[Update 2: The ruling party has released a statement condemning both the artists and the vandals, calling for both of their prosecutions. See the press statement in English here]
[Update: Only moments after I posted this article more riots broke out in La Marsa. See my take on the most recent events here.]
It only happened yesterday, but already a lot of ink has and will be spilled on the confrontations at a local art fair yesterday in La Marsa, a coastal suburb of Tunis. The situation took place, according to several eyewitness accounts, at the Abdallia Palace, a former Ottoman palace turned gallery in the center of the town. The art fair, on its final day, was the scene of first verbal confrontations, and in the end, the destruction of numerous works of art by what appear to be religious groups who objected to what they deemed to be offensive works. Here are some quick thoughts on the incident and how its been reported in what will surely remain, along with Persepolis, a key event in the Tunisian culture wars.
Firstly, what remains unclear is exactly what was found offensive by the protesters. The La Marsa art fair was held over 10 days throughout the northern Tunis suburbs of La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said. Reports on social networks have been inconclusive. Many have reacted against a work which appears to show a pair of women’s panties, although other sources claim that these photos were taken elsewhere in Tunis and were not part of the exhibitition. The La Marsa bookstore Mille Feuilles reported on its Facebook page that one of the offending pictures was entitled Divine Creatures, in what appears to be an abstract image of different animals. Another image on Tunisia Live’s website shows a punching bag with a woman wearing a veil with a caption reading “I am a Christian woman.” Reports have not mentioned what exactly was deemed offensive by these images or if other images were exhibited that were more outwardly provocative.
Which leads to point number 2, provocation is once again the key word for those who have defended the protesters, including Tunisia’s Islamist-led government. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs released a statement condemning “all attacks against that which is holy, which is the case for some of the works on exhibition.” This follows repeated calls on social networks against violence, but also against the art fair for provoking religious discord in the country. Many of these accounts cited the precarious position Tunisia is in at the present moment as cause for self-censorship of these kinds of works. My readers will recall that the same logic has been used frequently in Tunisia under similar circumstances, such as the release of the film Neither God nor Master last year or the broadcast of Persepolis by Nessma TV last October. In the case of the latter, as in the current case, the call of provocation was also made by the ruling party itself.
Thirdly, the reports are entirely unclear whether protesters and destroyers of art are the same people. Articles have stated that there were at least three different incidences last night. According to Tunisia Live and Nawaat blogger Lilia Weslaty, first a group of people at the exhibit protested directly to the curator of the exhibit. They then said they would return with other protesters and lawyers. When this happened a confrontation took place with exhibit-goers and protesters which was resolved peacefully with police involvement. Finally, later in the evening a group of people returned to the gallery, vandalized works of art, spray painted the buildings, and left. It is unclear whether these were the same groups. This is important because it was only the vandals who clearly crossed red lines.
One other observation is that almost all of the accounts I have seen talk about the behavior of the art fair organizers. It appears that after the initial confrontation, the organizers made it difficult for pious critics of the exhibit to properly view the exhibit. Weslaty reports that these critics were followed closely to “protect the artwork.” Tunisia Live reports that these people felt that those who were following them were trying to “provoke” them. Whatever the reality, the news reports point to what was clearly a class divide between the organizers and the religious activists. It is hardly uncommon to hear among Tunisia’s educated elite how ignorant they think Salafis to be. Likewise, among Salafis, a common refrain is that the elite are completely out of touch with ordinary Tunisians because of their French educations and haughty ways of acting. The reports on these incidents seem to confirm this class of cultures.
So what can we take away from this ugly incident?
Ultimately, what’s important is that this attack was a direct attack on Tunisian multi-cultural, largely secular, and French speaking community. La Marsa, a town built by the French 100 years ago, is one of the few towns in Tunisia where you’ll hear as much French as Tunisian – not only do many foreigners live in La Marsa, but the Tunisian residents have often been educated in one of the French schools in the city. To give an idea, the town of La Marsa has its own polling place for French residents. While previous incidents of this nature have taken place in downtown Tunis or in towns in Tunisia’s interior, Sunday’s incident struck at a pocket of Tunisian progressivism at an event that celebrated free expression. It is unlikely that this event will soon be forgotten and many in La Marsa will no doubt be expecting yet more confrontations of this kind.