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What role can the archive play in developing and sustaining a critical and culturally located art history?

Héla Ammar
6 November 2013



The conceptual turn of the 1970s gave full legitimacy to queries into the document and the archive. Issues of memory become the favourite material of contemporary artists. Yet, in Tunisia, we missed the conceptual turn of the 1970s – it took us until the start of the revolution in 2011 to question our memory, since it became clear that we would not be able to understand the turmoil of our present and ask questions about our future if we were not able to know our past. Unfortunately, this past has been largely confiscated by the last two authoritarian regimes, which have written their own history.


Official culture has had this tendency in Tunisia – to ban all dissent and hide all traces of it. Thus, many political archives have been destroyed or made inaccessible. Most of the National Archives are still accessible only with permission. At the same time, the state has worked towards a systematic marginalization of contemporary artistic creation and artistic heritage as well. Of course, a commission was certainly created by the Ministry of Culture to acquire artworks on behalf of the state, yet, once stored, these artworks were badly preserved and remain, until now, inaccessible to the public. Today, there is still no modern and contemporary art museum in Tunisia. Private archives do of course exist. But, because of the lack of resources, very few of them have been expanded or made public.


Today, we are witnessing in Tunisia a renewed interest in the archives. New projects are in the pipeline to finally offer artists the opportunity to rehabilitate their past. Furthermore, the revolution in 2011 has since led to huge audiovisual documentation of the socio-political scene. The increased use and prominence of photography and video will ensure that these new documents will certainly form part of our future archives. Further to this, the rise of photography has allowed artists (such as the photographer Hamideddine Bouali) to call for the enhancement of the entire Tunisian photographic heritage through the creation of photo librairies.[1]


Meanwhile, the inaccessibility of the archives in Tunisia and also their lack, may explain their absence in terms of how they are used contemporary art. There are very few Tunisian contemporary artists who work on or with archives. Among those who do, we can mention Ismael Leamsi, who based one of his latest artworks on a video taken from the police archives and which was widely broadcast on the Internet. He justified his choice, not only with his interest in memory, but with his interest in the image.[2] Yet, apart from Ismael and a few other artists, archives have been rarely used.


Does that mean that there cannot be a localized art history in Tunisia due to the absence of archives? Two considerations have to be distinguished, here: first, that the archive is the tool of choice for the academic research, narration and analysis of history. As such, the lack of artistic practices based on archives in Tunisia certainly does not affect the existence of  a localized art history, given the archive and its role in writing a history has different concerns to the archive's role in an artist's practice. Yet, if we are to look on archives as assemblages of material  and as pretexts for creation, it could then be argued that it would always be possible to find in the archive the characteristics of a localized culture – whether state, historical or artistic.

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