Whether it is a portrait of Tunisian poet Aboul-Qacem Echebbi sporting hipster glasses or the Moroccan Sahara as the backdrop of Hollywood blockbuster movies, pop art seems to be thriving in the Maghreb. Tunisian and Moroccan pop art painters have been earning praise and attention nationally and internationally.
Artists in the Maghreb have chosen this form of art to bridge the gap between the West and North Africa. Maghrebian pop art is where those two worlds collide and emerge as a unified artistic piece.
These paradoxes and more are at the core of the work of Tunisian humorist and painter Sara Ezzina and Moroccan artist Mouad Aboulhana, whose work comments on Western influence and boasts North African culture and heritage.
Ezzina’s latest collection, “The Memory of Tunisia,” revisited the history of the country’s culture through pop art. Utilising well-known figures of culture, politics and music, her show invites visitors to explore history through the modern touch of pop art, a mixture that Ezzina described as a “happy and lively depiction of Tunisian culture.”
Through the pop art style, Ezzina uses a modern perspective to explore Tunisia’s rich cultural history, which makes her work appealing to both older and younger generations. In addition to depicting iconic figures, her work revisits post-revolutionary events that have affected Tunisians.
One painting denotes the attack on the Bardo National Museum, depicting heads of statutes wearing chechias — traditional hats — the colour of blood. Others humorously tackle problems Tunisians faced following the revolution with the mushrooming of the number of political parties.
“These are portraits of persons who had an impact on Tunisian society. For instance, look at Moncef Bey,” Ezzina explained. “Many ask why this Bey in particular? I chose him because he was a nationalist. I wanted to emphasise that.” Moncef Bey, also known as Mohamed VII el-Moncef, ruled Tunisia from June 1942-May 1943.
While Ezzina perceives her art as a positive portrayal of Tunisian culture, Aboulhana classifies his as authentic pop art highlighting the richness of Moroccan culture. His work celebrates the mix of cultures of which he is a product. His paintings tend to reinforce the Arabisation of Western products and culture. US actor Morgan Freeman appears in one painting wearing a traditional Moroccan hat.
“My work is pure Moroccan. Morocco is in fact a large melting pot of many cultures and traditions from the Berber, the Arabs and modernity. There are also many subcultures throughout Morocco,” Aboulhana said.
“This style allows me to display the mixture of all these beautiful influences. I draw my inspirations from elements I see when walking in the streets of the medina of Tangier, from the original Berber carpets and even people I meet on these walks.”
Aboulhana said he believes pop art can help artists in North Africa express their original and authentic heritage.
“Through my career, I have always felt that pop art is the artistic movement that expressed best my identity. In the beginning, I rarely found fascinating elements in my culture, but through pop art, I started to see the elements of beauty in my culture and started to mix it with other cultures,” Aboulhana said.
“Pop art is an alive art in the north of Africa. This art helps expose the beauty of our cultures… Pop art, with its colours and shapes, makes people happy and optimistic and this is what we want in the north of Africa.”
Ezzina says pop art is a style that brings joy and inspiration to people through the themes it portrays and characters it depicts. Each of her portraits focuses on a personal detail and carries a short biography.
“I wanted to avoid errors. That is why I studied the history of these characters. I love them and spent so much time with them,” she said. “When I look at the paintings I have the impression that I lived with these people. They are inspiring, each in a different way, and I wanted the public to experience the same thing and be inspired.”
Colourful and joyful, Ezzina’s work is not without controversy. Many visitors expressed surprise at seeing portraits of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, and Tunisian militant Lazhar Chraiti in the same exhibition.
“Many people stop at Lazhar Chraiti’s portrait. It is complicated because he was executed by President Bourguiba after being accused of plotting against him. I don’t want to be a judge. I wanted to put an emphasis on the rich legacy of these characters. They all played important roles in our history, which is to be recognised,” Ezzina said.
Ezzina’s work was featured in a March 2016 exhibition in New York organised by the United Nations to mark the 60th anniversary of the Commission on the Status of Women.
“It was an opportunity to pay homage to Tunisia and Tunisian women. It was interesting how people were intrigued by female figures that were typically Tunisian. They asked about the history of female singers like Habiba Msika, who was a feminist icon, Naama and others,” she said.
Having exhibited his work in Spain and Portugal, Aboulhana will be joining Ezzina at an exhibition for pop art at the Arab World Institute in London in September.
“When exhibiting abroad, you notice people’s reaction to the elements of Moroccan culture in pop art. They are fascinated. People smile, admire and ask questions about those elements that come from my culture. It is touching to have that. After all, it is about reading the history and living art,” Aboulhana said.
Roua Khlifi a regular Travel and Culture contributor in Tunis.