Light in the Revolution Night

Artist: Karim Jabbari
Location: Martyr Square, Zouhour City, Kasserine, Tunisia
Year of completion: 2012
Leon Tan

Karim Jabbari’s Light in the Revolution Night is a public project belonging to the ancient tradition of Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphy is, of course, the discipline of handwriting. The predominance of the written text in the arts of communities sharing the Islamic faith has been explained by the conception of symbolic figuration of any kind as always potentially idolatrous. The same conception can also be found in the art history of Christian societies, for example, in Byzantine Iconoclasm. Light in the Revolution Night is described by Jabbari as a work of ‘calligraffiti,’ a fusion of calligraphy and graffiti.

For the Tunisian-Canadian artist, the project was a means to come to terms with the desires and violence of the Tunisian Arab Spring, particularly the events of Martyrs Square, in which many protestors, including his uncle, demonstrating publicly for civil liberties and better living conditions, were killed by government forces. By his own account, Jabbari felt helpless and angered by the events he witnessed from his adoptive Canada, and decided to visit the square a year later in 2012, “to revive the memory of the fallen brave people by recreating their names with light calligraphy in the same spots they were shot dead.”

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For the light calligraphy component of the project, the artist ‘painted’ calligraphy onto sites with a flashlight at night, condensing the moving light as a text/image through long exposure with a tripod-mounted camera. The results were visually spectacular, and one can also imagine that the public performances of painting with light were equally arresting for passersby/audiences. During the daytime, Jabbari worked on the other component of his project, a more conventional street art piece in Martyr Square with the message “Hope was born here.” This proved to be extremely popular among the area’s youth, many of them joining the artist to paint the wall.

Jabbari sought to connect young people more closely with Arabic culture and language and to memorialize the Tunisian Arab Spring. Taken as a whole, it seems that Light in the Revolution Night was reasonably successful. While the use of light to create immaterial images in space/time can be seen wherever ‘sparklers’ are available, Jabbari skillfully interpreted this popular pastime through the idiom of Arabic calligraphy to produce haunting and aesthetically pleasing artifacts (photographs). The project also brought the artist closer to his own culture, enabling him to express solidarity with what could have remained a struggle witnessed from afar in the relative safety and stability of Canada.

It is worth noting that this project gave rise to several other initiatives by Jabbari, including Towards the Light, the longest graffiti wall in Tunisia, and Streets, a hip-hop art festival held in Kasserine (the artist’s hometown) in 2013. Streets brought rappers, break-dancers and visual artists together in Tunisia to perform and conduct workshops for Kasserine youth. The success of these activities is indicated by positive media coverage in international news outlets such as BBC and Al Jazeera. According to the Al Jazeera news report, “Those youth who participated [in the workshops] said they will keep practicing their art, whether breakdancing, rap, DJing, or graffiti.”

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency