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TUNISIA: Torched police station that symbolized repression turned into art exhibition

March 26, 2011 |  9:51 am

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This post has been corrected. See note at bottom for details.

The police station in the Tunis suburb of La Goulette stands deserted at its posh location near the seaside boardwalk, its walls blackened by smoke and fire and windows smashed. Police officers' notebooks and files lie in piles on the floor, along with thousands of old applications for identity cards that date back to the 1970s, computers and remains of ancient typewriters. The storage room where the weapons used to be kept has been emptied. Graffitti sprayed on the walls tell ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to go to hell.

For many Tunisians, this place was a symbol of Ben Ali's repressive regime and the old guard -- a place where bad things happened. That's why it was torched during Tunisia's popular uprising against Ben Ali, guide Wassim Ghozlani told Babylon & Beyond.

The exhibition is put on by a collective of Tunisian artists and photographers called Artocracy in Tunisia who are aiming to bring the voices of the people back to the streets of the country, breathe new life into places like the police station in La Goulette and shed old images of government repression through a photography project called "Inside Out."

In several places inside La Goulette's former police headquarters hang portraits of regular Tunisians. They're young, old, women and men. One of them, flanked by a police stop sign and graffitti thrashing Ben Ali, shows a young woman staring angrily at the camera. Outside the station, passers-by are greeted by the portraits showing a young man and woman making funny faces, below.

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According to Ghozlani, one of the aims of the project is to change people's perception of street imagery in Tunisia and to disseminate the opinions of ordinary citizens. And, of course, to show their faces. For many years, the majority of portraits many Tunisians saw in the streets were those of ex-President Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba.

So the idea was born to put up portraits of 100 Tunisians from across the sociopolitical spectrum and ask each one of them what they want for the future of their country. According to a press release by Artocracy in Tunisia, portraits will be put on display in four Tunisian cities in public areas and in places that either played an important part in the uprising or are considered symbols of the repression. Not surprisingly, the heavily guarded Ministry of Interior in Tunis is a top spot for the photographers to hang their portraits.

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Those portrayed include children, elderly, farmers, soldiers, seculars, religious conservatives and students, and the project appears to have drawn some inspiration from the many images and videos from the scenes of protest that were posted and shared on the Internet during the Tunisian uprising. 

"The people regain control of its destiny, speech and the right to his image," read a press release from Artocracy in Tunisia. "The Tunisian revolution gained momentum thanks to the thousands of photos transmitted and shared over the Internet and social networks, which highlights more than ever the importance of images."

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The project appears to have been received with mixed feelings. Although some hail it on Facebook, Ghozlani says a number of the portraits put on the display in the streets have been torn down. On one wall in La Goulette there are only a few pieces left of the portraits that had been plastered there. Ghozlani doesn't know the reason for it but says it's possible that some people might think the portraits bear a political connotation.

The picture above shows a field of files, ID applications, and a computer on the floor in the inner room at the police station.

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And above, a portrait from "Inside Out" on display in a demolished room at the police station surrounded by bricks and wires.

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Above, the skeleton of a burned police vehicle is seen near a smaller building adjacent to the police station, which was also torched. Police uniforms and burned papers and files were found inside. 

[Updated, 6:10 a.m. March 30: Photographers of some of the images exhibited in the project include Hichem Driss, Sophia Barakat, Tnani Aziz, Rania Douri, Wissam Dargueche and Hela Ammar.]

For the record, 6:10 a.m. March 30: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified guide Wassim Ghozlani as a member of the Artocracy in Tunisia collective.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Tunis

Photos: Jonny Wallstrom / Zero Silence

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