Art show riot reflects religious divide in new Tunisia

Wed Jun 27, 2012 10:28am EDT
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By Lin Noueihed

TUNIS (Reuters) - The artist agreed to be interviewed but asked not to be named. Picking up a piece of work vandalized by Islamist zealots at a recent arts fair in a suburb of Tunis, she said: "Don't describe it or people will know who I am."

Tunisian artists have gone to ground since Salafi Islamists broke into Abdeliya Palace on June 10 and destroyed a handful of works at the Printemps des Arts fair to protest against art they deemed insulting to Islam, then ran riot for days.

One of the most controversial works on display was an installation depicting veiled women as punching bags. Another showed veiled women in a pile of stones, a comment on the stoning of adulteresses in Islam. The work that caused most anger spelt the words "Sobhan Allah" or "Glory to God" in ants.

While condemning the violence, which killed one person, the culture and religious affairs ministers also criticized the artists for crossing the shifting limits of free expression.

Tempers have since calmed. But the incidents were the latest to raise fears among secular intellectuals that the freedoms won when last year's revolt ousted secular dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali are slowly being circumscribed by religious mores imposed by zealots, not the once-feared police.

"Under the old regime, if you didn't touch on Ben Ali or those that surrounded him, you were alright," said the artist. "Now, the definition of what is forbidden is expanding and it could include anything because art is about interpretation.

"They are targeting the people who ask questions, the intellectuals ... anyone who can think and make others think. Journalists, students, artists. Maybe we represent a danger and will push others to refuse something or maybe we don't correspond to their model of the Tunisian."

The artists' union has threatened to sue the ministers, and a petition to support Tunisian artists is circulating online, but the tight-knit community has been careful not to draw attention to those whose work was on display after a listing of artists' names on Facebook caused deep anxiety.   Continued...

Riot police chase after protesters in the Ettadhamen district of the capital Tunis in this June 12, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi/Files