Thirty-four photographs hang from metal chains in Ibn Rachik Cultural House. Lined up against a stark white wall, the black-and-white mugshots display a variety of alleged criminals. Salafists, communists, army officers, and journalists all have something in common — they were victims of torture and inhumane treatment under the governments of Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Their faces tell the story of the systematic use of torture, detention, and humiliation during those years. Some stare into the camera defiantly, smile wryly, or avert their eyes in shame. One woman wears a burqa, unwilling to show her face, but refusing to hide from the truth.
The exhibition itself is a paradox; it implores us to remember what so many people wish they could forget.
“Under the Jasmine,” a photographic exhibition created by Augustin Le Gall, examines the stories of people who suffered during this dark time in Tunisia’s history. Le Gall interviewed the various subjects, who share their testimony along with their portraits. The victims talk about the things imagined by movies — electric shock, sleep deprivation, festering infection, and daily humiliation. The photos are representative of the Tunisian people — with all their complex and divergent views — but in agreement on one issue. Torture is never justifiable.
Many of these abuses took place a few minutes walk from here, in the Ministry of Interior on Avenue Habib Bourguiba. In a way, it is easy to become desensitized to this fact. The shock of seeing the towering building draped in concertina wire wears away with each trip to the Medina. Things that were once abhorrent become normal with time.
The exhibition is presented by the non-profit World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), with support from the Tunisian Ministry of Culture and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. OMCT has been active in Tunisia for several years, most recently setting up service centers for victims of torture in Kef and Sidi Bou Said, as well as providing training for Tunisian lawyers on how to properly document cases of human rights abuses. For this exhibit, OMCT partnered with French Arts Collective DeKadrage to raise awareness of the issue of torture in Tunisia.
In 2011, Tunisia ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which requires signatories to establish procedures to prevent future occurrences of torture. The Tunisian Government is currently considering a bill that will establish the National Forum for the Prevention of Torture, an independent commission responsible for visiting prisons, police stations, and other places of detention to protect against further instances of torture and mistreatment. The bill is expected to be ratified on June 26, 2013, the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
“Under the Jasmine” will run through June 26, with concurrent exhibitions at Ibn Rachik, Mad’art Carthage, and the National Center for the Living Arts in Belvedere. For more information about the exhibition, please visit its website.