Inside Alex Ayed’s World of Magic and Mystery

How the French-Tunisian artist plays with the real and imaginary

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Now on its second exhibition, it’s evident more than ever that B7L9’s mission to democratize art in Tunisia is by no means elusive. Making it happen is Alex Ayed, the 30-year-old French-Tunisian artist behind the exhibition entitled “Soap Opera”, and the man who (quite literally) brought life into the building.

The minute you walked through B7L9’s doors, it became clear. This was no typical inaugural night. Set in the impoverished quarter of Bhar Lazreg, where Ayed also lived and worked, the neighbourhood kids strolled through the exhibit alongside the archetypal crowd made of socialites, artists, enthusiasts, and journalists that frequented such events (which were typically held in the galleries of the posher neighbourhood of La Marsa). Kefteji, a local Tunisian street food, was served by a Bhar Lazreg-based vendor. The art itself was made there, down to the material. As Ayed put it, Soap Opera was a “continuity of the neighbourhood.”

But the vitality of opening night only scratched the surface. Not obvious at first glance, but 36 pigeons, a couple insects, rabbits, a chameleon, two dogs, and a snake were involved in making the exhibition happen—and Ayed gives each animal full credit for their contributions.

Made of locally-sourced Tunisian olive oil soap, metal and marble, and coming in sizes both small and large, each of Ayed’s pieces comes with a story, and despite being the brains and hands that made them, Ayed doesn’t see himself as their author.

A metal sculpture currently standing tall between B7L9’s walls is credited to his dog, Sergio. “I had to keep tying him to something so he doesn’t eat my rabbits and pigeons” Ayed says. One photograph made its way to the exhibit after a moment of happenstance when a snake trapped in Ayed’s car was removed by a man whose arm was adorned with a snake tattoo. As for the chameleon, Alex kept one with him throughout the process after learning the animal is used to cast spells across North Africa.

“Things kept happening. I kept letting things happen. I kept in mind superstition and magic while I worked,” he says. And so, Soap Opera falls somewhere between the real and the fictitious, with superstition laying at its core.

Ayed carried a long-standing fascination with the concept of magic. He spent the last year travelling between Tunis and Algeria, finding a book that triggered a deeper exploration of magic and the paranormal in North Africa, and ultimately shaped his work. “I found a book in Algeria that talked about magic in Kabyle, I wanted to meet a witch. I had the desire to find the objects they used and incorporate them,” he explains.

He never wound up meeting a sorcerer, but his connection with the realm of magic and mystery was amplified further during the show with a tarot-reading performance by artists Helene Garcia and Emile Degorce-Dumas, entitled “Extra-Lucide”, and a soundtrack composed by Rehab Hazgui that played with the concept of real and imaginary.

And with time, Ayed’s world of mystery will continue shaping itself. For the next three months, the artist will continue engaging and interacting with his pieces and the space, offering audiences a different story with every visit.

Soap Opera is open until September 29 at B7L9, Bhar Lazreg, Tunis.

Photos courtesy of @Yoanncimier

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