Street artists under fire in Tunisia

“Our theatre is the street,” said Nasreddine Ben Maâti, President of Eich el-Fan (“live the art” in English), a young association dedicated to street art. “Tunisian citizens are boycotting theaters and cinemas so we decided to go for the people instead of them coming to us,” he added.

Their goal is to tour Tunisia and perform in the streets of the interior and marginalised regions, where the wave of protests that toppled the 23 year rule of President Zeine el-Abidin Ben Ali began.

On 22 March, the association organized an artistic event named Occupy Bourguib Art Street on the capital’s main avenue (Habib Bourguiba Avenue). It was not long before police intervened to disperse the young artists playing music, dancing and drawing graffiti. “Two police officers came toward us and asked us to leave, they were saying what we are doing was prohibited, and told us to go home”, Nasreddine told Index. “They only know two expressions: it is prohibited, and go home”, he added.

The artists refused to leave, and police used to tear gas to disperse them. A photographer who was filming police physically abusing an artist drawing graffiti on the floor was arrested and held for one hour. In the police station, he was beaten by four police officers, according to the association.

On the same day, Wissem Khemiri, a graffiti artist and member of the association Live the Art was taken to a police station when a general in the army spotted him drawing graffiti on the wall of a Tunis art school. The content of the graffiti seems to have irritated this general and opened some old wounds: Khemiri’s drawing was dedicated to Abd el-Aziz Skik, an army general who is believed to have been murdered following an order from former President Ben Ali. Khemiri was suggesting that some figures in the army collaborated with the former regime to kill Skik — on the graffiti, he wrote “the betrayed general”. He was freed the same day of his arrest, but the army general who arrested him accused him of “assaulting the dignity of the national army”.

The struggle of artists who choose to perform in the streets did not end there. On 25 March the Tunisian Association for Art Graduates, in collaboration with Live the Art  and many more associations organised a cultural manifestation named “the People Want Theatre”, to celebrate World Theatre Day.

Tunisian artists and actors who gathered outside the capital’s main theater to take part in the event were assaulted. This time, however, the assaulters were right wing extremists, and the events occurred under the eyes of police.

“Police officers were watching, they only intervened four hours later,” said Lobna Noomene, a singer  who witnessed the incident .

A Salafi extremist hit her on her head while she was rushing to get inside the theatre. “It is not the physical assault that hurts, but what really hurts is how someone has the courage to unfairly assault someone else ,” she told Index.

Artists in Tunisia have fears about the rise of ultra-conservative forces that seek to ban art works that they deem insulting to the values of Islam. On 26 June 2011, ultra-conservative protesters attacked a movie theatre that was airing Neither God nor Master, a film by Tunisian director Nadia el-Fani. The film’s name was later on changed to Secularism by God’s Willing. Meanwhile, the CEO of Nessma TV is currently on trial over the airing of the French-Iranian film Persepolis.

For Noomene, the ministries of interior and culture are to blame too. She explains:

For Salafists, everything is haram [forbidden]. But, the Interior Ministry should take responsibility for what happened, it should not have allowed for two events that are ideologically antagonist to take place in the same location on the same time. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture is out of touch with the artist, it does not have a real project to ensure the safety of artists, and it did not take a real position for what happened. But we will not put an end to our shows, and our manifestations. We will not stop living.