the use of their bodies, amplified through visual and artistic interventions, the public has asserted itself and its right to be taken seriously. Artistic interventions – graffiti, visual street art, performances, demonstrations, banners, slogans – capture the nature of the struggle and provoke debate within a plural public. By these means members of the public found their voices for the first time. Nor was this simply the case in what has been called the ‘heroic’ period of the Tunisian revolution. As the course of Tunisian politics since 2011 has shown, public spaces remain central to emerging political debate. An activist public has created highly visible public spaces, assisted and encouraged by citizen artists. They have generated debates and have helped to give substance to competing visions of the republic. For this very reason, artistic interventions have sometimes been seen as provocations by those apprehensive of both the medium and the message. Gifted with the capacity to weave stories, to open people’s eyes to new ways of seeing and to embody the drama of cathartic performance, artists of all kinds have the ability to engage the emotions of those whom they address – their fellow citizens. In these circumstances, it is only natural that art should have a unique ability to provoke debates about the fundamental rights that underpin not simply freedom of expression, but also the access to education, training and other public goods that make such freedom meaningful in a republic that belongs truly to all of its citizens.

Item Type: Journal Article
SOAS Departments & Centres: Legacy Departments > Faculty of Law and Social Sciences > Department of Politics and International Studies
ISSN: 18763367
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 09 Apr 2016 11:45

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