Tunisian Art Dealer Tests Limits Of Islamists With Otto Dix Nudes

Hamadi Chérif at the Otto Dix exhibition
Hamadi Chérif at the Otto Dix exhibition
Werner Bloch

DJERBA - Otto Dix in Tunisia? Sounds like a mistake, a geographical accident, as if somebody or something got on the wrong plane. Not so. There really are some 100 works -- sketches, drawings, oils -- by famed German New Objectivity artist Otto Dix (1891-1969) on exhibit on the holiday island of Djerba.

On the island’s relatively little visited west coast, far from the tourist beaches, the éminence grise of Tunisia’s art scene Hamadi Chérif has created a cultural center frequented by Tunisians and Europeans alike. Tourists are bused here practically straight from the beach, and most of them are surprised to find work by Dix – of all artists – here.

The cultural center is located in an out-of-the-way oasis, and at first glance looks like yet another sun-splashed vacation property in an isolated setting. But proceed beyond the palms and fig trees and you’ll see that not only does it have exhibition space but studios for artists-in-residence. And now, the late master Dix.

The poster for the show features a girl with sunflowers. Harmless. But walk into the exhibit and there (among other work) they are: the nudes.

Paintings of naked women – how does that work in a country where the Salafists have ever more say? "You do have to be increasingly careful," says Chérif.

The Tunisian art maven says he wants to go on showing what he thinks is important and right, but he does admit that it’s not easy. Some things can’t be publicized too heavily, he says, and "I couldn’t do a Grosz or Kokoschka show here."

Ben Ali's taste in art

Two years after the Jasmine Revolution, which sparked the wider Arab Spring uprising, artistic freedom in Tunisia appears to be waning. As limited as political freedoms were under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the art scene was pretty much left alone, Chérif says.

Then again the ex-dictator, who was in power for 23 years and subsequently fled to Saudi Arabia, may have been acting in his own interests: Ben Ali, Chérif says, was mainly interested in erotic art and would pay any price for it. Chérif would know. He was and remains Tunisia’s leading art dealer.

In his early days, Chérif would lure artists like Man Ray or choreographers like Maurice Béjart to Tunisia by proposing a deal: art in return for a vacation. American modernist Man Ray (1890-1976), who was a personal friend of Chérif’s, came to Tunisia seven times and stayed at the art dealer’s homes in Hamamet or Djerba. Chérif owns a house there, in the Jewish quarter, that became a holiday villa for visiting artists.

The recent revolution in Tunisia put a stop to Chérif’s strategy. "I’d intended to do a Dix show in Djerba in 2011, after meeting the artist’s son Jan Dix. Everything was lined up, in fact the crates of art were already at Frankfurt airport." Then the revolution broke out and a state of emergency was declared in Djerba. The company that had insured the art work cancelled the contract, so the project was scuppered.

There were problems with the insurance company for the present show as well, but then the Goethe Institute, which promotes German language and culture abroad, got involved. Eventually for May's opening of the Dix show, both Tunisia’s Minister of Culture and Minister of Tourism flew in. There are no public comments on what they thought of the work.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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