Choufthounna: The feminist art festival in Tunisia

Choufthounna: The feminist art festival in Tunisia
7 min read
16 November, 2017
The New Arab went to a feminist art festival in Tunisia, with performances, classes and demonstations from all over the world,
Nada Hassan, 29 years old, from Asswan, Egypt, lives in Cairo. Painter and videomaker. [TNA]
"Choufthounna? 'Did you see them?' A simple question; or maybe an affirmation: 'You saw them'. And so, you can't forget that you saw them!" said Bochra Triki, 29 years old, one of the co-founders of the Choufthounna Feminist Art Festival.

Triki is also co-president of the Chouf Minorities organization, founded in 2013, and French professor at the University of Gafsa in south Tunisia.

"We want to give a positive and alternative visibility to women - putting the feminist artistic experience and its multiple expressions at the core, as multiple as the definitions of feminism," she said.

At its third edition, the multi-platformed festival brought together around 200 women artists from five continents, especially from Africa and Europe, and involved almost 100 volunteers from all over Tunisia and Algeria – with one more from Georgia.

It indulged attendees in several active workshops such as female football, vogue dancing, illustrations, tattoos and electronic music.

On the academic front, two panels were facilitated on "Gender Bodies and Multi-Layered Representation", and "Gendered Bodies, Violence and Resistance through Artistic Expressions".

A final roundtable was held among artists, organizers, volunteers and participants meshing together the different worlds these women brought together. The four-day-program was filled with film screenings, performances, concerts and galleries: all organized and produced by women.

These are not plants; these are also my biological kids since I had to remove my ovaries

The first two editions took place at the Mad'Art Space in Carthage, Tunis.

"When we had the idea of the festival, we thought about the great Raja Ben Ammar, director of the theatre and actress who unfortunately died last April," said Bochra.

"She was enthusiastic about the idea and said: 'We have only one rule: self-censorship is forbidden.' Until now I am questioning myself about this because we often repeat ourselves: "Can we do this? Can we do that?"

This third edition was held in September at the National Theatre of Halfaouine Place, in the center of Tunis's Madina, the ancient part of the city.

"We, as women, want to take the public space through art, for free, and to stay here, in one of the Madina neighborhoods," Khouloud Mahdaoui, the other co-founder and co-president, journalist and advisory board of Kohl Journal, told The New Arab.

"As activists, we don't want to impose a definition of feminism; we invite people to Choufthounna and…we simply do it!" Bochra added.

Sagia Benassaid or Iaznam Zianam, decolonizing languages

Pondering the possible and untranslatable languages as opposed to colonized languages and words, Sagia participated in the first edition of the festival in 2015 and returned this year exhibiting her own visual poems.

This included a poem-performance she calls "Jil'ha", meaning "wound" or "incision", acted with the help of her sister Samira. The Benassaid sisters, 35 and 36 years old, were both born in France to an Algerian family.

"We have to look for our own language because the language we speak is not ours," Sagia said to The New Arab, "but it's difficult.

"I faced a lot of discrimination in France, as a poet and as a woman of Algerian origins.

Her performance at Choufthounna started with the verb "to penetrate," which often only has a sexual connotation

"I use visual and graphic poems and the four languages (French, Arabic, Spanish, English) to find my own space, my own expression."

While inventing her artistic name and pseudonym Iaznam Zianam, she played with the Arabic word 'Zaman', meaning 'time'.

"I wanted to find a name which doesn't mean anything and doesn't have an echo in any language. But one day, someone told me that 'Ia Znam' in Serbian language means 'I know'. I kept the pseudonym showing the linguistic potentialities that we usually ignore."

Rania Dridi, 27 years old, from Tunis. She exposed her pots and plants at the Souk'hounna market of the Festival.
Rania Dridi, 27 years old, from Tunis. She showed her pots and plants at the Souk'hounna market of the Festival. [TNA]

Her performance at Choufthounna started with the verb "to penetrate," which often only has a sexual connotation, while in fact it's also "to penetrate the earth, the words, to penetrate us spiritually," she explained.

Sagia ended her performance with the phrase "history kills,"  which in French ("l'histoire tue") has the double meaning of "history kills/ history keeps silent".

With this performance, she intended to show in form and content the language's conscience which is also individual, psychological, social, political.

Sagia now lives in Vienna, Austria, while her sister Samira remained in Paris. "I found this festival amazing!" she commented. "Languages are mixed because of the 51 countries participating - and this is in itself a poem."

Nada Hassan, the Nubian Egyptian painter and video-maker

Originally from a village near the city of Aswan in Egypt, Nada Hassan heard of the Tunisian feminist and LGBTQ rights organization Chouf minorities, in Cairo –where she now lives— through another feminist organization called Nadhra.

Fascinated by the idea, she proposed her series of drawings and paintings called "First Rupture Outward", which was born out of a period of identity politics existentialism revolving around race, class, and gender.

The project is a sort of autobiographical series documenting fear, anger and class privileges, but also self-doubt and insecurities.

"I was angry, thinking of many random thoughts. I was spending days and days in my room, one day in May 2016 I found a graphite pencil and paper beside me, and I started," Nada said to The New Arab.

"Mainly I worked on faces and kind of abstract full body images. Body parts, bodies I chose to draw which are not based on the elements of beauty known, as the society would accept. I drew silently, angry and shocked and scared along with these exhausted bodies."

She used primal materials of graphite pencil and paper in addition to digital editing techniques, exploring so her visual style through mixed media.

Fighting for her Nubian identity, whose history of oppression she considers similar to that of the Amazigh in North African countries, she always felt that women of poor origins especially in her region are marginalized and don't have the tools to develop their creativity in arts.

This is the reason why she happily took part in Choufthounna festival, as an opportunity to create a community of women who can support one another in all North African and Middle Eastern countries.

The queer, black, 29-year-old artist, Nubian and Egyptian, is also a video-maker. Her experimental fiction film "Room at Region (X)" focuses on enforced disappearance, isolation and exhaustion.

She brings the public into the mind of a woman human rights defender, using digital texture footage and motion graphics.

She expresses the feeling of being overwhelmed. "That's a little bit how we women activists are, fighting for our rights."

Souk'hounna, the art crafts space at Choufthounna

After passing the main entrance of the National Tunisian Theatre, the visitors of Choufthounna Festival encounter immediately to the right side of the Khaznadar Palace of the XIX century, a table displaying the work of creative women artisans. It is the Souk'hounna, from the Arabic word "Souk", i.e. market and the plural feminine "hounna" again "them, their", the women.

Among Palestinian and Tunisian art crafts, jewelry, authentic and eccentric bags or notebooks, a woman surrounded by plants attracted The New Arab's attention. Rania Dridi is a 27-year-old Tunisian woman from La Goulette who studied architecture but could not complete her studies.

After a surgical operation that kept her at home for months, she discovered her creative side. Her products "Plant Motherhood" displayed and on sale at the Souk'hounna tables are proof.

"In these long months at home, the doctor advised me to fill my rooms with plants. Taking care of them, I more and more needed some pots, but the beautiful ceramic ones are too expensive," Rania told The New Arab.

"So I started to create mine, using my architecture skills, I took the cement and the sand and whatever else I found in the kitchen, and did my plants."

At that moment, she didn't know she would make an artwork out of them. A friend of hers asked for her help in designing her new place and then, after Rania created many pots, she paid her. "I was surprised, I am not a commercial person," she confessed, "but when she heard about the Souk'hounna, she decided to take the opportunity to show her creations. "These are not plants; these are also my biological kids since I had to remove my ovaries."

The title is also connected to her story: "Plant Motherhood" is in fact a play with the words "planned", "plant" and "motherhood", which Rania cannot plan anymore. But her resilient spirit transformed this pain into a creative work and into a feminist experience.

"And Choufthounna was the amazing team who could give value to my life".

Marta Bellingreri is a freelance researcher and writer. Follow her on Twitter: @MartaDafne