"It is as if my hands have been cut off. I am so angry, so disappointed," said a painter whose canvas was slashed in a June 10 attack on a Tunis art gallery. "When I heard the government's position I felt like I was at a trial for freedom but unable to defend myself," the artist told AFP, requesting anonymity. Culture Minister Mehdi Mabrouk, while defending artistic creativity, stopped short of condemning the attack, believed to have been carried out by ultra-conservative Salafist Muslims.
Mabrouk said the exhibition -- which featured a painting of a naked woman with bearded men standing behind her and a work spelling the word "Allah" with a file of ants -- did not respect the values of Islam and could be considered "artistic provocation."
Tunisia's arts union and the show's director Luca Luccatini plan to lodge official complaints against several government ministers for defamation.
Fundamentalist Salafists went on the rampage after taking issue with the artworks, and two days of riots including the attack on the gallery left one person dead and more than 100 injured. It was the worst unrest since the January 2011 ouster of strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali kicked off a wave of revolts in the region that came to be known as the Arab Spring.
More than 140 people, most of them Salafists, were arrested for attacking police posts and torching a Tunis courthouse during the riots, the interior ministry said Monday. Among them was the cleric of a mosque in the northwestern town of Jendouba, who called for the murder of police officers during Friday prayers, a ministry official told AFP.
Even before the recent clashes, artists say they have regularly been the target of religious hardliners in post-revolution Tunisia. And they are surprised that the more moderate regime that replaced Ben Ali has not defended the nation's artists.
The artist whose canvas was slashed said: "I am not afraid of answering to ministers, but I am afraid of ignorant people, of the imbecile hiding somewhere who will attack my family because (the authorities) have abandoned us to face public anger."
Actress and theatre researcher Jalila Baccar asked: "Do we want a country without art, without artists? Who should decide which lines can be crossed in terms of what is sacred? Is it for judges, religious leaders, the constitution that is currently being drawn up?"
"We don't have to justify our art," said the painter Meriem Bouderbala, who curated the exhibition titled "Spring of Arts." Many artists wonder if they can publicly show their work without fear of reprisal.
"Who will have the courage to exhibit our work?" asked one artist, who also requested anonymity after receiving death threats. "Who will dare to invest in projects that question society?"