Co-written with Courtney Joline
Angry words and legal threats marked the the final day of the Printemps des Art Fair in La Marsa, after organizers refused to take down art works that were deemed to be offensive by members of the public.
According to Luca Lucattini, the director of the event, a man became upset at a num- ber of works he found to be morally offensive in an exhibition at the Palais Abdellia.
“A man came and he wasn’t happy. He got upset and the guard asked him to leave. He came back with someone who claimed to be a lawyer.”
Lucattini said that the pair, who were joined by a woman, threatened organizers with legal action if the artworks were not taken down by 6pm, at which time they would return in greater numbers.
The controversy became confrontational after the artistic community put out an appeal to supporters to rally at the venue to defend the exhibition, with around 200 people answering the call.
A little after 6pm the complainants returned. Amidst a large crowd of media and supporters of the event they attempted to review the art works, but were forced to leave following a heated confrontation and cries of “dégage.”
Outside the venue a second crowd had gathered, including around 15 protesters dressed in traditional Salafist attire. They were confronted by a larger group of artists. Shortly afterwards police intervened to disperse the crowd amidst angry shouts.
A man who wanted only to be identified as Mohamed Karim was one of a small number of Salafists who came into the exhibition space to view the art.
“I wanted to come to see for myself what was happening,” he said.
However the young man complained that he was unable to see most of the exhibition. “I only saw a few pictures. They [supporters of the event] spoke a lot and I didn’t have a chance to see the other ateliers,” he said.
“They tried to provoke me, thank goodness I didn’t react,” he added.
Wijaya Mahouici, a photographer who was covering the event also said that he was shocked by the reaction of the artists. “They are treating people unfairly. They are provoking people in front of the cameras.”
However, many supporters of the artistic community claimed that the provocation came from the people who initially made the complaint.
Hicham Ben Khamsa said that the opponents of the exhibition “are basically playing games. It’s not an accident that they came on the last day. It is a basic PR move, a photo opportunity.”
Many supporters told Tunisia Live that they were there to promote artistic freedom.
Roaudhia Houidi, a company administrator came to support the event. “We don’t want to move to the past but instead continue down the road to freedom and democracy,” she stated.
Feryel Lakhdar, an artist, said that she had come “to show support for colleagues and freedom of expression.” She added that the concept of artistic freedom was difficult for many people to understand following decades of dictatorship. “ People have to get used to freedom of expression and things that shock and provoke,” she said.
Reports suggest that up to a hundred protesters returned to the Palais Abdellia dur- ing the night to demand the destruction of artworks deemed to be offensive. Tunisia Live could not independently verify this information, nor claims that the protest was broken up by police. A little after 3am, the streets of the beachside suburb of Tunis were calm, however police were maintaining a strong presence in front of the build- ing used to house the exhibition and at least one military vehicle could be seen guarding the entrance.