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  • Diana Thielen

Choufthouhonna - Feminist Art Festival in Tunesia

Together with my friends and collaborators Sarah Bouars and Kristianne Salcines I was invited to present work at the 3rd edition of the International Feminist Art Festival "Chouftouhonna" in Tunis. I would describe the festival as a real grass-root gathering, initiated by the feminist organisation Chouf Minorities, that works for women’s and sexual minorities’ rights in Tunisia. It started rather small-scale (only one and a half days) in 2015, but quickly expanded to include, in this year’s third edition of the festival, an amazing, surprising four day programme filled with performances, films, music, photography, paintings, conferences and panel discussions. There were also tattoo sessions, a craft market by local artists, workshops about soccer, vogueing, illustration, comics and electronic sound. The festival took place at the National Theatre, in Tunis’ old neighbourhood of Halfaoiune. The artists from abroad were accommodated in a luxurious hotel by the sea in Gammarth, 15 – 20 km outside Tunis. We were dependent on public transport, travelling twice a day from the hotel to the festival venue and back by bus.

Beach in Grammarth

The programme of the festival was truly breathtaking, spanning a great range of artistic activities. My days were wholly taken up by wandering about the different spaces of the venue, taking in the varied and rich exhibitions, sampling shorter and longer films of all kinds and meeting new people at our meals in the courtyard or on the roof of the building.

skyline tunis

As much as I enjoyed this overload of stimuli, I also regret not having planned a longer trip. My experience of Tunisia is limited to what I saw and heard at the festival and during a short walk through the Medina of Tunis, where the National Theatre is located.

On our way through Tunis’ rush hour to the venue of the off programme, Alessia Ubaldini, one of the organisers and my main contact person, told me it was important to her that all participating artists should get the opportunity to exchange and network with each other. The attempt to foster encounters among the participating artists during these four days was a resounding success, I would say. Even though the festival concluded with a prize for the best works in the respective categories, in my eyes the real strength of Chouftouhonna was the exceptionally wide range of experiences and professional expertise.

But let me slow down, backtrack and describe some of our work.

Sarah and I first met at the “Radical Contact” gathering in Sweden in the summer of 2015, an event reflecting upon and working with social norms and behaviours incorporated in and expressed by (moving) bodies. In the summer of 2016 we continued our encounter in a naked contact improvisation-inspired performance (‘Sweet Peep Salon’, JA! Productions, Berlin 2016), working with female lust, hunger and food. This year’s work was a development of several unplanned and unintended incidents (involving us and eggs…) which took place during a teaching and performance tour called “pOnderosa on the road” in Israel – a version of it was shown as part of our “Labour_Lab” project at 48h Neukölln.

In all the performances and installations we are dancing/performing naked, not only to confront the spectator with his/her/their own apprehensiveness, but also to reveal our individual journey to empowerment and self-determination.

Due to the naked content of our performance “perspEGGtives”, it couldn’t be a part of the official program, as public nudity is a taboo and could not be displayed in a public institution as the national theater.

The aforementioned conversation with Alessia took place on the way to a café, located close to Tunis University’s campus, that provided a safe space, for the duration of an afternoon, for the “special performances”. Despite the fact that the festival team had done a lot to make our performance happen and to support us in all our requests, stage organisation was a problem. The stage was quite small, and since we dance with a lot of raw eggs, the ground quickly became slippery and accordingly challenging for contact improvisation. In addition most of the tech – the video projector, sound system and lights - failed during the show… But even though the performance took place under difficult circumstances, I was never completely frustrated. I experienced the festival as a space where artists and activists can meet in diverse situations and therefore create possibilities for exchange. Presenting our work was one aspect; but for me personally the attempt to use contemporary art as a catalyst was more important.

Choufthouhonna created a platform giving a voice to struggles, thoughts and passions, and provided many opportunities for communication among artists. I was absolutely fascinated by the speakers of the panel on "Gendered Bodies and multi-layered representation". I heard Nidhal Azhary, who lectured on Amazigh culture in Morocco, and Roula Seghaier, a scholar and editor of the journal Kohl, based in Beirut, share their experiences and knowledge. The public also shared their experiences, thoughts and struggles as feminists, as women, as artists in countries such as Morocco or Egypt. Stimulating discussions and conversations arose and I could only listen and learn, thankful for the opportunity to take part and witness. Once again I was reminded that representation and opportunities to speak matter. I had the opportunity to reflect on my own position within a dominant culture of knowledge production; as a white, abled-bodied person in Berlin with access to institutions (such as the university) that produce knowledge and therefore also define what is worth thinking about. Even though I consider the feminist, queer scene in Berlin to be quite multi-faceted, my questions, interests and inquiries are strongly determined by the European or North American context I am located in.

On the last morning Meriem Mechti moderated a gathering called “Fishbowl discussion – The Artist is speaking”: The aim was “… to provide a moment and space to collectively reflect on artists within the wider field of cultural production and learn more about their motivations, restrictions, inspirations…” The fishbowl discussion setting offered each person the opportunity to join or initiate a discussion; everyone in the space had the possibility to take on both the role of listener and of speaker. Different artists used this time to talk about problems, obstacles and difficulties in their artistic work, to throw questions into the circle or simply to introduce themselves and present their work. One of the many topics discussed was how social context shapes the process and outcome of artistic work. Although many of the works exhibited dealt with similar topics, such as sexual violence or harassment, motherhood / parenthood, or self-determination within a patriarchal society, sociopolitical context – for example that a person’s status as an artist is questioned, that this is accompanied by censorship (an experience recounted by a French-Moroccan film-maker) - influences both the work process and the outcome tremendously.

As in the previous panel, as well as during the many conversations I had with the artists, I was reminded of my own privileged situation. However, for me this did not lead to a feeling of separation. Instead I felt that I had many questions and interests in common with the other artists present, similar, but different, difficulties (specific to my own cultural/political/social context) and similar motivations. To be able to participate in this extraordinary gathering, to be able to witness positive visibility of feminist art and activism, to have the possibility of creating constructive debate – this, I felt, was my greatest privilege.

edited by Daniel Mang


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