Tunisia’s embattled artists speak out

Violent religious and moral censorship by conservatives is on the increase, say the nation’s artists and intellectuals.

Tunisia art
'Printemps des Arts' ran in early June in the Tunis suburb of La Marsa [Image courtesy of Rabii Kalboussi]

This week’s violence against artists and artwork has exposed the deepening cultural battles in Tunisia, with the government struggling to take a clear position in the debate between freedom of expression and the defence of “sacred values”.

Riots erupted in Tunis on Monday and Tuesday against what protesters considered the blasphemy of some artists who participated in the “Printemps des Arts” exhibition, after ultra-conservative activists circulated images of exhibits on social media.

A series of curfews were imposed across the country, and, by Friday, passions appeared to have cooled, with the three main Islamist groups withdrawing calls for another day of protest.

Members of the Ennahdha party, the dominant group in the coalition government, were among those calling for renewed protests.

Odalisque 2.0 by Héla Ammar, was part of the exhibition

The movement’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, said in a statement on Friday that he condemned all violence against individuals or property. Yet he also restated his opposition to “attacks on the beliefs of Tunisians” and of the need to protect “sacred symbols”.

Liberal Tunisians say the government must to do more to protect them from the Salafis’ often violent attempts to silence them.

Artists, intellectuals and journalists have routinely been cast as elitist and non-believers, they say, not only by the ultra-conservative fringe, but also by members of the coalition government.

Al Jazeera’s Yasmine Ryan spoke with Héla Ammar, a photographer who participated in the exhibition. She argued that artists are being used as scapegoats and, at a time when some of her fellow artists have been forced to go into hiding, the government is encouraging a climate of fear. 

Yasmine Ryan: What is the idea behind the ‘Printemps des Arts’ exhibition? Was there a particular theme?

Héla Ammar: The Printemps des Arts [Springtime Art Festival] is an annual event that has been running for ten years. The idea this year was to make it into a fair, similar to international art fairs. Tunisian galleries were invited to participate, along with independent artists selected by the curator. The galleries were free to select the works they wished to display and the artists weren’t limited to any particular theme.

YR: Some people said the exhibition was political, do you agree?

HA: The exhibition was very successful and was visited by hundreds of people. Everything went well until the closing day, when a local official [Mohamed Ali Bouaziz, according to reports in Tunisian media] came to assess certain paintings that he personally found shocking. According to his own testimony [in a television interview], he also shared the images online, adding his own interpretations and warned imams in certain mosques of their supposedly blasphemous nature. That’s what led to the protests against “attacks on the sacred” and the violence that followed.

YR: How would you describe the government’s position on the violence?

HA: The way some members of the government reacted did not fit with the responsibilities they have been charged with. The minister of culture in particular and the minister of religious affairs based their positions – condemning the paintings which they had not even seen – on hearsay and false information that had been spread on the internet. They should have acted more cautiously and responsibly, by first of all checking the accuracy of what they had heard. Instead, they acted with thoughtlessness and flippancy, which encouraged hatred towards artists and intellectuals.

YR: In your view, were any of these works ‘blasphemous’?

We are very worried because we don’t have any protection, and even the cultural ministry, which should be defending us, has abandoned us.

– Héla Ammar

HA: Absolutely not, there were no provocations from the artists. One of the paintings in particular, which represents ants coming out of a child’s schoolbag and forming the name of Allah, is by no means blasphemous. Ants are noble creatures in our religion and are even mentioned in the Quran. The problem is that the artists have been the victims of a revolting media campaign.

A misleading video montage showing a painting has been widely shared online, presenting artists as non-believers. It’s this diffusion of dishonest information and images which has provoked hatred and condemnation from a fringe of society.

YR: Do you think that some artists went too far? Should artists ‘respect cultural norms’, as Rachid Ghannouchi argued?

HA: Artists are free to create and their freedom of expression is indivisible. The concept of national or sacred values is just a pretext to muzzle artists and creativity. These concepts can be interpreted in many different ways, especially the most restrictive, which will ultimately result in Tunisia having official art and dissident art. This is very serious and echoes dark periods in history, such as [the era of] fascism.

YR: How do you view this violent reaction against artists?


One of the works in the exhibition
[Image courtesy of Rabii Kalboussi]

HA: Unjust, unwarranted and disproportionate. It is impossible to believe that a few small paintings exhibited on the edge of a northern suburb of Tunis provoked all this violence across the country. In reality, the artists have been used as scapegoats.

This affair has been entirely manufactured to eclipse more serious issues. We are in the middle of a war between several political movements, with the Salafists and other reactionary movements which are pressuring the present government against moderation and appeasement.

The debates over identity and religion are false problems which distract from a precarious security situation, grave economic and social problems that have not yet been resolved, and a transitional justice system which is proving difficult to set up.

YR: Death threats against some of the artists are being spread online, along with their photos and contact information. How are those artists handling the situation?

HA: What is happening is definitely very serious because the personal details of some artists have been published on extremist [Facebook] pages which have thousands of fans. They are calling for the murder of these artists.

My friends are receiving endless phone calls and insulting messages and death threats. We are very worried because we don’t have any protection, and even the cultural ministry, which should be defending us, has abandoned us.
The minister [of culture] put out a statement condemning the violence and the calls for murder – but that is far from enough, because he has never expressly spoken up in support of artists.

YR: Have you personally been threatened?

HA: Personally I haven’t received any threats, for the simple reason that these extremist pages were based on a list of artists who were not exhibiting at the Abdelya Palace [the main gallery space], but in a smaller, related exhibition.

In saying that, I feel targeted, because we are all the potential targets of this backlash.

YR: There were considerable limits imposed on freedom of expression during the time of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted president. How does that period compare with the current situation for Tunisian artists?

HA: Under Ben Ali, we suffered most of all from self-censorship when it came to tackling political subjects. Now, the censorship is based on religious and moral questions, which has made things even worse.

These latest developments are a windfall for conservative supporters, who are already proposing to incriminate any attack on the sacred. If that happens, all artists and intellectuals will be affected.

Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @YasmineRyan

Source: Al Jazeera