Political opposition in Tunisia : obligatory but impossible

Turmoil surrounding the destruction of artworks in Tunisia has suddenly illumined contemporary art as a site for resistance. Yet the international art world is far from understanding the true nature of such rebellion.

Annabelle Boissier
9 July 2012

The events of the night of June 10 raise various questions. Individuals infiltrated the Palais El-Abdelia where the Spring contemporary art fair was held, destroyed three artworks and above all threatened death to the artists and their families, in the name of religion. The artists and the people in charge of the exhibit, who had opposed the taking down of some artworks before the opening, were far from imagining the sacle of reaction that would follow. Considering the violence that ensued, going way beyond the artworks, they later regretted that no other solution had been found. Censorship is nothing new in the country, but the revolution has brought about a new freedom of action, and raised hopes in some quarters that the page had finally been turned. Artists, like other citizens, participated in the prostests that led to Ben Ali's fall. They initiated actions such as Art in the Street – Art in the Neighbourhood, often seen as an obvious example of the new-found freedom. They were asked to bear direct witness to events by the Montpellier Biennale. They were given more visibility, as shown by the increased number of pages dedicated to Tunisia in Nafas Art Magazine: artists' profiles, conferences and exhibits announcements were everywhere. Another instance of this interest is the media coverage received by artist JR's project involving six Tunisian photographers. After the revolution, new artistic associations were created and the directors of universities or artistic institutions too much involved in Ben Ali's regime were speedily dismissed.

What has happened since?

The acts of violence committed by followers of Ben Ali's regime in the weeks that followed the revolution drove the population to stay indoors. Fear mingled with the desire to keep mobilized, and still later weariness took over. One of the key moments in this reversal of the situation was when the Kasbah Square was evacuated, as witnessed by a small group of artist friends. As they were going out to eat, they noticed large riot control forces in the neighbouring streets. They wondered whether they should return to the square, and a soldier overhearing their conversation advised against it. Soon the army withdrew to make room for the police. People were in shock. The army was considered an ally of the population while the police, so powerful under Ben Ali, was its exact opposite. There had been many pictures of smiling Tunisians of every age standing next to soldiers in front of tanks. And now this ally was making way for the former enemy. So the police regained control of the square in front of the Prime Minister's office. Shortly afterwards, the walls were spotless again, graffiti disappearing alongside the families of farmers who had settled there.

Mistrust returned full fetlle, speech became less free, including during the protests. Why was this so ? It's hard to say. The first event in the art world that I heard of was a meeting of artists, curators and journalists that outraged many of my interlocutors. Some people spoke out, while those who were not on the platform listened. « I will not go back to these meetings », said several of them, « why should I? ». It gradually became obvious that while the people who had been closest to the regime had fallen, which was a good thing, the others, those who had a little power and were already figures of the local art world, had not. Today, they continue to define the value of artworks by virtue of the « small historical events » that they have organised in the past. The people who organise exhibits and participate in them are the same, like those who sell or buy artworks. There is nothing surprising about this, except that their influence on the art world has only increased as they were largely sought after on the international scene by those who wanted to understand what was taking place in Tunisia.

The failure of the international art world to support Tunisian opposition

In this case as in others that have gone before, a radical regime change does not imply the replacement of individuals, whatever turmoil it generates. This was one of the debates that followed the revolution. Who was going to rule the future government? Who has the necessary experience to manage the state apparatus? It is no different for the art world and the other spheres of society. Those who had managed to build a professional reputation before by avoiding compromise with the regime received too much attention thereafter. But soon the artists became annoyed at being instrumentalized, refusing to respond to foreigners' requests and to being involved in the plethora of events. It was difficult too for those who were abroad for political, economical or family reasons and who came back in the hope of participating in the history being written. « They make sure that capable people don't exist », this was not said under Ben Ali but one year after the revolution.

The international art world also bears some responsibility since it requested from the artists an immediate and provocative reaction to the political events which they were unable to offer. During the long years of the dictatorship, Tunisian artists have achieved something else : another way to be involved in politics, a more subtle form of opposition and perhaps above all a form of self-censorship that is integrated by individuals to protect themselves. The failure to replace experts, the achievement of freedom of expression followed by its loss, and the long-time acquisition of self-censorship all contribute to reinforcing interdependency between the artistic sphere and the political one. This is all the more true in the contemporary art world where an artist's status is constituted by concomitant recognition on the national and international scene.

And in fact, to recognize Tunisian artists, the international scene should have taken the time to acknowledge their indirect opposition to the regime. Understanding this subtlety required putting it into words. Spelling out the political subtext would have condemned the actions of these artists locally and hampered their collaboration. The latter is however necessary to set up a coherent collective action to create specific Tunisian aesthetic values. This mutual understanding which generates trust between the local and international actors is necessary to their collaboration. For this reason, international actors who required explicitly from Tunisian artists an open political opposition both to Ben Ali's regime and to a government that is contemplating permanently dismissing the separation of church and state, are as much responsible for the destruction of the artworks on June 10 as the Salafis.


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