Tunisia’s ground zero for creative freedom

8 October 2012

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The ‘Nadia Jelassi’ affair has become a stake, a symbol of the successful democratic transition of the Tunisian revolution, and could represent ground zero for individual freedoms in the country that in late 2010 sparked off a world geopolitical earthquake.


IT’S 2012 IN TUNISIA and artist Mohamed Ben Slama and visual artist Nadia Jelassi, lecturer and head of department at the Tunis Institut Supérieur des Beaux Arts, have been charged with causing a breach of the peace and face prison sentences of between six months and five years. What are now known as the ‘El Abdelleya events’ were first presented by commentators as a violent, disproportionate reaction by certain fanatics wounded in their religious sensibilities by works that could be seen as provocative. But the affair is looking increasingly political, with artists and freedom of artistic expression becoming collateral damage.
The ‘Nadia Jelassi’ affair has become a stake, a symbol of the successful democratic transition of the Tunisian revolution, and could represent ground zero for individual freedoms in the country that in late 2010 sparked off a world geopolitical earthquake. For a better understanding of the actors and stakes in this affair, and helped by the artist in question, we show what really happened.

The official story
It all started on 10 June 2012, the day the annual Printemps des Arts (Springtime of the Arts) exhibition, now in its 10th year, where both accepted artists and young hopefuls meet, closed its doors. Mohamed Ali Bouazizi, a court attendant, noticed how much rubbish had accumulated around the exhibition, and ‘acting as someone politically responsible in the area’ (he said) asked the janitor to clean up; he looked round the various exhibits. He photographed some paintings he judged ‘religiously offensive’ and showed them to people praying at a La Marsa mosque, La Marsa being a small seaside town in the northern suburb of Tunis. With Bouazizi accompanying them, they went straight to the El Abdelleya gallery and ordered the organisers to remove the offensive works, threatening otherwise to return early that evening with a great crowd of people to destroy them. When the organisers refused to listen, and were joined by about a hundred people mobilising in support of the artists, they quickly scattered and left.
The following day saw an unprecedented wave of violence shake many of Tunisia’s towns, requiring energetic reaction by the police, who arrested several dozen assailants, and killed a demonstrator known to belong to the Wahhabi movement. For several days a curfew was imposed.

The hidden story
Unlikely as this may seem, in a land whose people are known for their particularly peaceful and friendly temperament, certain points do indicate that something else lies behind these facts.
Firstly, when he appeared in court, Bouazizi was unable to explain exactly what ‘political responsibility’ he had for cleaning up the town. According to some commentators, he had been a very active member of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (the RCD) – the party of the former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Although this has not been totally confirmed, Bouazizi himself said on a private Tunisian TV channel that he was a member of the Movement of Social Democrats (MDS), an RCD satellite which had systematically supported Ben Ali by calling for people to vote for him instead of its own candidate.
Next, the timing. 12 June coincided almost exactly with the handing down of the verdicts that cleared Moncef Laâjimi (former head of the action squad), Moncef Krifa (head of the security apparatus for the Head of State and official persons) and Khaled Ben Saïd (former Jendouba police superintendent) of responsibility in the cases of the Thala and Kasserine martyrs, killed during the popular uprising of December 2010-January 2011. These verdicts set off waves of violent protest in Kasserine and Thala but were given little media attention, in fact were drowned out by the preceding violence.
Finally, the quasi-military organisation and heterogeneity of the assailants who had burned down several public buildings, including a court and a police stations according to our sources at the Ministry of the Interior confirm that these men were ‘people who would not usually mix: religious fanatics, notorious delinquents and ex-jailbirds’.
These facts leave little room for doubt as to the premeditated, political nature of the affair. The artists seem to have been collateral victims of a political power struggle.
So why is Nadia Jelassi facing a five-year prison sentence? Her only ‘crime’ was a work exhibited at the 2012 Printemps des Arts exhibition in the El Abdelleya gallery. ‘Let him who has not’ shows two sculptures of veiled women emerging from piles of stones that bring to mind a stoning. Although this punishment was never advocated by the Koran, it is still current in countries with Muslim majorities which claim to enforce sharia law (Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), and along with the issue of the veil, which has monopolised public debate in Tunisia since the flight of the dictator, has inspired the work and life of this committed artist.

Influenced by images
Nadia Jelassi says: “There are many ways of being an artist: I’d go so far as to say that there are as many ways as artists… Each in his own way, intersecting and sometimes opposing, brings his own vision of or sensitivity to the world he’s working in. Artists aren’t exclusive, they can use traditional materials like wood or marble or non-tangible materials like sound and light; in each case, the social and political can become sources of artistic provision. To get back to the question, I would say that I’m an artist who lets her self be influenced by images that don’t necessarily come from the artistic world. As an artist living and working in Tunisia, I obviously can’t be indifferent to what is happening. My studio isn’t watertight and I am as yet neither blind, deaf or dumb. So I am an artist, like many others, who interacts with everyday images and materials however tense. Today, simultaneously, in different parts of the planet, we can instantaneously see the same images. Satellite channels, social networks, and internet generally have de facto brought about an iconographical globalisation. So as an artist I find myself faced by an inexhaustible source of images, a never-ending source of new materials. My interaction with my social and political environment, now ranging further than narrow geographic borders allowed, is nothing new in my artistic development. People who know me, who have watched how my work develops, know this. My last personal exhibition (in November 2010) was called ‘Breaking with the establishment’. At that time, using the chair as a piece of furniture through drawing and collage…and an image bank including a pack of cards and advertising catalogues for big brand names in Tunisian supermarkets, I tried to translate in sculptural terms different manifestations of power (political, scientific, legal, medical etc.) The issue of the veil as a piece of cloth and a discourse informing a particular status of women’s bodies also recurs in my work.”

Identified the wrong enemy
On June 12, in the thick of the action, using fake images on Facebook, politicians condemned those artists who ‘touched on holy issues’. Unsurprisingly, the President of the al-Nahdha Party used the occasion to urge his troops and public opinion to make this constitutional by calling it an ‘attack on religion’, even launching a petition with over 80 signatures on 21 June; what did come as a surprise was that the President of the Republic, Moncef Marzouki, and of the Constituent Assembly, Mostapha Ben Jaafar, also unanimously condemned the artists. But the real shock was that the man who should have defended culture and creativity, the Minister of Culture Mehdi Mabrouk, quickly condemned the artists and said he would lodge a complaint against the Printemps des Arts organisers. He immediately closed the gallery.
“The politicians who publicly condemned the artists on prime time television hadn’t even seen the exhibition. I admit that many artists were specially affected by the Minister’s words. By condemning the artists and perhaps this is the other side of the coin, he abandoned his true role and function: promoting and protecting art and artists.
Now seen as a minister who censures, an enemy of culture, he even presented himself as an art critic at the press conference when he railed against the ‘mediocre self-taught people who have nothing to do with art’, blaming them for the crisis, since ‘art shouldn’t be revolutionary, it must be beautiful’,’’ says Nadia Jelassi.
Unjustly condemned on the grounds of false evidence by three ministers (the Human Rights, Religious Affairs and Culture Ministers) at that sadly memorable press conference, many of the exhibiting artists have received death threats. The preacher at the Tunis Great Zitouna Mosque called for their blood. But the Tunisian artists didn’t let themselves be intimidated. They reacted quickly: on 18 June, 27 acted to lodge a complaint against the three ministers they hold responsible for the danger they are in.

Brushes with the law
A few days after the events, Nadia got a call from the police judiciary informing her that an investigation had been opened on the ‘El Abdelleya events’. The political underside of the case was obvious. “Nobody lodged a complaint against me,” said Nadia. “It was the State Prosecutor, the representative of the Justice Minister who opened the case.”
Two months later, 17 August, Nadia was called to the Tunis Court of First Instance where the examining magistrate of the second office told her she was charged with ‘breach of the peace and moral standards’ under Article 121.3 of the Penal Code (inherited from 2001 under the former dictator, it had been used to send human rights activists and political dissidents to the torture chambers).
On 28 August, Nadia was back in the courts, posing for anthropometric photos. “I could have been back under the Inquisition,” she told Human Rights Watch. “The examining magistrate asked me what were the intentions behind my works at the exhibition and whether I’d wanted to provoke people through my work.”
We decided to ask her some questions.

Freemuse: Nadia, did you want to ‘provoke’ by your Printemps des Arts installation in a sensitive revolutionary context?

Jelassi: “Well before the 14 January revolution I made and exhibited several kinds of portrait that I called ‘Textile portraits: ‘Let he who has not’ ’. So the June 2012 El Abdelleya installation showed artistic continuity. The novelty was in the materials used and how they were arranged. Unlike my textile portraits, which are a bit like pictures, the installation – ephemeral – is three-dimensional. People move around it. Pebbles, partly covered with newspaper, surround three female busts in resin ‘clothed’ with uniform brown veils to form a disc two metres in diameter. Let’s say it’s a scene bringing into a relationship objects with marked connotations. I just had to do it. Unlike what I used to do, it was not nuanced. I needed to shout, to express something raw. But I don’t think I sacrificed sculpture. What was remarkable about the last Printemps des Arts – and I must stress this – was that without any prior agreement a lot of artists needed each in his own way to shout the same thing.”
Back home, criminalized, she photographed herself with a ruler on her face to show her humiliation and posted it on Facebook. Artist friends did the same in support. The campaign spread quickly, and anonymous or famous surfers took up the cause, posting photos of themselves with rulers or tape-measures. Willis, awarded the Cartooning for Peace prize, showed her famous cat with a transparent ruler and caricaturist Lotfi Ben Sassi dedicated his weekly ‘Bok Bok’ drawing to Nadia. ‘Art has only one rule: freedom.’
Visual artist Rachida Amara sent a message with her photo: ‘Rule by show of hands against imposed rules’.
Actress Leila Toubel was snapped by Mohamed Ben Mustapha hanged by a ribbon tape-measure. ‘My freedom will never be begged for – I’ll seize it.’ A vast campaign got under way in protest against artistic censorship and for freedom of creation and expression in Tunisia.

Wind of change – and politicians change too
On 3 September 2012, Human Rights Watch, alerted by the support campaign, called for all proceedings against the artists in the El Abdelleya case to be dropped. Eric Goldstein, Deputy Head of the NGO’s Middle East and North Africa division, stated that “the Tunisian prosecutors should abandon the charges against both sculptors for works of art deemed to be breaches of the peace and moral standards. Criminal proceedings against artists for works of art that do not incite to violence or discrimination violate the right to freedom of expression. So often, prosecutors have used penal law to stifle critical or artistic expression.”
The next day saw a turnaround by the Minister of Culture. At a press conference he announced that he ‘fully supported the artists’ and that sixteen people had been taken to court for acts of violence linked to the case. His ministry had lodged five complaints against people who had hampered artistic events and shows in Ramadan.
24 hours later the spokesman for the President, Adnene Manser, said on a private radio station: “The Presidency is against proceedings being taken against the artists and we are against legal proceedings where freedom is expression is concerned.”
The Culture Minister met with Amor Ghedamsi, Secretary General of the Union of Tunisian Visual Artists, Nadia Jelassi and Samir Triki, head of the Tunis Beaux Arts, to discuss the following points: “The Culture Ministry’s support for the freedom of creation and of artists, its trust in justice that can but guarantee the freedom of art and artists, and that the legal system should support Nadia Jelassi and Mohamed Ben Slama, the Ministry’s wish to work with the Union so that the Abdelleya gallery open its doors again for artists in all freedom.”

Although in their official discourse the politicians seem to be competing to win back a public opinion that has sided with the creators, Nadia believes that action is lacking and that the underside of the case has still not been made clear: “Today the Culture and Human Rights Ministers seem – and I say seem – at least in certain public declarations but not yet at the level of facts to have retracted. Although their discourse is positive there has not yet been any concrete action. But today I have difficulty decoding the underside of this case that I see as a total fabrication. I find it hard to make out the deeper reasons why I was summoned by the examining magistrate and charged. I find it hard to understand why they subjected me to the anthropometry test. I remind you that I am still being investigated and I am a defendant.”
A political case? Dark dealings at the top? Political opportunism? Or religious touchiness? Whatever, a single truth emerge from the above: in free Tunisia, artists and citizens are struggling hand in hand against an attack on something that we all hold sacred: freedom.


Kerim Bouzouita is a Tunisian-French Journalist, University Professor (HSDE Tunis, University Paris 8, Loyola University of Chicago) and Human Rights Activist, expert in cyber-dissent and advocacy.

Courtesy of the artist.

The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Freemuse.

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