Mehdi Ben Cheikh, a veteran of the Paris street art wars, has taken his visions to Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia. Ben Cheikh is the founder of Galerie Itinerrance in Paris and has spent 10 years building an organization dedicated to the work of street artists.
Mehdi Ben Cheikh opened the Galerie Itinerrance of Parisian street art in 2004 after completing his studies at the Sorbonne and working for a short period as an art teacher. In 2013 Ben Cheikh was the pioneer behind the biggest collective street art exhibition in Europe, Paris Tour 13 Project. The project saw 108 street artists from around the world paint a dilapidated apartment block in Paris that was set to be demolished. In the one month it ran, Paris Tour 13 Project attracted more than 25,000 visitors. Ben Cheikh spoke about the project saying, “We’re bringing street art back to the streets, where it can be seen by everyone for free.”
Mehdi Ben Cheikh is French-Tunisian, and after the success of the Paris Tour 13 Project, he set his sights on the island of Djerba in Tunisia. Djerba is well-known for its stunning sandy beaches. However, in September 2014 it was a hot topic of discussion for other reasons when Ben Cheikh began to turn the island into a huge open-air museum for his project, Djerbahood.
Ben Cheikh invited over 100 artists from 30 different countries to help make his ambitious project Djerbahood come to life. Cheikh and the other artists painted the walls of Er-Riadh, a village in Djerba. The island was once dubbed the ‘island of dreams,’ and it is now one of Tunisia’s most popular tourist destinations. Cheikh has been quoted talking about the project saying, “Djerba seemed the perfect place for street art and as an open-air space, the museum will not damage the island.”
Djerbahood was funded by several sponsors from France and Tunisia and had to be authorized by the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism. After arriving in Tunisia with aims to start the project, Ben Cheikh gained the mayor of Djerba’s approval for the artists to create art on public property. The organizers also collected consent from each homeowner in the village before the final go-ahead was given and the Djerbahood project began.
Some homeowners gave opinions on how they wanted the artwork to look, whilst others gave the artists free reign to paint as they wished. Ben Cheikh spoke about locals in the area saying, “At first, the locals didn’t really understand what I was trying to do, but this project isn’t about vandalism. It’s a real exhibition with a real scenography.”
There are more than 100 pieces woven into the village fabric, and they range from figures by British artist Phlegm, to powerful phrases by Peruvian Elliott Tupac. The street art isn’t contained to the village, and it stretches across the landscape. The Djerbahood project has helped the village Er-Riadh, and Tunisia as a whole, attract tourists and street art enthusiasts from all over the world. Djerbahood has proved to be an exciting venture, both for Mehdi Ben Cheikh and the Tunisian community that it has well and truly put on the map.