I visited the Bardo Museum in Tunis as a child, dragged by well-meaning adults, returning later as an interested art student. But never did these visits have the sense of urgency that I felt after the ransacking of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad under the watch of American soldiers in 2003. Images of smashed statues, broken vitrines and scattered art, once preserved and cared for, devastated me. The history of a people was being attacked. Even as I tried to repress them, these foreboding images suggested that Bardo could someday face a similar fate. I reassured myself, thinking, we do not have so much oil after all. My fears echoed once more on March 18, 2015, when my museum became the scene of carnage, with 22 people killed. Here is a place that chronicles the 3,000 years of human civilization in the country in which I was born, and it could this easily be destroyed.
Back in the summer and fall of 2002 I was in New York. As the drumbeat for the second Iraq war became louder, so did the efforts to halt it in its tracks. I was among many artists who took part in those efforts, who wanted to address the imminent war as visual artists. My impulse was to highlight the cultural contributions of Iraqis and move away from the prevailing rhetoric of guilt and pity towards them. Iraq was home to a leading modernist tradition in the visual arts, music and architecture whose impact reached beyond its borders, to Tunisia and elsewhere. I was not worried about the loss of antiquities as much as the loss of a people’s culture. In my mind, antiquities did not exist in isolation from the people who inherited them.
“Artists Against the War,” as we named ourselves, organized an event called “Drawn In” at the Metropolitan Museum. About three hundred of us flocked to the Throne Room in the Mesopotamian Wing to draw and photograph great specimens of Assyrian bas-reliefs. This activity was replicated in a few other museums around the world, as artists responded to a call to visit their local museum and draw something Iraqi. Sadly, our efforts were more prescient than we anticipated. We soon witnessed the ransacking of the National Museum of Baghdad, the looting of the modern art museum, and the burning of the libraries in Basra and Nassiriya, among others, under the watch of the American invaders. These initial blows to Iraq’s cultural riches reverberate endlessly to this day. The latest such tragedy was the smashing of the collection of the Museum of Mosul by thugs of the so-called Islamic State.
After 2003, my visits to the Bardo Museum carried an additional meaning, as did the sight of Assyrian bas-reliefs at the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, the Oriental Institute of Chicago and the British Museum. I sketched them everywhere I saw them. My culture, my heritage, was in danger, some of it irrevocably destroyed. Moreover, I came to realize to my great grief that many of my American artist friends did not relate these “invaluable antiquities” to their living inheritors. Their references to Iraqis as “human lives” echoed within me like some nameless, shapeless raw matter, rather than a people with history, art and dreams. I realized then the limits of appreciating Mesopotamian antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum, which methodically removes the ancient art from its living human context. I lamented not only that my history was in peril, but also that people I trusted could not fathom my experience of this history.
My fellow artists who organized and took part in the action at the museum took personal risks for their views on the war. I had no doubt that they would take risks on my behalf should I face the wrath of either the government or people on the other end of the ideological spectrum. Yet Iraqi antiquities and Iraqi people remained separate in their consciousnesses. After the war and the ransacking of the museum, I suggested that we draw connections between what the Iraqis were living through and what some American citizens had experienced—namely, American Indians and African Americans. These communities could draw upon their historical experiences to enlighten the rest of the public about what is happening to the Iraqis. The idea faced tremendous resistance and ultimately alienated me from the group. This was a turning point in my appreciation of ancient art and understanding of how many interested Americans related to the ancient history of others.
With each visit to the Bardo Museum after 2003 I attempted to soak it all in, so that it could never be taken away from me. I discovered familiar mosaics as if for the first time. The Roman statues we drew at the art school in Tunis now meant so much more.
A visit to the Bardo Museum is a different experience from any encyclopedic museum in a Western capital. First, none of the pieces were looted or “acquired” and donated. All of them are ours, found in our own soil. All represent parts of our history, and not of some human history deemed universal that should be preserved from the barbarian natives. The Bardo museum has no pretense to universalism. It is an effort to use the rigors of contemporary science to understand the human history of the land it sits on. The multi-layered history of Tunisia, or Africa, as it was called in Roman times, chronicles influences from far beyond its borders. The creation of the museum was the initiative of Kheiredine Pasha, a 19th century prime minister, author and reformer, who wanted to preserve our antiquities from European pillage.
Kheiredine’s own life is a testimony of the richness of his country’s history. He was sold into slavery as an orphan boy in his native Abkhazia and ended up in the home of a Turkish notable, envoy of the Ottoman ruler of Tunisia Ahmed Bey. The museum is housed in an old royal palace, itself a monument of Islamic architecture. The juxtaposition of Roman mosaic and fine stuccowork, tiles and painted wood ceilings is a visual feat that I have tried to capture in these photographs. Such a mix would be inconceivable in a rigidly compartmentalized reconstruction of history as at the Metropolitan Museum. This is not a matter of coincidence. Kheiredine thought of the museum as a place to preserve not just ancient art, but also what was then contemporary visual art: ceramic tiles, stuccowork and other crafts.
In 2013 the borough of Bardo, which houses the museum and the adjacent parliament building, was the scene of lively protests and a summer-long encampment that unseated the Islamic-led coalition and put in place a firm time-frame for the work of the constituent assembly. I remember interrogating each piece in the museum that summer, wondering how many upheavals it has survived. I wondered about its makers and how little I now understand of their aesthetic priorities. How many of them loved where they lived, and how many wanted to leave as I did.
The museum reopened that summer after being closed for some time for renovations. It looked brighter and more spacious and the bookstore was well stocked, including some well-done replicas of mosaic pieces for sale. My favorite piece of micro-mosaic of the bottom of the sea was still not on view. That room was still being renovated, I was told, and in 2014 it was still not open. The museum store had fewer books and articles to buy. This visit left me wondering about the future of such an endeavor to preserve one’s history in a museum form.
In March 2015 two Tunisian youth opened fire on the museum visitors, killing 22 people and injuring 47. Both culprits had received military training in Libya. According to the museum’s chief curator, Taher Ghalia, the art was spared save for some scratches. Images of bloodstains on the artwork were not circulated. All the fear is that the upcoming tourist season might be jeopardized. Many took to the streets to denounce the terrorist attack, chanting the national anthem including the verses of the Tunisian poet, Chabbi: “If a people once wanted to live, fate shall answer their call.” The President, a recently elected octogenarian who ran on an anti-Islamist platform, took to national television to rehash stale rhetoric of the war on terror. His address ended with a verse from the Qur’an: “Say: Nothing will afflict us save what God has ordained for us. He is our Patron and on God let the believers rely. ” This is a far cry from what a young Tunisian poet wrote almost a century earlier, that fate shall answer to the will of the people. That idea had carried so much hope at the onset of the Arab Spring.
Very little is certain about the motivations of the terrorists. Was the museum the real target, or was it the parliament, where debates on the new terrorism law were taking place? A statement issued through a fundamentalist twitter account Ifriqia Lil I’lam seemed to suggest that the Tunisian economy, rather than the art, was the target. It is when chaos reigns in a country that extremists thrive. The situation of ancient and contemporary art can only echo the fragile state of the country. Statements of the political elite, like that of the president, offer little reassurance. The Tunisian media I can access is largely an uncritical rehash of Western rhetoric on the war on terror.
From what I can tell, this war has only spread terrorism. Western interventions in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq allowed these countries to become breeding grounds for yet more ruthless extremists. A war on terror, such as that claimed by the Assad regime in Syria, is not faring much better. The latest news in this war is that a coalition of Western allies, led by Saudi Arabia, has jumped on the bandwagon and begun its own adventures in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, a proud purveyor of Wahabi teaching, has done away with its ancient art, including ancient mosques and tombs, a while back. Today, even Mecca is not being spared. So little regard has the Wahabi doctrine to history. It is worth noting that the criminal code of this Western ally hardly differs from that of the Islamic State.
I anticipate my visit this summer to the Bardo Museum only with increased urgency.
Emna Zghal is a Tunisian-born U.S. based visual artist. Her work was featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the United States, Tunisia and beyond. Zghal received fellowship residencies and done projects with: the Women’s Studio Workshop, the Newark Art Museum, the MacDowell Colony, the Weir Farm Trust, and the Cité Internationale Des Arts in Paris. Reviews of her work appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Artforum, and ARTnews, The New Yorker in addition to many Tunisian publications. Her portfolio of prints The Prophet of Black Folk about the 9th Century African slave revolt in Iraq was acquired by Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, NY. Other works of hers are part the New York Public Library, Yale University, The Museum For African Art in New York, Grinnell College, and numerous other public and private collections in the U.S. and Tunisia. She taught at Grinnell College, Purchase College and Parsons New School of Design. Her work can be seen here.
Feature image via Afrotourism.
Photos within article ©Emna Zghal