By Adam Le Nevez and Ikram Lakhdhar
The artistic community in La Marsa is counting the cost after a major collective exhibition was targeted by a group of individuals last night, resulting in the destruction of several pieces of art.
Tensions mounted yesterday at the Printemps Des Arts Fair when it was accused by several people of exhibiting works deemed to be morally offensive. Several hundred people answered a call by organizers to show support for the exhibition, largely outnumbering a group of around 20 people who had come to oppose it. After heated discussion the two groups were separated by police peacefully.
Yosr Ben Ammar, whose gallery featured targetted artworks, confirms that the police were doing their job and they confiscated some of the artworks exhibited in her gallery’s stand at the fair in order to calm the heated tensions. “Salafists were threatening to burn down the whole place. We should be grateful to the police.”
Late yesterday evening, however, a much larger group of people gathered in the beachside suburb to march on the exhibition space – the state-owned cultural centre known as the Palais Abdellia.
A woman who only wanted to be identified as Ymen told Tunisia Live that she wit- nessed the gathering at around 12.30am Monday morning.
“Last night I was here – I came because a friend called me. It was very scary. People were shouting takfir [miscreant] in my face. They were very threatening.”
She described a scene of hundreds of people, some brandishing swords, who turned on a small contingent of police.
“They were throwing rocks at the police. I was very afraid. I ran to the car and locked the door,” she said.
Ymen added that the crowd was mostly young and were not dressed in Salafist attire.
An unknown number of people managed to gain entry to the building where a number of artworks were subsequently destroyed.
At least two paintings were slashed amongst which was Lamia Guemara’s Bleu De Prusse and a photograph as well as a sculpture were thrown on top of the roof of the building while a major installation in the courtyard, Punching Ball by Faten Gaddes, was taken out of the palace and burned outside.
Paolo Perelli, the artistic director of the 10-day event said that when he arrived this morning he saw a group of 4 or 5 “Salafists” writing graffiti on the walls of the venue and immediately went to the police.
Freshly written messages in Arabic could be read including “Let God Be the Judge”, “Tunisia is an Islamic State, with the license of the Ministry of Culture, the Prophet of Allah gets insulted,” and “Hey you infidels, Ennahda, Tahryr and Salafist are brothers.”
A video circulating on social media sites shows a num- ber of artworks deemed to be offensive. The video starts with a phrase saying, “Tomorrow all followers of Islam should rise in anger to defend Islam.” In what could be construed as a veiled threat, other images show the faces of people who produced or supported the works including intellectual Aissam Chabbi, lawyer Bochra Belhaj Hmida, and politician Najib Chabbi. At the end, the video presents the names of artists involved in the fair indicating their indignation to provoke Salafist and Muslims in general.
Shock and recriminations
In the immediate aftermath of the event many members of the tightly-knit artistic community in La Marsa were questioning how the Printemps Des Arts Fair, now in its 11th year, could have become so polemicized so quickly.
Meriem Bouderbala, the fair’s commissioner, pointed the finger at organizers who “made such a buzz that we were noticed [by religious conservatives].” She was one of several people Tunisia Live spoke to who were critical of the way in which yesterday’s events were handled.
By calling in large numbers of supporters, the artistic community was able to make a show of force. However because of this, they were unable to conduct a dialogue with those who were offended, leading to a widening of the gulf between the two positions, she suggested.
“It’s fascism against fascism,” Bouderbala said, complaining about the way in which a number of Salafists were forced from the gathering yesterday without being able to view the art or talk to the artists.
“We don’t have a monopoly on democracy. It’s not a fight of one against another. People say intolerable things but we have to be able to respond to this intelligently,” she argued.
The artist Ymen had a similar argument, without criticizing the organizers. “What happened yesterday afternoon can only increase the divide. Each group is as bad as the other.”
Lilia Ben Salah, the owner of a private gallery also regretted the turn of events. “I’m not afraid but we are no longer reassured,” she stated.
Several people, including organizers and gallery owners who were exhibiting work at the event have reportedly made formal complaints to the police over the matter.
Samir Massoudi a press attaché at the Ministry of Culture, the government body re- sponsible for authorizing the exhibition, said that the Ministry was investigating what happened and would release a report tomorrow.
Tunisia Live attempted to get in contact with Salafists who were present at the exhibition yesterday evening, but was unable to do so. The Ministry of the Interior was also unavailable for comment.
Additional reporting on Tunis Printemps Des Art Fair See also our article on the events in the afternoon of Sunday June 10 that sparked the trouble.