Tunisia’s tenth annual Printemps des Arts festival, held in La Marsa near Tunis at the beginning of June, has been followed by a wave of hate speech, threats and calls for censorship against contemporary artists.
This edition of the festival took the form of an art fair, with an array of Tunisian contemporary art galleries and artists, including those living abroad, participating. On the final day of the event, an official of the allegedly secular, pro-censorship government visited the fair and photographed artworks he considered to be blasphemous. These were then distributed to ultra-orthodox Islamic organisations, which incited a widespread religious protest against the event and against numerous participating artists.Artists Nadia Jelassi, Héla Ammar and Electro Jaye still receive death threats on a daily basis via social media, SMS and telephone calls. Jelassi’s work, a critique of the orthodox Islamic law that permits the punitive stoning of women by male members of the religious community, has been condemned by Houcine Laabidi, the chairman of the Zitouna Mosque Scientific Committee, as an affront to veiled Muslim women. “That painting [it is actually a sculpture] was disgraceful, accusing veiled, believing women of being adulterous because they pictured them stoned,” Laabidi stated in a recording for the Mosaique FM radio station. At Friday prayers following the Printemps des Arts, Labadi also called for the death of Jelassi and any other artists who produced “provocative” or “blasphemous” works. Although the Ministry of Religious Affairs has distanced itself from Labadi’s statement, there seems to be no equivocation amongst religious and political organisations regarding the rights of artists to freedom of expression. In a parliamentary statement, the government, represented by the political group The Enhada Movement, announced that it would propose a law criminalising “the violation of the sacred”. “Religious symbols are above any mockery, irony or violation,” the statement said, adding that artistic freedom of expression “is not absolute” and should respect the “customs and beliefs of the people”. In response to the continuing hostility towards artists, several of the participants of Printemps des Arts are calling on the international arts community for expressions of support. The group of artists has created an online petition which, it is hoped, will pressurise the Tunisian government to relax its position on censorship.