Censorship Tunisia

After Islamist riots triggered by contemporary art fair, tensions remain high in Tunis

Art world professionals say the Ministry of Culture should do more to safeguard artists

The aftermath of riots in Tunis

Artists in Tunis still feel under threat following protests by hundreds of hard-line Salafi Islamists last month against a number of works shown at the Printemps des Arts contemporary art fair. According to state media, the Islamist demonstrators damaged four works on show in the fair held early last month in the Abdeliya Palace in the northern La Marsa suburb of the capital. The troubles began when a notary distributed images of works at the fair, including a piece which spelt out the words “Sobhan Allah” using insects.

Héla Ammar, a photographer who participated in the fair, says: “We still do not feel safe. Some artists are afraid to return their neighbourhoods for fear of being attacked. Recently a young graffiti artist was caught by a gang of Salafists. We were the victims to begin with; we are now also the main losers."

"Legal proceedings have been initiated by the artists [through the Union of Tunisian artists] who were threatened but they have come to nothing," Ammar adds, pointing out that artists who featured in a parallel exhibition in the nearby B’Chira art centre, an independent venue, were also at risk.

Al Jazeera reported that government officials condemned the artists involved but also denounced the riots; Meriem Bouderbala, an organiser of the Printemps des Arts fair, subsequently told Reuters: “The artists were not expecting this reaction. That is why they feel so fragile. They turned to the government but it is not supporting them so they feel they have hit a wall.” The Ministry of Culture could not be reached for comment. The notary who sparked the tumult, meanwhile, received a fine of around 1,000 dinar ($620) while a police investigation into the controversial works is ongoing.

“The ministry is not interested in contemporary art and a number of Tunisian artists are considering leaving to develop their creativity,” says Khadija Hamdi, co-curator of the recent contemporary art exhibition, “Chkoun Ahna”, at the National Museum of Carthage.

Ammar adds that the Salafi Islamists have not protested further after a security crackdown. But even though the violence has abated, there is rising tension between several commercial spaces located in La Marsa and the ministry of culture. “Private galleries in particular are under threat,” adds Hamdi. The ruling moderate Islamist party Ennahda took power last October following the downfall of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

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