Free artists are the guardians of humanity, says writer, director and lecturer Meriam Bousselmi
Meriam Bousselmi grew up in Tunisia and works as a writer, director and lecturer in literature and theater studies. In her work, she explores themes of power and justice. She is also a trained lawyer. At the 2018 Global Media Forum, Bousselmi will be exploring the boundaries and intersections of art and activism.
Can you speak about your experiences with art as protest?
I refuse to reduce art to a simple "protest tendency". It's like reducing a whole civilization's history to a few events. Any reduction is a manipulative attempt incompatible with the complexity of the status of art and the role of artists in society. Since the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia, I am often invited in the context of cultural events like "the spring which arrives, the winter goes away, etc." I am still fighting to be accepted as an artist without any reduction and not as an Arab or African or female artist. This is not a denial of my roots, but an opposition to "a reductive look".
It is obvious that the artist is a figure of the opposition in a broad sense. I situate art and my role as an artist in a combat logic, in an antagonistic relationship with the established order. But there is a difference between considering art as a political act and politicizing art.
Beyond all the practical side of art works, what good is art without notion of pleasure? What would we be without the taste of beauty and refinement? Art is the reflection of human expression. It's a value in itself. Artists recreate the world. It's food for the spirit. Art is a means of transmission. It restores what is taken from our humanity.
How can art be used to amplify voices that are underrepresented or oppressed? On the other hand, how can art be used to censor them?
Free artists are the guardians of humanity. Real opposition speech can only be done by independent artists who dare to stand against complacency, complicity, and silence. They are the opponents par excellence. But in a society where "anything goes," it becomes difficult for the artists to create a counter-world. Still artists are able to tell the truth because they are acting out of political agendas. Armed only with their imaginations, artists have always challenged limits. In times of hostility and fear, artists are the voices that nurture the necessary courage, energy, and resistance in face of adversity. How? By developing a strong sense of meaning and beauty as a response to violence and despair.
Can art be used as awareness-raising for political issues? Should it be?
The essential function of art is much deeper than just awareness-raising for political issues. We need art as we need oxygen. Art can change our relationship with others, with reality, with the world. And that's exactly where the political power of art lies, in the deepest sense of the word.
Art is more necessary than ever. There is an inimitable magic that is exclusively belonging to art and that provokes in us the click of another state of consciousness, the click of change. Art survives the death of its author. That's all its mystery and power. What makes the landscapes of a great painter more pleasant to look at, more convincing than the landscape itself? We cannot say.
In the same vein, does protest or change-making need to be media-friendly in order to effective?
Let's not forget that one of the biggest challenges of globalization is to resist standardization and the homogeneity of speeches and formats. Art that speaks of the present moment cannot escape its political nature. I am convinced that the artist, guided by his imagination, is indispensable to transform the world —because the imagination is the driving force of development.
This interview has been edited and condensed. For more about this year's Global Media Forum and to register, click here.