LUMBERTON — Standing in front of a slide show at the Rotary Club’s meeting at the Village Station Restaurant, Rachel Chamberlain Manley has come a long way to discuss her new home of Tunisia — her youthful appearance betraying all that she’s seen.
As she talks about the Arab country located in the northernmost part of Africa, a vibrant painting sits on a chair behind her depicting the inside of Tunisian homes. The painting, labeled “Fourteen,” shows people talking over dinner tables and watching TV as protesters revolt outside.
“It was Jan. 14, 2011, when they kicked Ben Ali out of power,” Manley said. “The painting stresses the importance of communication in Tunisian society.”
Manley, a graduate of Fairmont High School who first traveled abroad at age 15 on a trip to France sponsored by the Rotary Club, talks about Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the president who was recently ousted. Ben Ali was the corrupt president of Tunisia, and along with his wife, Leila Ben Ali, had his fingers in every aspect of business and society. “Fourteen” is one of many paintings Manley produced in response to the revolts. The rest are mounted on the walls of the Hillyer Art Space in Washington, D.C., in an exhibit entitled “False Impressions” on display until May 25.
The works of “False Impressions,” which explore themes like Tunisia’s history and future and the role of government and family, portray the complexity of being a foreigner in a foreign land, and acknowledge the dual truths Manley encountered daily.
“…I have often found irony in my surroundings — a church that wasn’t a church, a wedding that wasn’t a wedding,” Manley said. “Then, the revolution hit and suddenly the truth came out on so many things.”
Despite having lived in Tunisia for eight years, Manley still considers herself a foreigner. She said, “I’m corrected on what Tunisia is every day. Since the revolution, so many things have come out that we had either misunderstood previously or we weren’t aware of.”
The change of mood in the country where Manley relocated for her husband’s work first came after word circulated that a 26-year-old fruit vendor, Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi, self immolated at the governor’s offices in the town of Sidi Bouzid.
The government had confiscated his merchandise, which was bought on credit. With no hopes of feeding himself or his family, and essentially bankrupt, his suicide by fire ignited the Tunisian revolution and inspired the Arab Spring.
“The biggest change since the revolution has been witnessing a sudden freedom of expression where certain subjects are no longer taboo,” Manley said. “Peaceful protests, debates on tv and radio, graffiti… are now common everyday occurrences. People are expressing themselves.”
At the bottom of “Fourteen” are ripped-up fragments of some such graffiti that Manley encountered. The French translation, “I’m proud of my people. I’m proud of my country,” rages like a red river at the bottom of the work.
“You see things like that and it just gives you chills,” Manley said, “because you never ever saw anything like that before.”
Manley’s mother, Nila Chamberlain, said of the revolts, “It’s history and it’s the future and it should open our eyes and we should think about it. I hope that it helps us to understand these people are not as different as we might fear they are.”
Manley, who has developed lesson plans and points for discussion to accompany the works for use in the classroom, says that she hopes to start a conversation about the Arab world and show that despite cultural differences, people are basically the same.
“I always make comparisons between my hometown of Fairmont and the region where I live now, because Tunisia is very much a small town,” Manley said. “… They all know each other; they know me, I know them. We are all human at the end of the day and we have our families that we take care of — we all have to earn a decent living so that we can live well. It’s the same. We all have the same desires and needs.
“Ultimately, the rest of it is not so important.”