After 50 years of sculpting, an artist is ready to censor himself due to threats by religious extremists.
More than fifty years ago, when Hamrouni Bin Issa was a young pupil, he stole his French teacher’s stick. Robert Wating realized his pupil’s crime but chose not to punish him. On the contrary, the teacher helped Issa nurture his talent.
“Hamrouni made a beautiful piece of art out of a wooden stick used to punish students. He carved chrysanthemum flowers on a surface, which is very difficult to carve on,” Wating said.
Issa was poor and his father took him out of elementary school and made him work as a mechanic in an auto-repair shop to help earn money for the family.
Nevertheless, after working all day, the young boy practiced his hobby by carving stones, accompanied by Wating, his teacher.
Carving amidst threats
Today in his workshop in the southern town of Gabes, Hamrouni glimpses at the sculptures that have brought him worldwide fame. Still he has abandoned his beloved art after receiving threats from extremists who have accused him of blasphemy and working in the idols' industry.
When the Ennahda Movement won in the 2011 elections, Issa’s workshop was attacked by tens of extremists who damaged much of his art work.
The spread of takfiri books and the mobilization of youth to fight them in all of the cities of the country, without any response from the government, convinced Issa that Tunisia could be sliding into extremism. Once a group from Ansar al-Sharia (before its ban) gathered in front of his workshop and threatened to burn and destroy what they described as idols, but the residents of the neighbourhood stopped them.
Before turning 20, Issa worked in different jobs such as construction and farming. The country's independence and its elites' interest in culture and arts encouraged him to pursue the art of sculpture. He knew little about this art form, yet his work was so convincing that experts invited him to display his sculptures at large art events.
Sculptures documenting history
As he came into manhood, like many other Arabs, he experienced bittersweet moments when Egypt was defeated in its war with Israel and when it afterwards won the war.
He translated his feelings into sculptures of the last century's leaders and other leaders of socialist countries. He excelled in carving the features of Che Guevara, Gamal Abdel Nasser and other leaders of socialist countries.
In a workshop no bigger than two square meters, in one of Gabes popular neighbourhoods, stone and wood carved by Issa were sculptures have witnessed the world's history.
"In the beginning, things did not go so well," he remembered, "But I was able to overcome financial difficulties because fans started to buy my sculptures." He contributed to the designs of most of the motels in southern Tunisia and produced works reflecting the desert and sea life, adored by European tourists. Issa’s art sold well in regional and international exhibitions, mainly bought by wealthy Tunisians. The Mediterranean Countries' Art commission has chosen Issa’s Arous al- Bahr (the Mermaid)—carved on three meter-long stone— for display in Germany.
Issa celebrated what he considered the “second independence” of his country in 2011, however, the decline in the pace of cultural activities due to the deteriorating security situation led him to re-think the revolution.
“I used to believe that the 2010 Tunisian Intifada would give freedom to all people regardless of their intellectual and ideological backgrounds,” Issa said of the Arab Spring uprising. “But my convictions have been proven wrong.”
Although extremist associations have since been banned, Issa still receives threats. He tries to argue with them, in debates and discussions and even citing verses from the Quran, trying to convince them that any logical interpretation of the Quranic verses prove that his art is not banned. He tried to convince them that talents are gifts from God.
His deep conviction that the country should be saved from the grip of extremists after the assassination of Chokri Belaid, made Issa loyal to the civil state's martyr. He spent weeks carving a statue of him to display it in the Art Festival in the Mahras Tunisian city to commemorate his sacrifices for his homeland.
An unsafe and unprofitable profession
Terrorist threats and the decline of income from his art are putting an end to Hamouri's art journey.
Issa is afraid the virus of extremism might be transmitted from Libya to his country. “If this happens, artists, who are classified as infidels by extremist organizations will surely suffer,” he says.
His workshop, which was once a place where art students gathered to gain some insight, benefit from the experience of their teacher and include it in their final graduation reports. Once a thriving art workshop, this place will soon become a shop for selling consumer goods and cigarettes smuggled from Libya and Algeria.