Salafists and art in Tunisia

Artists wanted to comment on the political struggles and religious undercurrents roughing up Tunisian society. Religious zealots, backed by the state, shut them down.

A trail of ants coming out of a schoolbag forming the words “Glory to God” in the "Printemps des Arts" show in Tunis.

The long running art show, “Printemps des Arts,” held in La Marsa, a wealthier suburb of Tunisia, was the site recently of riots and attacks by Salafi fundamentalists against art that they didn’t like. It all started when, on June 10, on the last day of the exhibition, a government official (referred to as a bailiff) visited the exhibition, took photos and brought them back to show to a mosque populated by Salafist zealots. What followed were calls to attack artists, while photos of the exhibition were circulated on social media. A compilation video of images and text as well as for a recorded statement from Cheikh Houcine Laabidi, an imam at the Zitouna mosque, denouncing the artists involved, were posted on Facebook. Groups of agitators went back later that night and the next night and threw bombs, burned and slashed artworks, as well as contended with police. The government subsequently shut down the exhibition.

If you want o see what all the fuss is about, French newspaper Le Monde put up a gallery of images of the art in the exhibition.

In the wake of the ensuing riots and threats, the Tunisian Union of Artists (SMAP) held a press conference on June 15 to address the attacks. In particular the speakers addressed the comments of the Culture Minster, Mehdi Mabrouk, who had stated before:

Art’s role is to provoke. Sometimes art provokes which is its role. But there is a huge difference between provocation and attacks on religious symbols.

What began as a positive statement by Mabrouk upholding artistic license ended up doubling back on itself and calling into question government assurance of artists’ freedom of speech. In response to this statement, Amor Ghedamsi, head of SMAP, said:

Even though [Mabrouk] has not yet censored artwork, he presented an ideology that paves the way for censorship. This is a conspiracy to brainwash public opinion against artists.”

As the Tunisian artists see it, they are facing increased alienation from their government and from Salafist agitators who, by condemning the artists as infidels, are trying to stir up and use religious sentiment as a means of co-opting a nationalist agenda.

So, how do they plan to fight back? They sent out this statement:

We believe that it is mere idiocy and folly to reduce modern art, as some desire, to a fanaticism for any particular religion, race or nation.

Along these lines we see only the imprisonment of thought, whereas art is known to be an exchange of thought and emotions shared by all humanity, one that knows not these artificial boundaries.

O men of art, men of letters! Let us take up the challenge together! We stand absolutely as one with this degenerate art. In it resides all the hopes of the future.

The lines were taken from Egyptian artist Georges Henein’s manifesto “Long Live Degenerate Art”, signed in 1938 by artists and writers living in Cairo.

Working within an environment of political transition, volatile social conditions, and general unrest contemporary Tunisian artists are facing similar conditions to Egyptian artists of the 1930s and 40s. Though Egyptian artists in the Surrealist movement were reacting against different factors, namely academic painting, the Nazi banning of modernist art in Europe, and nationalist sentiment, their focus on social ills, inequalities, and popular culture as a means of advocating for reform and increased social dialogue, parallels current Tunisian artistic aims and discourse.

But perhaps there is an added element within Tunisian contemporary art that can be found in many of the contested works on display at Printemps, namely the tension that exists between the playful and the serious, especially in the works of a religious nature. Johan Goud (in At The Crossroads of Art and Religion. Imagination, Commitment, Transcendence) argues that “seriousness needs the perspective that play provides to be able to remain itself.” Thus, the unease we may feel in the gap between play (or humor) and seriousness in religious art, permits the needed distance to accrue between the aesthetic contemplation of the work and the subject of the work, which then, in Goud’s opinion, allows for new facets of interpretation that otherwise may be stymied in normal contexts. Take for example the canvas by artist Ismat Ben Moussa portraying a cartoon version of an angry Salafist, replete with smoke fuming from the ears, zombie eyes, and a fang toothed mouth. Normally, religious men are treated and depicted with respect, but here the artist’s mockery of the angry religious zealot pokes fun at the serious political struggles, and religious undercurrents, roughing up Tunisian society.

A second example is the work which depicts a trail of ants coming out of a schoolbag forming the words “Glory to God”. Though considered blasphemous by the rioters, the canvas did not attempt to depict Allah in a figural manner, which is prescribed against in Islamic doctrine. Its message is also in keeping with a section of the Qur’an, the Surat An-Naml (27:16-19). Its playful use of the insect as an artistic medium, calls upon the viewer to re-examine the verse, and the place of the very small, and potential overlooked (who do indeed have a voice, even a female voice!), in society.

In a more democratic not-quite-a-manifesto spirit, The Tunisian collective for Art, Culture and Freedom has created an online petition as their own modern day call to action. The petition lists some of the artworks called into question, addresses the resulting negative attacks against the artists, and appeals for solidarity among fellow artists and the wider media, in an attempt to foster support for freedom of artistic license for all Tunisian artists.

Further Reading

Democracy, Tunisian Style

Tunisia’s President, Ben Ali, wins his fifth election since 1987 by a 99 percent margin after he decided on the candidates who could run against him. Before the result is even out he threatens anyone …