Artistes Tunisiens : Résistance et solidarité

On 28 August, having been summoned by the examining magistrate, Nadia Jelassi finds herself in a room at the Palais de Justice being treated like any other criminal. Given orders to “stand up, turn right, turn left”, she is then measured and forced to undergo a physical examination. Her crime? Disturbing “public order” after having “dared” to exhibit an installation in which two veiled busts appear surrounded by rocks – calling to mind the scene of a stoning. Contrary to the recent announcement of Culture Minister, Mehdi Mabrouk, he will not be the one to prosecute. Instead, the public prosecutor will bring this case to trial.

Interview (Ar) with Nadia Jelassi about the charges pressed against her by the public prosecutor

Another artist, Mohamed Ben Slama was also summoned by the examining magistrate, but he is currently out of the country. He had exhibited the couscous woman painting as well as another in which some ants are seen crawling from a school pupil’s bag to spell out the phrase “Subhan Allah” (Glory to God) on a wall. The two artists could face prison sentences of six months to five years.

Jelassi is a teacher at the School of Fine Art in Tunis and head of the Department of Plastic Arts, the art form in which she herself specialises. She was shocked to hear the examining magistrate ask for her to undergo a physical examination. The magistrate also asked her “what intention [she had] when putting together this installation”. To ask an artist his/her exact intentions is, in Jelassi’s view, wholly unjust. When she got back home, she placed a ruler in front of her face to represent what she had been forced to go through. Her photo is now doing the rounds on Facebook and other social networks.

Nadia Jelassi

Tunisian artists and other members of society have seized upon the idea and have taken similar photos to show solidarity with her cause.

Accused, as Jelassi is, of disturbing public order, all of these other artists, by showing themselves symbolically undergoing the same physical examination, are recognising that they could well by the next in line to be tried under article 121(3) of the Penal Code.

It’s worth remembering that between June 1st and June 10th, no problem or disturbance of any kind was reported to the Palais Abdellia concerning the “Printemps des arts” exhibition in Tunis. It was only after the intervention of two RCDists who encouraged the Salafists to kick up trouble that this whole affair surrounding attacks on sacred values began.

The next day, Tuesday 12 June, at a press conference held at the Palais du gouvernment in Kasbah, ministers from the departments of culture, human rights and religious affairs all set about labeling the work of these artists as “blasphemous” since they were offensive to “sacred values”.

By pointing their collective finger at these “heretic” artists, the ministers effectively gave the green light to the violent scenes that followed. A number of imams were quick to stoke the fire. Hussein Labidi, who preaches at the Zeytouna mosque, three times called for the blood of these artists to be spilt.

On the same evening, Islamists and rioters all joined in this expression of “jihad” with a series of violent attacks on public buildings. A curfew was soon imposed. More than 160 people were arrested only to be subsequently released… The 27 artists who received death threats are still putting together a file of all the necessary documents and evidence in order to press charges. Meanwhile, they live in terror, several among them have moved home after attacks on them and their families.

Interview (Ar) with Amor Ghedamsi, Secretary-General of the Union of the Plastic Arts about the current situation for artists in Tunisia.

You can also read (in french):

Des salafistes détruisent des œuvres artistiques au Palais Abdellia

27 artistes tunisiens ont reçu des menaces de mort

Tunisie : L’indépendance de la justice fait peur aux députés d’Ennahdha

Translated from french by Chritopher Barrie