Being a woman artist is awesome

Women
Tunisia
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Visitors choose between festival events. © Simona Bonomo

It seems like it was only yesterday when, in New York, a group of female artists wearing gorilla masks decided to challenge the mainstream art world where women are hardly represented. It was actually in the eighties when the Guerrilla Girls started spreading their feminist messages through their artworks. Yet it seems like yesterday because in the art world, as in many other areas of life, women still have to struggle to make their voices heard.

Last month, from 13 to 15 May, Tunis became a meeting point for feminist activists and people that wanted to know more about women and their art. At Mad’art in Cartage, there was the second occurrence of Chouftouhonna, an International Festival of Feminist Art, showing 116 artists from 37 countries. The festival was organized by Chouf, a non-hierarchical organization, which uses audiovisual media to change society and to get rid of stereotypes. The aim of the Chouftouhonna festival was to challenge the fact that ‘too many women in too many countries speak the same language: silence,’ as you could read on the posters for the event. The festival harmonically combined feminist and artistic will and gave space to women expressing themselves through film, video, photography, graphic art, painting, sculpture, performance, dance, and music.

While strolling around I met Mathabela, from South Africa, who showed me screen-printed posters of One in Nine, an organization she is part of that advocates for women’s’ rights and supports women that speak out against sexual violence. ‘It is interesting to be in North Africa for the first time,’ Mathabela says. ‘I was expecting to see more black people around but I imagine that you can see more of them in other areas of the city, as it happens in South Africa where they tend to concentrate in the more marginalized areas.’ Mathabela came especially to meet other feminists and make new important connections. She thinks that everywhere the situation of women is very similar: ‘Since our childhood, we are taught where our place is and if we dare to challenge the stereotypes we are marginalized and stigmatized – she said – that’s why networking is very important.’

Visitors looking at the artworks on display.

Simona Bonomo

Discussion about women’s rights

During the festival the round table discussions were important moments to hear about the different experiences of women from different countries. Hayat Amami talked about her experience with women in the rural areas of Sidi Bouzid, the Tunisian city famous for being the starting point of demonstrations that brought the Ben Ali regime to its end. After her degree, since it was very difficult to find a job in her region, noticing that her situation wasn’t unique, Hayat decided to create an association called Intissar, that aspires to encourage women to stand up for their rights. She says that in the rural areas women work harder than men yet everybody else makes decisions on their behalf. She remembers when her mother used to repeat a Tunisian proverb that says ‘If you are a woman you can even become a minister but you will never become a man.’ Soon she realized that she wouldn’t even want to become a man: she only wanted to be a woman aware of her strength.

Another inspiring woman who spoke during the round table is Atiaf Alwazir, a blogger from Yemen. She explained how her activism changed when she started to be interested in the rights of Yemeni women in prison, who didn’t even know they had the right to a solicitor. During the years of Yemen’s revolution she was surprised that many women were standing up and participating, in many ways, in collective resistance. Afterward she started to document poor living conditions in the rural areas of Yemen; where one of the main priorities is women’s health care since many die while giving birth. More recently, as the war in Yemen began a couple of years ago, Atiaf moved to Tunisia and became a mother. ‘Now my priorities have changed a lot. For example, I am concerned that women are judged negatively when breast feeding in public,’ Atiaf said. ‘This is a problem connected to the right of mobility: because, if women cannot breast feed their children in public it means that they have to stay at home for long periods of time. And I want to go out and live my life without being judged because I chose to breast feed my child!’

Artworks on display

Between the works of art on display, my attention focused on a series of pictures by Maya-InesTouam, a young Franco-Algerian photographer. The portraits show women wearing different outfits that mirror the diversity of women who attended the festival, wearing a scarf or leaving their hair uncovered, attached to their traditions or adapting to a modern style.

In a room there were some videos looping. Intimes is a video performance about street harassment, by Lola Khalfa, a young Algerian artist. Lola explains: ‘The presence of women in the Algerian street at night is almost nonexistent. In my video I want to show the fear a woman may feel while walking around by herself.’ The video effectively communicates how intimidating it can be going around when all men constantly stare at you. ‘We need to show men that we have no fear of them and stop being submissive,’ Lola adds.

Another interesting art piece is Qalandieh by Noora Said, a video based on the superimposition of layers responding to each other. The images of a woman moving are superimposed over images of Palestinian roads leading to the wall built by the Israeli government. It is evident that political and social oppression are intimately entwined: the Palestinian people, oppressed by checkpoints and military occupation, oppress women in a vicious circle. ‘I am not a feminist – said Noora – as I am not pro-Palestinian. When something is so deeply embedded in your own identity, you cannot really be pro-that part of yourself. Resisting inequality both as a Palestinian and as a woman became so automatic that, just by being me, I am unconsciously resisting.’

‘Being a woman artist is awesome – she adds – and creating new unexpected works has a challenging flavor.’ I agree with Noora as many of the artworks exhibited at the Chouftouhonna festival, beyond their aesthetic value, also have a strong activist soul and are a good chance to talk about a subject that is important and relevant everywhere. The program this year was full of exhibitions, performances, workshops and it even had a craft market. The festival will be, hopefully, even richer next year.