Tower of Babel: meet the artists! Edition 5 – Olfa Ben Ali

For the project Tower of Babel at NDSM, we enter a conversation with eight artists, who each contributed to this art installation in their own way. Through a variety of workshops, they invited Amsterdammers to reflect on their vision of the city of the future. Together, they created multifaceted artworks that will be displayed in an eclectic wooden tower-construction at NDSM, visible from September 18 to October 17. In this fifth edition, we speak with Olfa Ben Ali.

Don’t forget to also watch her video interview, made by Anna Sidorchik (OatStudio):

Next to this video interview, Teus Hagen met with each artist for some more in-depth questions. In the midst of different projects taking place in September ⁠— for example, she brought to life Refutea, an icetea blend created by refugees — Olfa made some time to comment on her ideal city, her thoughts regarding the Tower of Babel, and her artistic experiences at NDSM.

Photography: Victoria Ushkanova

We asked each workshop participant the following question: what does your ideal city look like? How would you answer this question yourself?

A city in which Mother Nature has taken back control. I loved Amsterdam during the pandemic; it was relatively quiet, with no white lines in the full blue sky, The birds took over the canals. Swans were all over with their babies. Birds built their nests everywhere. Families brought tables, chairs, and sofas out in the street. And children were playing without fear of cars. There was another notion of time I really liked. Time and people were suspended. Unfortunately, now that things are ‘back to normality’, space has been filled by the masses again.

I find the painting very interesting because there are a thousand anonymous human figures in it. Who were those people?

How familiar were you with the original story of the Tower of Babel?

Very familiar. I read the Bible, the Thora, and the Coran.

And what do you find the most interesting about this story?

I find the Pieter Breughel painting very interesting because there are a thousand anonymous human figures in it. Which brings questions to my mind; who were those people? Were they slaves? Did they believe in the project? Were they obligated to do it? Were they manipulated? In a way, it represents the lower class of society today. It was initiated by King Nimrod. Could we, therefore, say Guido van der Werve is a Nimrod of our modern time?

Being an artist can sometimes be an individualistic line of work. However, the Tower of Babel project is about working with a collective and bringing many different works made by many different people together. How do you feel about this collective approach to creating art?

I am used to working collectively. I always collaborate with artists and different communities. This is one of the fundaments of my work, such as my magazine — ReFuse Magazine. However, working with other artists collectively isn’t always understood by funds because they are so focused on autonomous work. To me, art will have more impact on society when it’s created in collaboration with others.

The original Tower of Babel story symbolizes a balance between pride and ambition on the one hand and humbleness on the other hand. (Humanity yearns to achieve the highest possible by building a tower to heaven, but God punishes them by being for being overconfident and too ambitious.) As an artist, how do you balance pride/confidence with modesty/humbleness?

The initiative for the Tower of Babel was not taken by the people but by King Nimrod. As an artist, I strongly believe that it would be very beneficial to the art world if it would offer more stages to collaboration initiatives. Unfortunately, I regret that the involved artists in this Tower of Babel haven’t worked together on it. They all went their own way, did their own workshops, but it could have been much more interesting if they would have started together by sharing thoughts upfront.

What is your connection with NDSM and how well do you think this project fits in a space like NDSM?

NDSM is renowned for its great initiatives. For architecture, for culture, for art in the particular area in town. It has the potential to be part of the future of the city and to experiment with design, art, and social aspects. I would love that this way of working should also have an effect on the increase of nature in the city.


Concept/Poem: Olfa Ben Ali (France/Tunisia)
Graphic Design: Super Collective Design (Germany/Romania)
Video Artist: Ignas van Rijckevorsel (Netherlands/England)
Text editing: Marie Medevielle (France)
Translator Farsi: Keyvin Shaghaghi (Iran)
Webdesign: Ot Leendertse (Netherlands/Indonesia)
Composers: Tayebeh & Leila (Iran), Hussein & Narges (Afghanistan),
Ibrahim (Sierra Leone), Emmad (Syria), Buba (Gambia)
Coaching: Pieter Leendertse (Netherlands)
Supported by Stichting NDSM-werf, TAAK
Special thanks to AZC Amsterdam, Stichting Eigenwijks, Gina van der
Linden (Netherlands), Elisabetta Pastorutti (Italy)
REFUTEA is an Andy Wahloo project

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