Katharina Pfannkuch
Last updated: 25 June, 2013

Picasso’s Guernica arrives to a Tunisia fighting for artistic freedom

After the revolution in Tunisia, there was hope among artists and people working in the cultural sector: the time of censorship and elitist cultural policy finally seemed to be over. But Tunisian artists face new opponents.

Children are playing and running over the wide grasslands of the Belvedere Park Tunis, women are sitting in the shade of palm trees, they are chatting. Behind the curves of one of the winding sand paths a young couple appears. In the light of the views of park visitors, the two lovers desist from holding each other’s hand, the young woman straightens her veil. “What is that?” she asks her friend, as they pass by a white building, which is surrounded by a small garden. Tall palm trees, dense shrubs and a large sculpture in bright blue can be seen in the garden. After a brief look at the house, her companion shrugs his shoulders – “I have no idea,” he says, and pulls his girlfriend on towards the park’s exit.

Like this young man, many Tunisians do not know what is hidden in the house in one of the most popular parks of the capital. And this although one of the most famous artworks in the world will be on show here soon: Pablo Picasso’s monumental painting “Guernica” is the highlight of an exhibition this summer at the National Center for Modern Art (CNAV). CNAV has been hidden in the simple building in Belvedere Park for over two decades. “In the field of public relations, we have a lot to do,” admits Sana Tamzini, the director of the CNAV which was founded in 1990 under Ben Ali.

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Tamzini took over the director’s position in May 2011 and has a difficult inheritance to accept: “Under Ben Ali, the CNAV had to follow a predetermined line: Only non-political art was allowed, and only a very specific, very elitist audience was addressed,” says the 38 year-old dynamic woman with the dark curls. The masses were not made aware of art. Tamzini wants to change this: On the internet, she makes tirelessly advertising – for the CNAV, but also for other galleries in the country and for art in general.

Conservative forces attempt to nip the revolutionary dynamics in Tunisia in the bud

Even two years after the fall of Ben Ali, art and culture in Tunisia are often reserved to the small elite that can afford to visit the theater, galleries and concerts. In times of crisis, many Tunisians have neither time nor money for culture – if they have both, they go to the cinema. With light fare, people try to distract themselves from the political stagnation and pervasive pessimism in the country. The Tunisian art historian Houcine Tlili is concerned about this development: “Art,” he says gravely, “is as important as ever for our country. It is one of the main instruments of civil society.”

Houcine Tlili is a veteran of the Tunisian cultural landscape: As a critic and university lecturer, every Tunisian who deals with art knows the vigorous Tlili. But not enough people are dealing with art these days, says the elderly, but still dynamic Tlili: “Tunisia is at a crossroad, two camps fighting against each other. On the one hand there is the modern, democratic culture that feels close to Europe. It resists a backward-looking, anti-democratic, Islamist current, which gains more and more influence throughout the country and wants to bind Tunisia on conservative countries like Qatar.”

And what is the role of the arts in this difficult situation? “A crucial one!” Houcine Tlili says out loud. He takes a deep breath and explains: “The revolution made it possible, especially for young Tunisians, to finally express themselves as they want: Critical, loudly, disrespectfully. The so long suppressed creativity formally broke out of the people.”

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In the early days of the revolution in January 2011, countless art projects sprang up like mushrooms: musicians and dancers, painters, actors and writers gave vent to their anger about the old regime and celebrated their hope for a better future. Graffiti appeared in all cities of the country, especially at the Place de la Kasbah in the capital. But only little remain from the art of these optimistic days in early 2011: Unlike in Cairo, where revolutionary graffiti has become indispensable to the streets, most murals were removed in Tunis.

Only briefly after the Tunisians had put Ben Ali to flight – and the way for artistic freedom seemed to be finally open – there were new limits for the artists in the country: hurting religious feelings is the new big taboo – factions of Islamists and Salafis try to establish themselves as a supervisory body. The ubiquitous presence of the new moral arbiters and their proximity to the incumbent government in which the Islamist Ennahda party is holding the majority, has an unsettling impact on artists and people working in the cultural sector.

After an exhibition of several Tunisian artists in Tunis was attacked by Salafis, the Minister of culture Mehdi Mabrouk explained the position of the government clearly to the French newspaper Le Figaro: “Art should be beautiful, but not revolutionary.” The minister was not impressed by the fact that some of the artists received threats after the exhibition. “To ensure the freedom of artists, provocation must be avoided,” said Mabrouk.

While hurting religious feelings leads to fines as well as to imprisonment in Tunisia these days, artists who are in line with the Islamists enjoy greater freedom of expression. The rapper Psyco M calls in his texts on to grab the Kalashnikov, to combat the “Western conspiracy” in Tunisian society, which was veering away more and more from Islamic values. Also, the rapper does not hesitate to attack and insult other artists in the country: He insulted the actress Sawssen Maalej as well as writer Olfa Youssef. Although his victims filed actions against the rapper, Psycho M has been spared from prosecution so far.

Art historian Houcine Tlili is nevertheless optimistic: “In Tunisia, there are 14 art colleges, alone in Tunis 2000 new students have registered last year. The young people want to make art, they want to express themselves.” And these young people need support, adds Tlili. International institutions such as the Goethe Institute and other European cultural institutions are required here, he says. Because not only is the artistic freedom currently poor, but the financial resources are also scarce: only 0.63 percent of the household budget for 2013 flow to the cultural sector.

Protection and development of artistic freedom was an essential element in the development of democracy, explains Tlili. “Europe must not leave alone the young Tunisians with those Islamists. Show them democratic values ​​and let them be part of it – in terms of arts, politics, in all areas of society”, he appeals.

Conservative forces attempt to nip the revolutionary dynamics in Tunisia in the bud. But there is still resistance. Sana Tamzini also adopts a combative approach; she wants to use the crisis as inspiration for artists and as an occasion for the entire cultural industry of the country itself.

“From this negative phase Tunisia is struggling with, a lot positive energy can be created,” she says, almost defiantly while posting another picture on Facebook. After all, Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica” will be shown in her gallery soon – in the white building in the Belvedere Park of Tunis, which so many people pass by every day.  

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