On 12 June, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture decided to temporarily close Palais El-Abdelia, where the controversial Pritemps des Arts fair’s closing ceremony took place last Sunday. On the night of 10 June, ultra-conservative Islamists attacked the gallery, claiming that it exhibited artworks offensive to Islam.
During a press conference, the Tunisian culture minister, Mehdi Mabrouk, said that some of the artworks exhibited at Printemps des Arts did transgress Islamic holy symbols — something the fair’s artists deny. He also said that some of these artworks are now under investigation.
“In art, there is provocation. Art sometimes provokes, and this is its role. But there is a red line which separates provocation and the assault on sacred symbols”, said the minister.
After acknowledging the provocative role of art, Mabrouk told Radio Shems FM on the morning of 14 June that six works deemed to be “provocative” had been confiscated.
“There were not art works assaulting sacred symbols, unless Salafis are considered sacred,” said Amor Ghedasmi, the secretary general for Syndicate for Plastic Artists, also speaking on Radio Shems FM. The fair did contain several works criticising Salafis, who advocate for a hardline interpretation of Islam.
He denied that the exhibition featured a work of art depicting the prophet Mohammed. Pictorial representations of prophets and god are considered forbidden in Sunni Islam.
Ghedasmi also offered his own interpretation of a controversial work of art, in which the phrase “Glorious is Allah” is spelled out in ants. “The work illustrates a boy bearing a back bag. It symbolises the heavy burden of education and discipline. Ants are also known to be hard-working, and disciplined too”, he said.
“I ask the ministries of culture and religious affairs to show us the artworks [which they described as offensive to Islam] and also give us their interpretations,” he added.
The Tunisian Ministry of Culture is planning to lodge a complaint against the fair’s organisers for “assaulting the feelings of the fair’s visitors”. Palais El-Abdelia will stay closed until a committee to oversee it is formed.