Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed enduring legacies of repression. Some leaders have taken advantage of emergency measures meant to protect the population and curb the spread of the disease to instead crack down on civil society or political opposition and restrict civil liberties and freedoms. In this sense, the global health crisis has served a reminder of democracy’s fragility and the ever-present dangers of censorship, oppression, and authoritarianism.
In Tunisia, where the wounds of the Ben Ali dictatorship are still fresh, the importance of this reminder has not been lost. In 2020, ICTJ’s office in Tunisia launched “Voices from Isolation,” an online campaign about historical memory in the time of a global pandemic. It encouraged Tunisians to remember and reflect on marginalized groups who have borne the brunt of the coronavirus disease the lockdown measures put in place to contain its spread.
The Voices from Isolation campaign included the “Create to Connect” art contest. The competition was open to emerging and mid-career Tunisian artists as well as artists for elsewhere but based in Tunisia. The artists, who work in a wide-range of mediums, all created the pieces they entered in the contest in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The situation with COVID-19 remains turbulent, and reflecting on one's own life at this time feels like a constant work in progress, which involves stepping back from the present in an attempt to understand its shifts,” said photographer and third-place-winner Lotfi Gharini.
The global pandemic brought to the surface and exacerbated underlying injustices, forcing artists to reexamine society, history, and their relationship to the world around them. “In this project, I let the past—embodied through my personal memories and childhood universe in Sbiba [a city in Tunisia’s Midwest]—serve as a starting point to explore and bifurcate three essential questions concerning the future. What can I know? What must I do? What can I hope for?,” explained Issam Smiri, a comic artist and the second-place winner. ”Confinement allowed me to explore this universe further and served as a creative catalyst.”
Through Create to Connect, ICTJ was able leverage art to spark important conversations about Tunisia’s past as well as ongoing inequality and exclusion in the country. It also shined a spotlight on Tunisia’s talented artists and encouraged them and others to continue their vitally important work. “The contemporary art scene and alternative means of communication have always served as a fertile ground for broaching difficult conversations about the past,” explained Salwa El Gantri, head of ICTJ’s Tunisia office. “The Create to Connect art competition invited artists and audiences to reflect on the role of art at the intersection of social, political, and economic turmoil in Tunisia. The artwork serves a vehicle of expression and self-representation for the oppressed and under-represented members of Tunisia society.”