Dream City – Contemporary Art and Dynamics Towards Decolonialization

by Vanessa Barisch

What started out as an underground festival of cultural resistance against Tunisia’s former political regime, in the course of 15 years has evolved into a globally prestigious cultural event in the heart of the historical centre of the country’s capital: The Dream City Festival. Its first edition was mainly focussing on offering Tunisian artists a platform, but especially after the revolution, the organizers aimed at attracting international artists and visitors as well. The festival profited from increased funding opportunities, which was favourable for its international success. The on-going edition of the festival of contemporary art, featuring a diverse artistic crew coming from 21 different countries, promises to attract an even bigger audience than last year’s 20 000 visitors.[1] The organizing collective L’Art Rue, describes the festival’s aim as follows: “We seek to link artistic expression with the pressing issues of our country and our time.”[2]

Financial Support, Artistic Freedom, and Criticisms

This edition of the festival took place from September 22 to October 8, 2023, at different sights in the historical centre. Dream City offers performances, installations, film projections as well as scientific and political debates. The concept has already found imitators: When Marseille-Provence was designated European Capital of Culture in 2013, Dream City co-founders Selma and Sofiane Ouessi were invited to implement the concept, which aims at engaging with the places and people of the environment of the festival as well as at addressing current global challenges, locally in the l’Estaque district.[3] London and other cities followed. The two founders commented, “This was the first time that a methodology came from the Global South to the North.”[4] Despite the organizers’ active engagement with disparities between the Global North and South, the festival in Tunisia is often criticized in this regard.

The inclusive performance “Lines” involves many dancers and musicians – both professionals and amateurs with and without disabilities – and deals with living together in the city. The audience is seated around the stage. Photo: Vanessa Barisch.

Especially the financing by European and North American funds, for example the Ford Foundation or the Heinrich Böll Foundation, met much criticism. Some, like independent director Youssef Mbarek, question the independence of the festival and artistic freedom due to this external support. He explains: “Such festivals pigeonhole you. If you work on certain themes, they finance you, everyone knows that: feminism, sexual minorities, democracy and the environment. I don’t have a problem with those topics, but I’m an artist and I have to be free in my choice of topics.” Dancer and choreographer Filipe Lourenço also believes that foreign funding can bring implicit obligations. This describes the strategy of cultural diplomacy that many states of the Global North imply to gain influence on countries from the Global South. However, he indicates that Dream City’s professionalism and diverse as well as international offerings are only possible through international funding.

In the neighbouring countries of Algeria and Morocco, cultural festivals are rarer and suffer from limited budgets, the choreographer says in conversation. Salwa Ben Salah, who has been part of the organization collective since the first edition of the festival in 2007 and performed in the piece “Lines” by Andrew Graham in 2022 and 2023, contradicts this point of view: “While it is true that we receive foreign funding, how else could we organize a festival of this scale? Event details like cables and light effects must be financed. When we seek funding, it is not the donors who dictate the content of our festival. We choose the funding that aligns with our ideas. There is no way to organize such a festival only on Tunisian funds.”   

Artistic Diversities and Exchange

More abstractly, the question of the position of contemporary art arises, as Dream City is a festival focusing on this genre. In this context, Youssef Mbarek, who considers contemporary art as a concept from the Global North, fears that local artists would be forced into a corset and that the free development of alternative art movements of the Global South would be hindered. Felipe Lourenço opposes Youssef Mbarek’s opinion: “Art from Europe has a great reputation because it enjoys better funding and because Europe is unfortunately more present in the global discourse than other world regions.” Dancer Cyrinne Douss, who works between Tunisia and France, considers the strict demarcation of art from different countries and contexts as problematic: “We live in a world that is simultaneously full of borders and without borders. I try to overcome these borders with art. Exchange can be very constructive.”

Six dancers of the piece “Gouâl in Situ” by choreographer Felipe Lourenço dance in a courtyard. Photo: Haroun Ben Youssef.

An example of lived exchange is the dance performance “Gouâl in Situ” by Felipe Lourenço, featuring Cyrinne Douss again this year in Tunis. It is a reinterpretation of an Algerian-Moroccan war dance performed by Tunisian and international dancers. The choreographer points out that L’Art Rue puts a lot of emphasis on the involvement of local artists in the programming of the festival. In fact, thanks to the festival, Tunisian artists can expand their portfolio and make contacts without having to go through the often grueling visa processes of the Schengen area or North America and thus diminishing the dependence from the Global North as the artists can avoid to fit in the visa criteria imposed on them.  In turn, audiences in Tunisia have the opportunity to enjoy an international offering alongside local acts. In addition, the co-founders Selma and Soufiane Ouessi started to collaborate with Jan Goossens from Belgium and Hoor Al Quasimi from Lebanon, forming the board of artistic direction. This contributes to largen the network and the recognition of Dream City on the international level.

Art as a Lens on Global Inequalities

Dream City also provides an internationally respected platform for the critique of global inequalities: The program of the 2023 edition features many works that make the rather sensitive topic of inequalities between the Global North and South the central theme of the art work: Sammy Baloji‘s performance “missa luba“, which consists of musical units and poem recitations, deals with the colonial history between Congo and Portugal. Similarly, the theatre piece “Neci Padiri” by Michael Disanka, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, addresses the role of the Catholic Church in relation to gender equity and indigenous ways of life and epistemologies.

It is remarkable that a large part of the artworks is not from Tunisia. Out of the 44 artworks presented, only eleven are from Tunisia. However, if one considers that 27 artworks come from the Global South or involve co-productions with the Global South, this can be considered a step further in the decolonization of art and the discourse associated with it as it breaks with the narrative which suggests that art from the Global North had higher standards in the international comparison. At the 2023 edition of the Festival de Avignon, one of the most renowned festivals of contemporary art, three out of 40 contributions were co-produced in the Global South. Despite that, Youssef Mbarek and Felipe Lourenco argue for the distinction between artists who have undergone their artistic training in the Global South and those who have pursued their education in the Global North. In his opinion, the second group enjoys a higher reputation thanks to their artistic education at prestigious art schools as well as an easier access to useful networks from their location in the Global North.

In a nutshell, it is certain that the concept of Dream City is special and innovative. These days in Tunisia, when politics is becoming more and more restrictive and hate speech as well as racist attacks persist, the existence of the Dream City Festival is miraculous. “We believe that artistic creation is an engine of resistance and imagination for a better future”[5], announces the editorial of the festival program. Looking at the innovative ideas of the conception of Dream City, one can find many elements of the decoloniality theory. Starting in the early nineties, decolonial theorists criticize that global relations are still affected by lingering effects of colonialism, known as coloniality.[6] According to this analysis, coloniality has different dimensions: Capitalism on the economic side, the border and visa regimes as administrative aspects and eurocentrism in the discourse as well as a critique of Eurocentric narratives as the epistemological feature. They developed different ideas for countering this imbalance between Global North and South. Breaking with the Eurocentric features of discourse would be possible though attributing equal value to inputs to the discourse from Global South and Global North (pluriversialism).[7]

In fact, the Dream City Festival delivers a platform for artists from the Global South to present their artwork and to voice their ideas in the discourse. To be successful in making these artists more visible in the discourse, the festival itself needs international prestige. However, conventionally artistic centres are to be found in the Global North due greater financial means to support art as well as the better reputation thanks to colonial discourse logics. Thus, decoloniality theorists argue that the centralization towards the Global North must be ended by the establishment of parallel centres in the Global South.[8] Dream City and Tunis, as the hosting cities, are on the way to become such an alternative centre thanks to exchange with renowned artists from the Global North as well as the international team of artistic directors. In addition, it is attractive to be among the few artistic centres prominently working with art from the Global South. This aspect is part of the branding of Dream City.

In „missa luba“ (working title) setzt sich Sammy Baloji mit der Geschichte des Kongos, dessen Kolonialisierung und Evangelisierung auseinander. Foto: Haroun Ben Youssef.

Therefore, the festival acts as a catalysator of pluriversialist discourses and thus opens new opportunities for artists from the Global South and delivers new inputs to the global discourse on art. Apart from that, the negative effects of restrictive visa systems for artists from the Global South could be reduced if the international reputation of festivals in the Global South increases. Even though the reality of strict visa regimes between states of the Global South remains, it has to be noted that all the artists were able to arrive to the festival.

Despite all these positive developments, the economic and financial imbalances between North and South, which can open doors for to influence on the art scene in the Global South in the shape of conditioned funding, persist. The small financial means of the Global South keep hindering emerging Southern centres of art like in their evolution as this is an obstacle to establish professional artistic education programs, which in return contribute to shape a pluriversialist discourse. In the end, Dream City is an important actor in the decolonialization of art and culture, which reached its achievements in cooperation with individuals and structures from the Global North. Nevertheless, financial imbalances remain a pressing problem not only for the artistic scene. In this field, the Global North needs to show willingness to change in order to create a healthy international environment.

[1] Art Rue (Hg.) (2022): Rapport 2022. Dream City. Tunis. Online verfügbar unter https://lartrue.org/en/festival-dream-city/homepage-festival/focus-content-festival/dream-city-2022-report, zuletzt geprüft am 15.04.2022.

[2] Art Rue (Hg.) (2023): Dream City- Festival d’art dans la cite. Agenda. Tunis.

[3] Art Rue (Hg.) (2022): Rapport 2022. Dream City. Tunis. Online verfügbar unter https://lartrue.org/en/festival-dream-city/homepage-festival/focus-content-festival/dream-city-2022-report, zuletzt geprüft am 15.04.2022.

[4] Lettau, Meike (2020): Künstler as Agents of Change. Auswärtige Kulturpolitik und Zivilgesellschaftliches Engagement in Transformationsprozessen. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

[5] Art Rue (Hg.) (2023): Dream City- Festival d’art dans la cite. Agenda. Tunis.

[6] Quijano, Aníbal (1989): Paradoxes of modernity in Latin America. In: Int J Polit Cult Soc 3, S. 147–177.

[7] Mignolo, Walter (2010): Disobediencia epistémica. Retorica de la modernidad, lógica de la colonialidad y gramática de la déscolonialidad. Buenos Aires: Ediciónes del signo.

[8] Mestiri, Somaya (2016): Decoloniser le féminisme. Une approche transculturelle. Paris: Vrin.

About the author

Vanessa Barisch works at Philipps-Universität Marburg as well as the Merian Centre for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb (MECAM). She is also a journalist at dis:orient magazine. In her research, she focusses on dynamics of decolonialization, Tunisian internal politics, migration policies and regimes as well as feminist issues. Formerly, she worked with the European Centre for Kurdish Studies where she co-published the study “We are not just flowers on the Table: Women’s role in the Syrian constitutional process” (2021).

Citation: Vanessa Barisch, Dream City – Contemporary Art and Dynamics Towards Decolonialization, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.11.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/49199

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 7. November). Dream City – Contemporary Art and Dynamics Towards Decolonialization. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 20. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut86

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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