Born in 1969, Héla Ammar is a Tunisia based visual artist. In addition to her training in visual art, she holds a Phd in Law. Author of Corridors (2014), a photo book on tunisian prisons, and co-author of Siliana Syndrome (2013), a survey on death row in Tunisia, she recently developed a whole artwork around the prison environment.
More generally, her photographs and installations address the stakes of memory. Identity is often at the center of her research. A selection of her series is now part of the British museum (London) and the Arab World Institute (Paris) permanent collection.
Her work has been showcased in various international biennals and exhibitions including the Biennal of the Contemporary Arab World Photographers (Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris (France 2017), Réenchantements Dak’art Biennal 2016 (Senegal), Fragments d’une Tunisie contemporaine, MuCem (Marseille, France 2015), Bamako Encounters (Mali, 2015 and 2017).
The events that shook Tunisia during the revolution have not spared Tunisian prisons. They were the sad theater of mutinies, fires, escapes and abuses of all kinds. It was after these events that I was allowed to visit and get in touch with prisoners. That was the first time that such authorization was given, so far prisons were a highly secret closed world, one of the pieces of the dictatorial machine.
“Counfa” in arabic is a distortion of the term convoy. Prisoners use it to refer to their transfer from one prison to another. Like them, I moved through twenty prisons, living this trip as a convoy through time and space, where the agreed landmarks are lost to make way for the greatest paradoxes. To testify this trip, I chose to deliver in bulk images that overlap. What I saw and heard in the prisons I have visited exceeded all what I could have imagined. In there, I went through an intense experience where there was no more outside or inside, nor good or bad, nor time or space but only men and women who have lost much more than their freedom.
TARZ; weaving time
Red silk embroidery on photo paper
Tarz in Arabic means embroidery. In this photo installation, archival photos are mixed with recent pictures I’ve taken in Tunisia since the beginning of revolution. The two series of images are woven together with a red silk embroidery (tarz) to form a tapestry or memorial. Signifying national identity by employing the colour of the Tunisian flag as well as blood ties, the red stitching provides a visual continuum of public and private memory in an attempt to bring an answer to the issue of the fragmentation of the collective memory.
Here, the thread that connects past with present goes back in time and transcends it. It crosses a generational mosaic, and becomes a symbol of continuity and transmission. It takes its roots in the archive and revives in the news. It sutures the wounds and unifies the broken field of memory.
Installation, Shepherd’s Bush Market, London
Becoming is a site-specific installation in Shepherd’s Bush Market in London, commissioned for Shubbak Festival 2019. It features nine women from Africa and the Middle East, who had recently arrived in the city, and were carefully balancing the normality of London living with a period of personally unsettled existence. Their large-scale portraits were installed throughout the market which is a place where many nationalities and cultures meet.
The installation asked audiences to pause and contemplate questions of displacement, migration, integration, coexistence, belonging and becoming. Voices and stories, sourced through interviews, were paired with the portraits and blended with the different sounds of the market.
Listen to recordings of the women (Arabic with English subtitles) and read transcripts of their stories using the links above.