(For the French and German version of this article click here)
TASAWAR Curatorial Studios: Engaging with the art of curating in Tunisia
Since September 2019, a new project of the Goethe-Institut Tunesien is on the way! TASAWAR Curatorial Studios is a postgraduate study program that takes place in Tunis. Monthly workshops, called the “studios”, are at the core of the program. They are embedded in a variety of off- and online co-working units. The one-year study program is a custom-tailored program for artists, curators, art mediators and cultural producers who wish to integrate curatorial activity into their practice. “So far, in Tunisia, there is only a small number of museums, art or cultural associations and galleries presenting contemporary art,” says Andrea Jacob, director of the Goethe-Institut Tunesien, “our aim is to take part in current developments in contemporary art and ongoing local discussions about new and unique forms of displays. We hope that this program will nurture the commitment to contemporary art in the region.”
The studios encompass lectures, discussions, and training with local and international experts structured around a curriculum with a focus on key competences for content- and concept-driven exhibition-making. Integrated into the program is a collective research project on contemporary art in Tunisia and North-Africa as well as two collective art-in-context projects. They are enmeshed in a program of activities such as visiting artists’ studios and ongoing exhibition projects or hosting informal lunch or dinner meetings for further networking. “It is great to see how this initiative of the Goethe-Institut came to life in only a few months of work”, says Bettina Pelz, the curator heading the program.
The development of the program
Internationally active as a curator, writer, and academic teacher, Bettina Pelz developed the concept and the program based on her recent experiences working in Tunisia since 2014. Her curatorial focus on art-in-context projects shaped the program’s concept, in the hands of Emily Sarsam from the Goethe-Institut Tunesien, the idea turned into a program. Over the summer in 2019, more than 60 participants applied, of whom 32 were selected. Their backgrounds range from studies of art, design, and architecture to liberal, social, and natural sciences as well as human resource management or business marketing. Some just left the academies, some are active in art or cultural projects, some are academic teachers, most of them live in Tunis.
The transdisciplinary approach
Part of the challenge is to integrate the participants’ existing knowledge and skills into the program and to render them productive for the development of a wide array of curatorial approaches. “Curatorial practice always involves transdisciplinary processing,” says Bettina Pelz, “and we benefit greatly from the many different backgrounds of the participants. In the studios, the role of participants may shift from being an expert to a beginner. Constantly, participants reorient themselves in changing roles and constellations, languages, or media. We alternate between tasks that are to be solved individually or in tandem, in a small group or in the plenum.” The combination of interaction formats led to strong learning solidarity between the participants.
The learning environment
Jointly, the participants explore the regional art scene, discuss the conditions of contemporary art on the African continent, and ask about the links to Arab and Mediterranean countries, in addition to best-practice projects worldwide. “During the TASAWAR Studios, we discuss contemporary art, question curatorial practices, and advance on the artistic issues of the 21st century. These discussions allow me to bring to light issues that are highly interesting but that I may never have tackled on my own. I just wouldn’t know where to start.”, comments participant Louise Baranger. Discussions include the assessment of different curatorial positions or the analyses of the conceptual frameworks of museums or galleries. The research refers to festivals and biennials as well as to art in public space or socio-cultural projects.
Regularly local and international experts like artists, curators, art mediators, or cultural activist join the studios to share their knowledge, to report on their practice, and to discuss their experiences. The program features protagonists from the African continent and the MENA region. The polyvocal approach aims to encourage participants to design their individual theoretical and practical frameworks for future curatorial action. “After each studio, my mindset looks a little different”, says participant Salma Kossemtini. “I think the TASAWAR Studios are important for my development as a young creative. It made me question my perspective on the job and what I aspire to do. It helps me explore new paths within myself and in the field of practice.”
The meeting places
To deepen the knowledge of the local art scene, each studio takes place in a different environment. This allows studying different qualities of spaces and conceptual approaches applied. The participants meet the people running them, learn about the practices achieved, and the resources needed. The project has been hosted in downtown at the GOETHE-INSTITUT and at the art gallery CENTRAL, in the Medina of Tunis at the MINASSA Coworking Space, in La Marsa at the library MILLE FEUILLES, and in Sidi Bou Said at the SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE AND URBANISM (ENAU) and at the museum ENNEJMA EZZAHRA. Due to the global health emergency, the program is altered to a weekly study program since March 2020, keeping the focus of the interaction with local and international protagonists.
The continuous shifting between languages is another unique aspect of the program. With English as the main language accordingly with the international orientation of the study program. The question of translation is a constant companion of the entire program. “As Tunisians, we are used to French or English terms when it comes to contemporary art. Within the framework of the TASAWAR project, we want to take a closer look at the Tunisian vocabulary and expand it where necessary.”, says curator Aymen Gharbi who conducts the module “Moving between Languages”. Discussions and findings are documented in a glossary growing along with the program. “The constant switch between languages does not only deepen the individual language competence but also allows a critical reflection of the international terminologies and codes”, says Bettina Pelz.
The tasks and tools
Over the course of the study year, participants must conduct and document interviews, develop exhibition concepts and write curatorial statements, prepare lectures and experiment with art mediation. The program also includes essential project management tools from a spreadsheet for a budget-planning to the design of websites for the communication of a project. “I am gradually understanding how every decision in a curatorial project, whether it is the conceptual design of a work of art, the technical means we make available or a budget decision, leads to an impact”, describes it Syrine Siala, one of the participants.
The entire process of the project is mirrored on the TASAWAR website that acts as an interactive meeting place. It is an online learning platform which comprises the profiles of both teachers and participants, lists the plans for each studio and related tasks, files program-specific and cultural activities in Tunisia, hosts a directory of upcoming curatorial projects, and links to the program’s social media channels. “With the project’s cross-media approach, we were well prepared for online collaboration as we now need it in times of the Corona crisis. We had to modify our program; now we meet online every week “, says participant Imen Bahri. “As a teacher at an art school I have to constantly update my digital tools, and the TASAWAR program is also a good source for that.”
The response to the worldwide Corona crisis
During the time of confinement, the monthly studios are modified to weekly webstudios, labs, and workshops. The transition into an online project allowed the group to invite international students of curatorial studies or emerging curators to join the TASAWAR Collective. Since March 2020, there are six international participants from France, Germany, Greece, and Slovenia, as well as from Canada, Mexico, and the USA. Tunisian participant Chiraz Mosbah enjoys the international co-operation: “Bringing together Tunisians and non-Tunisians around this program with their different backgrounds and different experiences is a great opportunity for an enriching and fruitful exchange.” And Katja Štesl from Ljubljana comments: “It is truly amazing to become part of this project. In times where the ability to get such form of education is scarce, the exchange of ideas and mind-challenging questions that occur during and because of the meetings are of great importance for our developments as individuals and as an international collective. This project not only spreads significant knowledge and encourages a professional attitude towards contemporary art, but it also gives us the joy of being heard while participating in something relevant.”
The plans to follow-up
Part of the ongoing discussion is how to respond to the impact of the global health crisis, and what to do with the two jointly planned exhibition projects. The exhibition project MATTER OF TIME on the site of the ENNEJMA EZZAHRA Cultural History Museum was scheduled for April 2020, and the International Light Art Project INTERFERENCE in the Medina of Tunis was planned for September 2020. “Looking at the above-average commitment of all involved participants indicates that this collective learning environment will lead to many beautiful new projects, even in these uncertain times”, Emily Sarsam comments on the success of the project so far. “This first TASAWR Program will run until September 2020, and currently we are exploring the options to offer a second edition, maybe even hosted by a regional network.”
TASAWAR Curatorial Studios is an initiative of the Goethe-Institut Tunesien. We developed it in close co-operation with German curator Bettina Pelz who has been working intensively in Tunisia since she was invited 2014 by the Goethe-Institut to partake in the project “Kulturakademie”.
The TASAWAR project is founded with the aim to develop a learning platform for people active in various creative fields with a desire to develop their curatorial practice and to professionalize in the arts and its contexts. It is open to cultural workers from Tunisia and the MENA region who wish to rethink and/or develop their way of working with contemporary art in their environments.
The program will run over the course of one year and accept up to 30 participants who will take part in monthly studios. At the core of the program are 3-to-5-day focus groups lead by international and local professionals of the arts. Through its practice-based approach, the studios encourage participants to reflect and work in diverse contexts, such as art biennials, galleries, exhibitions, museums, as well as initiatives and projects in socio-cultural contexts and public space.
The matrix of the program links a broad variety of building blocks like the studios as the core learning environment, the TYT platform with online learning units and co-working times as well as a diverse array of fields of practice. This includes interaction with experienced curators and studio visits with artists as well as research and development, writing and publishing, international networking and mentoring.
Subjects of the studios, “TYT” and the fields of practice are curatorial concepts, curatorial production, curatorial communication and mediation, art mediation and audience development, art criticism, and curatorial review, artistic and curatorial research. The participants will graduate from the program having gained a deep insight into various curatorial concepts, production, and research within contemporary art.
Another goal of the program is to explore localized notions and definitions of art curatorship and to facilitate the access of Tunisian cultural workers to an international art scene. Therefore this program will be held in English. Participation is fully funded.
We will be joining the program ourselves and hope to contribute with our team and our GOETHE-INSTITUT networks.
To a good time of shared learning!
Emily Sarsam, Bettina Pelz