Tunisia inaugurates mega-centre for culture and arts

A new arts complex in Tunis is set to restore Tunisia’s place as a leading cultural player in North Africa and the Arab world.
Sunday 25/03/2018
Tunisian Culture Minister Mohamed Zine el-Abidine speaks to reporters during the official opening ceremony of the City of Culture, on March 21.     (AFP)
A culture quest. Tunisian Culture Minister Mohamed Zine el-Abidine speaks to reporters during the official opening ceremony of the City of Culture, on March 21. (AFP)

TUNIS - A new arts complex in Tunis is set to restore Tunisia’s place as a leading cultural player in North Africa and the Arab world, Tunisian Culture Minister Mohamed Zine el-Abidine said.

Named “the City of Culture,” the 9-hectare facility includes numerous art venues and cultural spaces, including state-of-the-art theatres, museums, cinemas and art galleries.

“Every Tunisian should be proud of this project,” said Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi at the March 21 opening ceremony. “Culture is the main tool with which we will fight terrorism. Tunisians have to dream and have confidence in themselves.”

Zine el-Abidine, in an interview with The Arab Weekly, said the project aimed to promote the values of culture and free expression enshrined in the constitution.

“We are trying to reconcile and combine two fundamental concepts of cultural policies: citizens’ rights to culture and the principle of cultural democratisation,” Zine el-Abidine said. “They are two principles that are not always easy to fit together.”

Zine el-Abidine, who holds three doctorates from Paris’s Pantheon-Sorbonne University and previously served as the director of the Higher Institutes of Music of Tunis and Sousse and the director of the 2016 International Carthage Festival, said part of the centre’s aim was to provide cultural opportunities to all citizens.

To do so, the City of Culture and its branches are creating programmes with civil society groups to empower artists to develop and showcase their talent, he said.

“Through our policies, we are trying to express the idea that culture is the confirmation of artists’ rights to express their singularities and uniqueness through what they produce,” he said.

“There are no pre-established judgments and predetermined criterion for cultural creation and production. With the idea of culture democracy, all types of cultural expression have the right to exist and are provided the opportunity to flourish by the Ministry of Culture.”

Zine el-Abidine said: “Cultural democratisation means the state must be committed to ensuring the right to artistic education, (artists’) right to create, the public’s right to enjoy culture, all of which is important to supporting cultural expression.”

This applies even when artists challenge social norms or make provocative statements with their work.

“I do not hesitate to say that this ministry is the guarantor of freedom of expression, the right to the culture and all that helps culture bloom and thrive,” he said. “Culture is a right everywhere and a right for all people.

“So, since culture is a right, a commitment, a freedom and emancipation, we work for its development without ideological bias. Our ideology is that we have no ideology.”

The City of Culture received a warm reception from artists and intellectuals but there were concerns that it was too costly and benefited only Tunis.

Zine el-Abidine said that, though the complex is in the capital, there are plans to develop and support cultural projects around the country.

“We are not entrenching ourselves in the capital and ignoring the regions,” Zine el-Abidine said. “Our policy is that culture is made and produced in the capital and outside the capital by all the regions.

“It is unthinkable to have a national project for culture and this right to culture if we focus on developing culture in the capital and forget the other regions.”

He added: “The City of Culture in Tunis is to be integrated to the other regions. This is our idea and policy in developing culture. This is a city that helps regions express themselves and this city lends means and possibilities to these regions to develop culture.”

Plans to construct the complex began under former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali but stalled after the 2011 revolution. The project was revamped in March 2016 and ended up costing an estimated $54 million.

Zine el-Abidine, speaking at March 21 news conference, said the long-awaited project is an example to the world of Tunisia’s values and ambitions.

“Tunisia is very proud today,” he said. “This project expresses the will and patriotism of all Tunisians. It is an expression of who we are to the world.”

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