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Dictators North by Northwest 3 parts make a hole La distinction ... Reality time 4 UnDerPresSUre Parle moi je t'écoute Fashion is art As it might, could, did happen Was Bourguiba, then Ben Ali, next? Multiplying the tenses Layered tense Pictures I wish I had

Sami Ben Larbi

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The jasmine revolution that started in Tunisia and spread to several middle eastern countries was a catalyst to a new project in which I reconstruct and rephotograph official portraits, those hanging on every office or governmental institutions- from dictators all over the world, from my birth date until now. For each photo I meticulously and with fidelity reconstruct backgrounds and costumes using cheap materials: paper, tape, cardboard, markers and fabric. Materials easily taped/painted over when a new ruler comes around.

In the early 1950's my grandfather was an actor in the fight to free Tunisia from the colonial French. Out of the independence, a hero was born: Habib Bourguiba. He was hailed as a savior, a liberator of the oppressive French. Although he modernized and secularized the country and customs, within a few years he had consolidated power and became a full fledge dictator. The cult of the liberator was trying to negate the reality of living under his reign.

Each summer night while on holidays visiting my family in Tunisia, I would be a witness to this cult. Bourguiba's daily activities were reported on television: today he went swimming in Sidi Bou Said, visited an office or opened a new school. Walking the streets, his portrait would be everywhere, on the billboards, the street lamps. He could be found as a statue or the name of a main avenue, guiding the way. In a bloodless coup Zine Abidine Ben Ali deposed him in 1987 and became the next "president for life", a euphemism for dictator.

The fact that I portray every dictator, goes in tandem with the use of cheap materials. It may look real but upon closer inspection something does not seem right. Is it a farce? But then which is a farce, the original or the recreation? The very definition of a dictator is itself malleable. Is Muhammad VI of Morocco, a non elected- for life ruler, a dictator? Is Putin, an elected ruler, a dictator? Is George W. Bush, a controversially elected president who went on to totally disrupt the precarious world balance, a dictator?

By portraying each dictator, I want to engage a dialogue regarding the existence and endurance of dictators, the influence of money and the need for political dealings, both rife with nuances of reality and fiction, of smoke and mirror.