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Tunisians experience new kind of ‘censorship’ in the public domain

2 October 2012

Alice Fordham reports from Tunisia, in an article in the National, on how artists have to deal with new types of censorship after the revolution.

“There were curious sights in the ancient medina of Tunis. Under its black-and-white Ottoman arches people in Superman capes pranced,” reported Alice Fordham from Tunisia

“What a paradox to assert today that it is even more difficult than yesterday to be an artist in Tunisia! After a popular uprising which could (should) have generated more gratitude towards those who prompt public debate and disrupt the codes to arouse questions, we would have liked to declare the opposite.”

These lines are an excerpt of the introduction to the third edition of ‘Dream City’, a (roughly) biennial art festival in Tunisia, showcasing the work of about 100 artists.

The festival’s directors told The National’s reporter Alice Fordham that where they once faced autocratic oppression, they now have to consider the ‘dictatorship of the people’, as hardline Islamists take violent exception to much contemporary art. The government, led by moderate Islamists Ennahda, wavers between arresting men who target artists, and calling for firm anti-blasphemy legislation that could criminalise ‘offensive’ art.

“Under the old censorship and oppression – it was conspicuous; we could locate it; it was clear for us,” said Sofiane Ouissi, who along with his sister, Selma, is the creative director of the festival. “But now, since it was displaced, it has come into the public space, you never know where dictatorship is going to emerge.”

What can, on a good day, seem like a healthy political debate about the identity of the changed nation turns into something far nastier in dark moments such as 14 September 2012, when four people died in riots outside the American embassy over an anti-Muslim film trailer.


Death threats
In another article from June 2012, Alice Fordham wrote about the abstract artist Sana Tamzini who fears for her artistic freedom and her own life. She was at a beach with her children when she received a call on her mobile. “You are a whore,” said a man’s voice. “You are not a Muslim, we must kill you.”

So began dozens of threatening phone calls and text messages that started, she said, when her number and address were published on Facebook on 12 June, along with exhortations by extremists to kill anyone associated with the annual Printemps des Arts festival. Ennahdha issued a statement on their Facebook page proposing the criminalisation of anything that insulted religion.

Sana Tamzini was not the only one threatened. At a meeting of artists and writers in Tunis, many said they had had similar experiences. They were outraged by the extremists, but the focus of their ire was the government, who responded to protests and threats by suggesting that the artists had provoked unrest with paintings that included a rendering of the name of God in a line of ants, and a depiction of a naked woman with a bowl of couscous.

Sana Tamzini told Alice Fordham that she suspected the debate on Islam was a political game designed to distract people’s attention from the stubborn problem of unemployment.



The National – 2 October 2012:
The battle for Tunisia’s art and soul
By Alice Fordham – email: afordham [at] thenational.ae



The National – 20 June 2012:
Tunisian artist fears for her artistic freedom, her country and her life
By Alice Fordham



Official home page of Dream City 2012:
lartrue.com


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