Elecktro Jaye, a Tunisian graffiti artist who hoped to have his work displayed at Tunis's Printemps des Arts fair this month at a palace in Tunis, is accusing the fair's organizers of censorship after a potentially provocative work of his was removed from display. Organizers deny the charge, though the spat nevertheless highlights the raw nerves over art and speech in the new Tunisia.
Jaye's artwork, a boldly-colored poster series that features a Star of David, a Christian cross, and a crescent moon, as well as the text, "République Islaïque de Tunisie" ("The Islamic Republic of Tunisia"), could be taken as a deliberate slight to Ennahda, the once-banned moderate Islamist political party that won a plurality of the parliamentary vote following the 2011 Tunisian revolution. “One of the organizers told me that he was receiving pressure from the State to take down my artwork because it was too politically engaging and might cause problems,” the artist told the Tunisian news site Tunisia Live. He also claims that other "independent artists" removed works from the Printemps des Arts in solidarity.
Not everyone accepts Electro Jaye's claims, however. Sadok Hendaoui, one of the fair's organizers, insists that the dispute arose out of a benign misunderstanding. “We have more controversial artwork exhibited and we have no intention of removing it,” Hendaoui told Tunisia Live, insisting that the work's removal stemmed from a wish to keep art in the fair out of the patio area. Other works containing more direct references to Ennahda and Salafism were allowed to remain on display. Fellow artist Zied Ben Chiekh, aka ZED, also weighed in to call Jaye's response extreme, branding his work as "unnecessary provocation."
Whatever the case, the scuffle at the Printemps fair stands as a reminder of the delicate state of cultural affairs in the post-Arab Spring Tunisia. Last October, when a Tunisian TV station aired the film "Persepolis," Salafists accused the station of heresy, and a mob burned down the home of one of its executives. A similar mix of anger and elation greeted the Tunisian incarnation of the project titled "INSIDE OUT: Artocracy in Tunisia," which places the faces of ordinary people in public spaces usually reserved for presidents. "After 50 years of silence, people are willing to discuss, to talk, to challenge your ideas," Marco Berrebi, one of the photographers in the "Artocracy" project, told Al-Jazeera. "If people want to tear them down, or write something on them, that's part of the project, that's okay."
UPDATE: An observant reader has pointed out that "République Islaïque de Tunisie" does not translate directly to "The Islamic Republic of Tunisia." The word "islaïque" is in fact a combination of the word "Islam" with the word "laïque," which means "laic" or "secular."