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Hamadi Chérif at the Otto Dix exhibition
Hamadi Chérif at the Otto Dix exhibition
Werner Bloch

DJERBA - Otto Dix in Tunisia? Sounds like a mistake, a geographical accident, as if somebody or something got on the wrong plane. Not so. There really are some 100 works -- sketches, drawings, oils -- by famed German New Objectivity artist Otto Dix (1891-1969) on exhibit on the holiday island of Djerba.

On the island’s relatively little visited west coast, far from the tourist beaches, the éminence grise of Tunisia’s art scene Hamadi Chérif has created a cultural center frequented by Tunisians and Europeans alike. Tourists are bused here practically straight from the beach, and most of them are surprised to find work by Dix – of all artists – here.

The cultural center is located in an out-of-the-way oasis, and at first glance looks like yet another sun-splashed vacation property in an isolated setting. But proceed beyond the palms and fig trees and you’ll see that not only does it have exhibition space but studios for artists-in-residence. And now, the late master Dix.

The poster for the show features a girl with sunflowers. Harmless. But walk into the exhibit and there (among other work) they are: the nudes.

Paintings of naked women – how does that work in a country where the Salafists have ever more say? "You do have to be increasingly careful," says Chérif.

The Tunisian art maven says he wants to go on showing what he thinks is important and right, but he does admit that it’s not easy. Some things can’t be publicized too heavily, he says, and "I couldn’t do a Grosz or Kokoschka show here."

Ben Ali's taste in art

Two years after the Jasmine Revolution, which sparked the wider Arab Spring uprising, artistic freedom in Tunisia appears to be waning. As limited as political freedoms were under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the art scene was pretty much left alone, Chérif says.

Then again the ex-dictator, who was in power for 23 years and subsequently fled to Saudi Arabia, may have been acting in his own interests: Ben Ali, Chérif says, was mainly interested in erotic art and would pay any price for it. Chérif would know. He was and remains Tunisia’s leading art dealer.

In his early days, Chérif would lure artists like Man Ray or choreographers like Maurice Béjart to Tunisia by proposing a deal: art in return for a vacation. American modernist Man Ray (1890-1976), who was a personal friend of Chérif’s, came to Tunisia seven times and stayed at the art dealer’s homes in Hamamet or Djerba. Chérif owns a house there, in the Jewish quarter, that became a holiday villa for visiting artists.

The recent revolution in Tunisia put a stop to Chérif’s strategy. "I’d intended to do a Dix show in Djerba in 2011, after meeting the artist’s son Jan Dix. Everything was lined up, in fact the crates of art were already at Frankfurt airport." Then the revolution broke out and a state of emergency was declared in Djerba. The company that had insured the art work cancelled the contract, so the project was scuppered.

There were problems with the insurance company for the present show as well, but then the Goethe Institute, which promotes German language and culture abroad, got involved. Eventually for May's opening of the Dix show, both Tunisia’s Minister of Culture and Minister of Tourism flew in. There are no public comments on what they thought of the work.

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