Art in the time of coronavirus

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 20 April – 24 April

By Anne-Marie Bissada
Posted on Friday, 24 April 2020 16:39, updated on Wednesday, 27 July 2022 00:11

Moncef Ouahibi (Editions Burno Doucey)

In the midst of this pandemic, holed up in our homes, many forget that the world of art hasn’t taken a back seat. It continues to inspire, to express ideas and to capture moments to comfort or entertain us and make us think.

One poet in particular, Moncef Ouhaibi, was awarded the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, for his collection of poetry. He wants to remind us that art, no matter what the medium, has the power to help us.

For the first time of its 14 year history, the Abu-Dhabi based Sheikh Zayed Book Award for literature went to a poet– and a Tunisian one at that.

“Oh, we have much art here!” he tells The Africa Report, citing a grand poet from the early half of the 20th century, Abou el-Kacem Chebbi. He adds to the list of noteworthy achievements, such as Tunisian cinema, music and visual arts.


His collection of poems, Belkas ma Qabl Al Akheera (The Penultimate Cup), explores the relationship Tunisia occupies within the Mediterranean, its ties with its Arab neighbours and with those countries to to the north of the sea. It also touches on timeless themes of love and death, war and family.

“These are the stories that form our memories and create our identity,” says Ouhaibi. He finds inspiration from daily comings and goings – or simply put, “I am a poet and an interpreter. I listen to the world not only with my eyes but also with my ears.”

The language of poetry

Arabic is a language rooted in poetry. Oral and then written poetry are considered to be the earliest forms of Arabic literature. Its rich vocabulary and melodic rhythm are reasons why poetry in particular continues to flourish in the Arabic-speaking world.

“Arabic is a poetic language,” confirms Ouhaibi, when asked about if his work translates well into other languages. His poetry has indeed been translated, especially into French. “We can always translate it, but you must be a poet to interpret it,” he says. The French translator who recently translated some of his work is a poet himself. “He listened to my poems in Arabic, the rhythm of the lines; he understood something.”

It doesn’t matter what language you speak, what is important is to have an understanding of the melody of the words, which in turn deliver a message.

Art in a time of crisis

Undoubtedly great works of art have arisen during times of crisis. Think of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica during the Spanish civil war, Edward Hopper’s paintings during the Great Depression in the US, Henrik Ibsen’s play The Dollhouse at a time of growing women’s liberation or Naguib Mahfouz’s novels that questioned modern Egyptian society.

“Of course, art has a role to play, and not just poetry. Art doesn’t respond right away,” notes the poet.

But in this current time, art “is very important, especially after COVID-19”. He adds that this post-pandemic era will be helped by art, “and not religion … because art has the capacity to draw us into visions that transcend the cruelest of realities.” And in those cruelest of times, “art is not there simply for those who want to make-believe; it’s to give hope back to man and to relight his faith in constructing a better world.”

And in this post-crisis future, humanity will need artists, all kinds, says Ouhaibi.

“But I’ll add, we are often confused during these moments of humanity … but ‘there is still a candle dancing in our hand’, as the great French poet René Char once said.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

Coronavirus: South Africa to ease lockdown to level 4 as of 1 May says Ramaphosa

South Africa will gradually reopen the economy on 1 May, when its lockdown will be eased to level 4, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in an address late Thursday.   

‘Coronavirus diplomacy’: China’s opportune time to aid Africa

China’s contribution to combatting COVID-19 around the globe has been striking. While Europe and the USA have become the epicentre of the pandemic in recent weeks, China is on the way to containing the new coronavirus (at least according to official statistics) at home. Its ability and willingness to offer humanitarian aid and lessons to other countries is generally welcomed. 

Nigeria’s health and economic crisis: Buhari left to face it without Abba Kyari

Even for a battle-hardened general, it has been a week out of hell for President Muhammadu Buhari; one of those weeks in which decades happen in a matter of days.  

Coronavirus: the miracle remedy touted by Madagascar’s Rajoelina

Madagascar’s president surprised many observers when he announced that certain traditional plants grown on the large island country have the potential to cure Covid-19. Was his mention of this African remedy based on the healing properties of traditional medicine premature given that it is still being studied?

Coronavirus: Nigeria’s travel industry shaky after N180 billion loss from pandemic

Nigeria's fledgling tourism industry is losing money and many jobs are being cut as employees are unable to pay wages, raising fears that the industry could collapse by the time the coronavirus pandemic ends.

A return to ‘business-as-usual’ will not benefit Africa in the long run

A few weeks ago, the mood was different. This was supposed to be Africa’s time yet again. Just like it was a decade ago when McKinsey declared Africa’s “Lions on the Move” - only for those hopes to disappear.

The G20’s action on debt is an important first step; now for the hard part

African countries, like others around the world, are contending with an unprecedented shock, which merits substantial and unconditional financial assistance in the spirit of Draghi’s “whatever it takes.”

Coronavirus: private equity liquidity management is key to pandemic

Liquidity management will decide which private equity investors in Africa are able to take advantage of the new opportunities created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Interview: Bill Gates – ‘Coronavirus will cost far more than $3 trillion’

If anyone is allowed to say 'I told you so', it might be Bill Gates.