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  • Héla Ammar's À fleur de peau / Body Talks:From Anonymous to Familiar Bodies
  • Anna Rocca

HÉLA AMMAR IS A MULTIFACETED and politically active individual. She is a feminist, a visual artist, a jurist, and a professor of law at the University of Tunis. Her personal and professional commitment to social causes is reflected in both her artistic production and legal engagement. Art, specifically photography, is Ammar's preferred medium for addressing societal disparity. Since 2003, she has regularly shown her works nationally and internationally, though the 2011 Tunisian revolution and its aftermath significantly increased and expanded the diversity of her artistic engagement.

This article will focus on Ammar's 2018 photography exhibition, À fleur de peau / Body Talks, particularly upon the photographic series of portraits representing seven young Tunisian celebrities, each well known to the media for their political activism and engagement in support of LGBTQ+ rights.

Inherent in the artist's aesthetic expression is a type of reflective commitment that intends to shift the audience's perspectives and assumptions about LGBTQ+ people. Ammar portrays celebrities with their heads concealed under a colorful floral scarf. While communicating the complexities of gender identities, these fine-art portraits, in which the faces remain concealed, help to create a mystery, a curiosity, and an interest in looking further into the lives of these bodies. Indeed, because there is often something comforting about seeing a human figure rather than an unfamiliar face, these bodies, I argue, allow for the establishment of a sympathetic relationship with the viewer. They may represent a call for change: a turning away from the interpretation of the body as a site of struggle and control towards a conceptualization of the body as a conduit for communication and connection.

Representing the forgotten

"'Les gens de la marge' est apparemment un thème qui passionne et obsède Héla Ammar," affirms Olfa Belhassine.1 Indeed, immediately after the revolution, Ammar and five other photographers participated in the Artocratie Inside-Out Tunisia art project, in which images of ordinary Tunisian citizens were displayed on the streets to counteract the propaganda portraits of former President Ben Ali. In the same year, as a member of the CNIDV—Commission nationale d'investigation sur les dépassements et les violations, the [End Page 83]

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Figure 1.

"Body Talks," Héla Ammar, 2018.

Tunisian National Committee scrutinizing the civil rights violations that were committed during the revolution—Ammar gained access to twelve penitentiaries in order to document prisoners' conditions. As a result of this transformative experience, she produced a series of installations (Counfa 2012), copublished a judicial survey against the death penalty (Le syndrome de Siliana, 2013),2 recorded a TED event entitled "Feriez-vous confiance à des criminels?" (2013), and composed an exceptional book of photographs and text on prisons and prisoners (Corridors, 2015). In 2017, to raise awareness about the impoverished daily life of underprivileged young Tunisians, Ammar produced Contre jour. The installation, which draws its name from the type of light the artist used to photograph and to interview them, was later presented at the Contemporary Art Biennial of Tunis Dream City. Prisoners and disadvantaged youth, Ammar remarked, experience similar problems: "la zatla (drogue), la harga (immigration clandestine), la houma (le quartier), la violence, le délit mineur, la précarité" (Belhassine).

The artist's drive to give a voice to people living on the fringes of society is also at stake in À fleur de peau / Body Talks. First presented in 2018 at the Ghaya Gallery in Sidi Bou Said, the installation continues to explore themes central to Ammar's artistic investigation: memory, time, and identity. The [End Page 84] artist invites the audience to contemplate three interconnected aspects of Tunisia's history. One section illustrates the past of the newly independent Tunisia by means of legal documents and newspapers of the period. Regarding that fertile past, full of hopes and new visions, Ammar comments, "j'ai commencé par le passé, évoqué à travers des journaux officiels, des compilations de lois et règlements des premières années de l'indépendance. C'est une époque importante de la Tunisie, celle de la construction de...


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