Under New Regime Tunisian Artists Face New Censorship


Vandalized artworks at the Printemps des Arts fair in La Marsa, Tunisia, subsequent riots, and statements made by Tunisian government and religious officials have aroused international concern about freedom of creative expression in postrevolutionary Tunisia.

On June 10, a group of Salafi Muslims visited the art fair and wrecked several artworks that they deemed sacrilegious, and posted images of others online. Among the offensive artworks were a wall installation in which small antlike figures were mounted to spell “God” in Arabic; a painting of a nude woman with a bowl of couscous for a pubic triangle; and a sculptural installation of several female mannequin busts, cloaked in hijablike garments, surrounded by stones.

An imam from the Zitouna Mosque in Tunis, the city’s central place of worship, censured artists for overtly offending Islam, and called for their death. Artists whose work was criticized have received death threats from Islamists around the world.

In a public statement, Tunisian minister of culture Mehdi Mabrouk condemned the artists for invoking sacred Islamic imagery. He dismissed political artwork generally, saying that art should be “beautiful,” not “revolutionary.”

Mabrouk’s position is ironic, given the active participation of Tunisia’s cultural community in the Jasmine Revolution, in early 2011.

Artists in Tunisia feel that Mabrouk’s response demonstrated the government’s bias toward Islamists, and alienated the artistic community from the generally moderate Muslim Tunisian majority. Tunisian artist Amel Ben Attia, who spoke with A.i.A. from Tunis about the recent events, said of Mabrouk, “He abandoned us.”

Ben Attia expressed her opinion, shared by other Tunisian artists, that Mabrouk is under pressure from the provisional government and Salafists to defend Islam as the National Constituent Assembly authors the country’s new constitution. Another Tunisian artist, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, who spoke with A.i.A. from Paris last week, explained that Salafists pose a more serious threat to Tunisian democracy than their minority status in the country suggests; while Salafists are an extremist faction in Tunisia, they have the support of an international network of Islamists.

Mabrouk’s comments, and talk of an amendment to the new constitution that would censor artwork deemed anti-Islam, indicate the provisional government’s increased conservatism.

Before the attacks, in the aftermath of the revolution, artists had begun to enjoy greater creative freedom, as well as new opportunities to exhibit work and increased attention from the international art world. Former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was notorious for censoring the media and cultural community during the 23 years he held office. Speaking from Paris last week, Tunisian artist Ines Jerray said that, under Ben Ali, “We always had to censor ourselves. But it was about the political, not the religious. Now it’s double—it’s about the political and the sacred. As if Tunisian artists didn’t already deeply respect the sacred.”

Jerray continued, “The good thing about it is that it made people react . . . it revealed the true position of the government over the question of art.”

Sana Tamzini, one of the Printemps des Arts artists who has received death threats, and the director of the Tunisian Ministry of Culture’s Centre National d’Art Vivant, expressed a similar sentiment-that the controversy has provoked important discourse: “There are many conversations about interpretation. This is the first time this is happening.” Jerray recalled that such discussion was not possible under Ben Ali. Now, she said, “at least people can talk.”

Aaron Cezar, who directs the Delfina Foundation, which has helped distribute a petition that Tunisian artists authored to request international support, also emphasized the importance of public conversation in an e-mail he sent to A.i.A. from London: “The Tunisian government must not succumb to the extremist views of any party, sect, or group; however, there must be some level of dialogue because that is what democracy is about.”