Faced With Violence and Censorship, Tunisian Artists Launch Urgent Petition Calling for International Solidarity

Faced With Violence and Censorship, Tunisian Artists Launch Urgent Petition Calling for International Solidarity
Demonstrators rioting in Tunis, Tunisia
(Getty Images)

Artists in Tunisia have begun circulating a petition calling for international solidarity from arts organizations in condemning the country's government for censoring an art exhibition and siding with Salafist Islamic fundamentalists following riots incited by an art fair in the capital city. 

After the 10th edition of a Tunisian art fair, "Printemps des arts," which featured work from several local galleries as well as a curated exhibition of works by independent Tunisian artists, thousands of protesters took to the streets in the worst wave of violence since the 2011 revolts that ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and began what would become the Arab Spring. Among the works the extremists objected to was Nadia Jelassi's "Celui qui n'a pas...," which includes sculptures of veiled women in the midst of a pile of stones. Another work featured a string of ants coming out of a child's schoolbag to spell the word "Allah." The primarily fundamentalist mob threw rocks and homemade bombs, set fires, destroyed many of the artworks at the exhibition at the Abdelliya Palace, and clashed with police, according to Reuters

The petition, however, is not directed at the fundamentalists that incited the violence, but the moderate Islamist government that has since backed the Salafists and shut down the fair, even after many of the artists began receiving death threats via phone, text message, and social networking sites. The text reads, "M. Mehdi Mabrouk, Minister of Culture, contributed to blacklisting of creators by deciding to close the space Abdelliya and by suing the organizers of the exhibition, thus exposing the artists to popular condemnation and trial by the mob."

Tunisia's union of visual artists, one of the groups involved with circulating the petition, state that they intend to sue three ministers, including Mabrouk, and are asking that as many visual arts organizations as possible get involved, sign the petition, and issue press releases condemning the Tunisian government. According to the news site Tunisia Live, the union also called on Mabrouk to resign, after he called the fair sacrilegious and said, "It’s enough for art to be beautiful, it shouldn’t be revolutionary." 

According to the account in the petition, the violence began after one man (allegedly a local official named Mohamed Ali Bouaziz) came to the exhibition on the last day and took photos of works he believed to be blasphemous. The photos were picked up by a group of fundamentalist Salafists, who then posted a montage on Facebook, inciting the riots across Tunis and causing many of the artists involved to receive death threats. According to the Tunisian artists, the Facebook album included works that had never even been exhibited in Tunisia in addition to those that were objectionable at the exhibition.

As an ironic footnote, ARTINFO reported earlier in June that one Tunisian graffiti artist, Elecktro Jaye, accused Printemps des arts's organizers of censorship, claiming his work was taken down because of its overtly political message. At the time, Sadok Hendaoui, one of the organizers, said the idea of self-censoring the show was ridiculous, pointing out that there were many more overtly political works that were left on display (including the Jelassi work that later helped fuel the uproar).