It’s a fact, street art festivals are popping up all over the world. But of course, they can’t be done everywhere in the same way. This may be for geographical, bureaucratic or simply for socio-cultural reasons. In the latter case, we’re referring to a phenomenon that forces us to realize that what we know as artistic freedom doesn’t exist as such in some societies that we consider to be close to us. The acceptance of art and its messages does not follow a consistent evolution throughout the world, and there’s still much work to be done to ensure that the tolerance and respect that we consider fundamental are spread around equally.
The Mallorcan artist Gracia de Juan has recently had to deal with a curious censorship-related situation that arose from these aforementioned issues. The story takes place at the second edition of the Djerbadream festival, held 4 years ago in the village of Erriadh located on the Tunisian island, Yerba. 50 international artists, mostly from the Middle East, were invited to this new edition after artists were selected through a portfolio submission process.
After some logistical-type problems, Gracia de Juan’s artistic odyssey reached its climax in the middle of the working process. Her own words explain the experience in detail and leave you with a wise conclusion about the incident.
“I’ll get straight to the point, I get to the festival after not being able to check-in 50 cans of spray paint on my flight, I have to paint with liquitex (the only cans that the customs allow to enter the country) at a temperature of 45º C which leads to a disaster. The paint arrives a week late and when I finally get down to work, in a very Arabic style, people start whispering about my work and then a guy from the organization comes to tell me that I can’t paint what I’m painting. Then, the festival director comes to me and literally says, “If you paint this I’ll go to jail tonight and tomorrow the festival will be cancelled”. In shock, I reprimand him and tell him that what he is telling me is totally irresponsible and at the suggestion from the other artists that I should “change” my art, the only option left to me is to erase it.
In the next few days I met with the organization and we discussed whether, after publicly insulting me, if they would let me do my work, censor me again, or whether it was best to leave. Since my work revolves entirely around women and symbology linked to matriarchy, we agreed to create another mural where naked women would appear in less “erotic” positions.
I start a second mural and after the consent of the organization, the neighbors themselves called the police, and after making another public drama they literally erased the mural in my face with the organization’s consent.
After seeing this spectacle and how I was left totally helpless by the organization while the other artists proceeded working without problems, I decided to leave and make a decision; either I view my trip there in a more contemplative way or I leave, angry.
I tried to work the following days but the neighbors didn’t want to offer their walls so as not to be complicit in the scandal. I was publicly embarrassed, I was in the press, etc., so I decided to get out of there for a few days to enjoy the island and cut the crap.
Then, my French colleagues left the island and gave me all their paint (MTN 94) so that I could paint something in the time I had left with some decent paint. I managed to do 2 murals: 1 small and 1 large one on the festival director’s walls (since it was the village people who lent their walls for painting). The guy apologizes and congratulates me on my perseverance for having managed to paint something despite the adversity, as everyone expected me to leave.
I believe these types of situations are necessary because it highlights the shortcomings and the minimum guarantees that a festival of this kind needs to provide. In order to organize any type of international event you have to be capable of hosting it. In that place, being a woman artist who does art that reflects herself can cost you a jail sentence even when you are participating within the context of an international festival. The fact that these things still happen force us to jump out of our bubbles and understand that we still have much work to do, and just how important our message as women artists can be. To deal with it, you have to unlearn first world privileges and learn about the limits of cultural shock from a position of acceptance, and try to keep your message intact♦“