A double interview between two shores

Halaqat Publication
© Caroline Lessire

The Halaqat project is all about building connections between the Arab world and Europe. We sat down with Elena Polivtseva, who’s based in Belgium, and Shiran Ben Abderrazak, based in Tunisia. Both working for a cultural organisation, how did they experience the Covid-19 period in their country and how do they continue to work in ‘post-Covid’ times?

By Lotte Poté (Bozar)

What is your role within your organisation?

Elena Polivtseva: I'm in charge of policy at IETM, which means advocacy, following up the political development and policy developments at an EU level, but also on a national and more global level.

Shiran Ben Abderrazak:  I am the executive director of a private philanthropy, the Rambourg Foundation, that is based in three countries: France, the UK and Tunisia. We do a lot of supporting actions such as studies dedicated to creative and cultural entrepreneurs.

How did you go through Covid-19 times in your country?

Shiran: Actually, in Tunisia, it was quite strange. We had the first lockdown just like the rest of the world, for three months. After that, the state didn't have any more capabilities to impose strong restrictions such as lockdowns. The situation led to a very dramatic episode in the beginning of the summer of 2021 in Tunisia. We received plenty of international aids and vaccines that we didn't get before. Now I think that more than half of the population has been vaccinated. I guess we can say that we are in ‘post-Covid’ times now.
And how was it for your organisation in particular? How did you deal with Covid?
Shiran: The situation for private cultural operators was quite horrible: they couldn’t perform any cultural actions, because of the measures that were applied by the state. We also have a public sector who is sustained and funded by the state and is doing alright. The budget for culture is not very strong in Tunisia, but at least the actors could keep on working. We are a philanthropy, so we were able to continue our activities. We were developing a lot of cooperation programmes and projects because one of our main goals is to build bridges between Tunisia and the rest of the world, mainly Europe. It became more complicated and harder because of the travel restrictions and because we had to adjust to new remote management methods.

Elena: For me, the most important development in Covid-19 times has been the return of the focus to the local. For artists and cultural workers, it has become possible and more relevant, given the lockdown situation, to look for inspiration and for ideas for projects around the corner, literally. Immediate solutions for resisting the crisis – advocacy, solidarity actions, and dialogue with policy-makers – were also mostly found locally. Some members of our network found this period interesting because it mobilised local scenes, created new local connections. We could even see some lack of priority to discuss Covid-19 solutions at a translational level, even if global connections have also remained vital.

And what was the solution to face this problem and Covid in general?

Elena: It made me think that whatever we, as an international network, do in the future, we should make sure our members learn about each other’s local situations better. We are exploring the notion of transposal collaboration, when artists and cultural professionals gain deeper knowledge about their own and each other’s localities and bring this knowledge to the global conversation. Such an approach is a way to deal with the pandemic, but also a way to address environmental change, post-colonialism, global inequalities, etc. Also, we could observe that big institutions had harder times to adapt to this situation. They sometimes just needed to close because it was not possible to constantly redesign their plans and programmes, while many of the smaller companies, producers or independent artists could be more agile and continue working if they had a certain level of support. We have a hope that relations in the sector might become fairer, as different players in the sector have learned a lot about each other’s vulnerabilities.

And where are we now, what is the post-Covid situation in Belgium and Tunisia?  

Elena: It is still too early to call this situation “post-Covid”, and it is also still too early to estimate the impact of the pandemic. We don’t know yet how many art organisations have stopped existing, how many companies are in the process of closing, and how many artistic careers are about to cease. We also do not fully know how funding cultural policy priorities have changed.

Shiran: Exactly, I would say that the post-Covid situation in Tunisia in the cultural field and sector right now is an enigma. We don't have any data. All that I said is just empiric, it's what I feel or what I hear from other people I’ve been speaking with. I think we need time and data.

Finally, how do you think Europe and the Arab world can build bridges in post-Covid times?

Elena: I would like to reinstate what I said in the beginning: I think we have to build up awareness about each other, across borders, and really care about the local perspective. People who have been moving around have connections in different localities, and this can potentially be interesting for connecting different local contexts. Generally speaking, we also need more research and more time in order to build connections, and collaborations need to be built on fairness. But then the question remains: how to achieve this, how to change the way we collaborate across borders? I would like to end by saying that nothing will change after Covid unless there is a very serious, structured collective effort.

Shiran: I think that developing Halaqat, a kind of project and programme that puts peers together to discuss important questions, is a good first step. But how are we going to be able to really materialize the project, more concretely? One of the main problems that continues to nurture the incomprehension between the two seashores of the Mediterranean, is the problem of mobility. So, building bridges means that people can move on the bridges. Otherwise, I don't know what the bridge is. And I think that the cultural sector is very important in this case because it's where we start to create and develop the narratives, and these narratives can be very powerful when they are used and infused in society and populations. It's where we can start to change the representation of the world.

Elena Polivtseva is based in Brussels and is Head of Policy and Research at IETM – International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts. They are one of the oldest and largest international cultural networks, representing the voice of over 500 member organisations and individual professionals working in the contemporary performing arts worldwide.

Living and working in Tunis, Tunisia, Shiran Ben Abderrazak has been the CEO of the Rambourg Foundation since 2018, one of the main operators of the creative economy in Tunisia. The aim of the Rambourg Foundation is to help Tunisia emerge as a regional and cultural pole by contributing to the development of its ecosystem of creative and cultural economy, in a fair, inclusive and sustainable way.