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Art of Freedom. Freedom of Art.

Tunisia: Artists caught between terror and bureaucracy

Resulting from political changes in the wake of the Arab Spring five years ago, Tunisian artists have gained more freedom. But those rights are under threat - from religious fanaticism and government pressure.

Ten months after the attack on the Bardo Museum in the Tunisian capital, which killed more than 20 people on March 18, 2015, barbed wire, police check points and a plaque at the entrance continue to serve as a reminder of the violence.

"Good morning. Who are you here to see?" a policeman asks without masking any of his doubts, later indicating with a nod that people should leave.

Mosaics at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Copyright: AFP/Getty Images/F. Belaid

The Bardo Museum is famous for its large collection of mosaics

Inside the building, the entrance hall is dominated by a tall mosaic. Moncef Ben Moussa, the museum's curator and guardian of the world's largest collection of mosaics, says the event left deep wounds, "but we must look ahead."

"We cannot and do not want to forget what has happened," he explains, adding that after the recent destruction of cultural sites in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the attack on the museum should not have come as a surprise.

"Perhaps we just didn't want to listen to the alarm bells ringing early enough," he admits, explaining it should not be seen as a coincidence that of all potential targets, this particular museum fell victim to an attack; nor should it be considered aimed solely at the economically crucial tourism industry.

"Attack on humanity"

The Bardo Museum sees its mission in bringing together all the civilizations and paradigms that have shaped 3,000 years of history in this Maghreb country: from the Carthaginian wars to the evolvement of Tunisia as the Roman empire's major breadbasket, from Arab conquerors establishing some of Africa's main Islamic sites to the foundation of Africa's oldest existing synagogue by Jewish immigrants.

Bildergalerie Bardo Museum Tunis, Copyright: FETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages)

After the attacks, the Bardo Museum has been regaining popularity, especially among Tunisians

"When Tunisians come to the museum they're proud to be part of this rich cultural heritage," says Moussa. "And when foreigners visit, they come to realize that, probably to a smaller extent, they share some of that Tunisian heritage. It is this universal notion of humanity that the terrorists attacked."

The number of foreign visitors plummeted in the aftermath of the attack. But Moussa adds that more Tunisian visitors than ever before have decided to visit the Bardo museum, many for the first time, almost making up for the decline in international visitors. Now, he says, many students who visited the museum as part of a school field trip later returned with their parents. The curator can't help but smile.

"Most people my age are not aware of the importance of culture," Moussa explains, adding that under Ben Ali's former dictatorship, culture had either been exploited for propaganda purposes or neglected.

"Culture is a means of enlightenment, but a dictator wants to keep his people in submission and ignorance."

To achieve their goals, terrorists apparently tried to apply the same measures.

The value of art versus outdated political slogans

Ben Moussa seeks to raise awareness about the country's cultural heritage among young Tunisians, while others take art out of the museums and galleries and bring it out onto the streets. After the political upheaval of 2011 and the subsequent regime change, street art in Tunisia has been experiencing a major boom.

"Before the change, people could only create art commissioned by the government. Nowadays, people create art for the sake of their audiences, and of art itself," says Mohamed Kilani Tbib, known under his pseudonym "The Inkman." The 25-year-old graphic designer produces what he calls calligraffiti - calligraphic graffiti. Tbib sprays single words or verses of poetry on "preferably congested places, so that all people have free and direct access to it."

Tunesien Graffiti-Künstler The Inkman, Copyright: Sarah Mersch, DW

Many buildings in Erriadh are adorned with graffiti by Mohamed Kilani Tbib, better known as "The Inkman"

The objects he has embellished with his work include an abandoned factory, a plane wreck in a rundown park in the middle of a Tunis suburb, and walls in the city center. His works and those produced by many like-minded artists have become an integral part of the capital's streetscape, often replacing hastily sprayed political slogans. Even mosques have been turned into objects of art - as has a mansion belonging to a family from the former ruling elite.

"Djerbahood," another project, encompasses an entire village. Mehdi Ben Cheikh, a French-Tunisian gallery owner, has transformed the village of Erriadh on the Tunisian island of Djerba into an open air gallery. Artists from 30 countries have come there and left their mark. "At first the residents were suspicious. But after a few days, they all came to offer the walls of their homes."

Ben Cheikh says Erriadh was chosen because the village is home to the country's oldest synagogue, La Ghriba. Erriadh is also home to Tunisia's largest Jewish community.

"We wanted to highlight the special status of the island of Djerba and show that peaceful coexistence of Jews and Muslims is not a pipe dream but has instead been the norm here for centuries," Cheikh explains. The local economy has also profited from the 200 works of art on display in the village. Several new galleries, shops and restaurants have opened since the project began to attract tourists.

Cultural heritage not to be thrown away

Somewhere between the railway station, garages and a large market for smuggled goods in downtown Tunis, Ben Cheikh opened a second gallery called "32 bis." A striking piece of graffiti more than a meter tall adorns the exterior of the former factory building located amid dilapidated Art Nouveau houses dating back to the country's colonial period. Cheikh's goal is to turn downtown Tunis into more dynamic city center.

Mehdi Ben Cheikh, Copyright: Mehdi Ben Cheikh

Mehdi Ben Cheikh heads the Djerbahood project

"This district doesn't deserve the bad condition it's in! Citizens need to own their city again and appreciate it," he says, adding that if this neighborhood were located in London or Paris, it would long have since become one of the city's most trendy areas.

"The time has come for us to stop throwing our cultural heritage into the trash."

But despite the newly-found freedom enjoyed by these young artists trying to conquer public space to showcase their work, many continue to encounter problems with the authorities. The Inkman recounts that back in May, he had to spend eight hours at a police station "because someone had claimed I was spraying Islamic State propaganda on a wall."

The Inkman had actually sprayed the English word "musk", a traditional Tunisian perfume. The artist has had to come to terms with the fact that, quite often, passers-by have a hard time deciphering his playful approach to letters.

March against extremism, Copyright: EPA/STR

The attack resulted in nationwide marches against terror and extremism

"Most people assume that I produce Arabic calligraphy - whereas in fact, these are Latin characters, and I have merely been inspired by the Arabic script."

Stressing that he stays away from explicit political messages, the young man says his objective is simply to communicate love and respect for people through his art.

"Creating all this street art is a political act in and of itself; the contents or messages don't need to be," says Mehdi Ben Cheikh, adding that he hopes this kind of political activism can continue to flourish. Despite the far-reaching liberties granted by Tunisia's new constitution, many fear a return to repressive measures in response to the ongoing terrorist threat, with hard-fought freedoms curtailed as a result.

Cheikh says it is up to artists and the media to prevent that from happening. The gallery owner explains that while Tunisians are still able to voice criticism publicly, no freedom should be taken for granted.

"It is up to us, the people, to make sure that these rights can never be taken away from us again. And it is up to journalists to never remain silent."

Sarah Mersch works as a freelance correspondent in Tunisia's capital Tunis and trains young journalists at the Deutsche Welle Academy. Mersch's article is part of a collaboration with the magazine "Politik & Kultur" and DW's multimedia series, "Art of Freedom. Freedom of Art."

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