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Winner Of 'Ted Award' Brings Giant Photo Art To Liberated Tunisia

A project from highly touted French street artist JR lets Tunisian photographers take over the boulevards once patrolled by Ben Ali’s security forces -- and watched over by his image.

French street artist JR
French street artist JR
Pascale Krémer

A visual putsch! Who would have thought that Ben Ali's portraits in the street would one day be replaced by giant posters of the Tunisian people!

There is no denying that an artistic revolution is underway in Tunisia, just two-plus months after former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali's departure. Six young photographers brought by Slim Zeghal and Marco Berrebi, men and women, professionals and amateurs, are imposing the "artocracy in Tunisia."

They were helped in their endeavor by a 28-year-old French artist who goes by the moniker of JR. This eccentric young man had already made a name for himself posting giant black-and-white portraits, or enormous images of eyes, in public places where you'd never imagine seeing art. JR says he has a particular interest in taking his works in troubled locations, where his "images offer another point of view than the often too simplistic one of traditional media."

He has, for example, taken portraits of the people living in the poor suburbs surrounding the French capital, and plastered them right into the heart of posh Parisian districts. He posted immense portraits of Kenyan women on the trains that cross their towns. Shabby houses in the Da Providencia favela in Rio were adorned with giant images of their proud but destitute owners. He put the faces of Palestinians and Israelis on both sides of the security fence separating enemy communities.

His impressive work was rewarded in October in the United States with the prestigious TED award (Bill Clinton and Bono are also recipients of this prize). The award came with a $100,000 check, and the possibility to realize a "wish that could change the world."

JR's wish was to launch the "InsideOut" project (insideoutproject.net). The rules of the game are simple: anyone can send their portrait of choice, JR then prints it in black and white and gives the information necessary to put it on a street wall (it's like gluing on ordinary wall-paper - a video on the website explains the homemade procedure). Fifteen days later, some 10,000 had already shown their enthusiasm for the project, with 950 groups now formed throughout the world, ready to start putting up posters.

Among those groups taking up the offer are six Tunisians who immediately started roaming the country in search of 100 models "united for democracy", be they men or women, young or old, rich or poor, Bedouins or city dwellers. Their goal was to replace former president Ben Ali's countless city portraits with faces of the Tunisian people. From March 16 to March 23, JR went to meet these Tunisian artists and lend them a hand.

"Unbelievable" reactions from the people

In Tunis and in cities such as La Goulette, La Marsa, Le Kram, in Sfax (the country's second largest city), in Sidi Bouzid, the small town where the uprising first started, monumental portraits now cover the image of the former ruler. Symbols of past oppression -- the headquarters of Ben Ali's party, the RCD, police stations burned down by the protesters -- are now guarded over by the faces of the Tunisian people.

When the artists start putting up their posters, the reactions of the people are "unbelievable," JR says. "They are so hungry to express themselves. Sometimes the entire neighborhood came to help. They would shout and clap their hands every time one of Ben Ali's portraits disappeared."

At other times, the atmosphere was so rowdy, so violent, that the team had to give up. In the capital Tunis, the posters on the Bab el-Bahr monument (also known as Porte de France) were even taken down during the night. It is because "radical Islamists hate to see portraits of women with their faces uncovered," JR thinks. "Other Tunisians told us that the government had imposed portraits on them for 20 long years, they did not want any more of them. They must have thought that our images served political purposes."

So the artists had a moment of doubt, asking themselves whether this was a bad idea after all. "But then we realized that showing one's point of view by taking down posters was something people could not have done just a few months ago. So it was great -- people were simply using their newly-won freedom!" Driven by the hope of an artistic spring, just as in post-Franco Spain, the Tunisian artists continue to cover the walls of their country with giant posters of the people. And the people will decide how long they'll stay.

Photo - Jurveston

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