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Images of the Shaᶜb: Exploring the Fears and Hopes of Popular Sovereignty in Post-Revolution Tunisia through the Public Arts

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This dissertation explores the growth of a contemporary public art (also known as socially engaged art) movement in Tunisia after the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolution, or in Arabic, “ath-thawra,” and is based upon ethnographic research started in 2017. The dissertation constructs an argument around the mediating role of ‘appearances’ in the economic and political contexts of the post-thawra era. I make several arguments about how contemporary public arts has formed and engages with appearances through various levels of practice. Most importantly is the production of images. Through focusing on the relations of public art projects with foreign funding bodies and institutes, I show how the production of images in media and social media about public art projects becomes mobilized to visualize fictions of successful neoliberal development. Furthermore, I point to how this particular production of images is reflective of a broader shift in the deployment of international development paradigms, which is ever more dependent upon maintaining an appearance that neoliberal development is working, even as, in the case of Tunisia, the economy becomes ever more precarious and unequal. I also point to how this is indicative of a shift in contemporary art and its “social turn” that has aligned it with neoliberal development interests. I give special attention to how methods of practice implemented through foreign funding entangle within the political stakes of appearances. Here, I specifically focus upon the use of “Urban Commons” in the deployment of German funding for creative and artistic community projects. In the latter half of the dissertation, I turn towards the ‘unapparent,’ the types of practices and desires put into public arts that cannot appear in mediated exhibition but are nonetheless thriving with the growth of public arts. I focus upon the role of contemporary public art practices in dislodging thinking upon progress, development, and modernity, through its attention to urban and architectural forms that themselves complicate a history of modernization that was deployed through the project of French modern urbanism in North Africa. I also focus upon public art spaces that become sites of selving and comfort, which undermine the very roots of contemporary Tunisian society through the reimagining of family, intimacy, and economy. In conclusion, I relate the contemporary public art movement in Tunisia to global trends, focusing on the upcoming 2022 Documenta 15 festival in Germany. Here I suggest a focal point of how the apparent and unapparent of international development is transforming contemporary art practice globally.

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This item is under embargo until May 31, 2025.