Tunisia and Chouftouhonna: cracking open my world

Three weeks ago I got on a plane and flew to Tunis, Tunisia, to participate in the 4th annual Chouftouhonna International Festival of Feminist Art. I first heard about the festival from three friends who performed there last year. They encouraged me to apply, and go, by promising me that I would meet interesting people and see good art. Other than this somewhat vague idea of what could happen, I really didn’t know what to expect from the festival or the country.

My Eurocentric ass got a reality check the moment I disembarked the plane and walked into an airport filled with women in hijab. Unlike anywhere else I have been, hijab was not the exception- it was the rule. Waiting for my ride to the hotel, I watched the women as they went about their lives, wondering what it was like to be them. As I resisted the urge to impose an imagined narrative on them, I opened to the reality that I really don’t know what it’s like to be them; and was reminded of the fact that there are many worlds about which I know nothing. Tunisia in particular is different from anywhere I’ve ever been- it is an Arabic country with a very high Muslim population; a place where English is not the first or second language; and home to a population that overthrew its president/dictator only 7 years ago. Recognizing how little I knew about Tunisia’s history, culture, and people enabled me to approach the rest of the trip with an openness and eagerness to learn about other people’s lives.

Luckily, I got to do this through art and conversation! The festival was four days long, and full to the brim with activities: performances, visual arts exhibitions, panel discussions, films, workshops, and lots of hanging around. I met Faiza Ramadan, a visual artist from Libya who, in addition to displaying two incredible paintings at the festival, told me about life in Libya after the 2011 revolution. I met Reem Sabra, a student and activist from Egypt who grew up in Saudi Arabia, who shared so much with me about what it’s like to be a woman in these two countries. I met a Tunisian woman who spoke with me about her experience participating in the 2011 Tunisian revolution and how life-changing it was to put her body on the line for something in which she believed. I met Daiffa, a visual artist who draws scathing satirical cartoons on the subjects of women’s rights, economic inequality, and politics, and attempted a conversation with her in French that devolved into hand gestures and laughter. I saw a powerful performance by Palestinian artist Farah Barqawi called “Papa, viens chez moi” about a woman’s complicated relationship with her father, and took a life-affirming dance workshop with Anna Luna Serlenga of Corps Citoyen, a collective making “emergency artistic interventions.” The offerings, and people, were many, and the experience was a rich reminder in how big and diverse the world is.

I performed my solo ‘soft fists insist’* on the last day of the festival, and am proud to say that it was very well-received! I loved seeing the faces of some of my new friends in the audience, and it felt awesome to share this piece with them. I also received a wonderful compliment from an audience member afterwards, who declared that the piece “was like being sucked into a black hole- but a positive one!” I love this kind of creative feedback.

I’ve now shown ‘soft fists insist’ at four venues in Berlin, and one in Tunisia. I felt a big difference performing at Chouftouhonna vs. performing in Berlin. In Berlin, there’s nothing radical or dangerous about a white cis-gendered queer female performer making feminist art- it’s quite typical, and in fact, something I love about Berlin is how surrounded I feel by queer feminist artists. In Tunisia, it is definitely radical to call oneself a feminist, and potentially dangerous to be queer. Performing my piece, and just being at the festival in solidarity with so many other feminist and queer artists, was a powerful reminder of how important the struggle for female and queer liberation is.

Something about this experience feels life-changing. That’s a big statement, and it’s only been a week. But here’s the thing: in Tunisia, I was immersed in an Arabic, mostly Muslim, non-European culture that is fully invested in - not to mention occupied with - the struggle of building a future different from its past, and that immersion was good for me. Meeting the interesting people and seeing the good art (as my friends promised) cracked open my world because I was surrounded by people who speak, and do, things differently than I’m used to. It’s been awhile since my desires to learn and understand new ways of being were so fully satiated, and it is exactly this kind of mind-bending world-stretching experience that reminds me of how big, beautiful, and diverse the world is; and that some things- like equal rights and visibility for women and queers- are always worth showing up for.

Check out some photos from my trip on Flickr and visit the Chouftouhonna website and Facebook page for more information about the festival. If you’re a trans or female-identifying artist, I encourage you to apply next year! And hopefully I will see you there <3

*What happens when dreams and reality collide? In “soft fists insist”, a woman is confronted with popular images and ideas about how she - young, white, and female — should behave in the world. As she grapples to interpret these ideations, she begins to lose track of her deeper needs and fears. A piece about the space between what we are and what we imagine ourselves to be, “soft fists insist” asks the question: how does the unconscious relate to social constructions such as femininity, ageing, and desire?

To see some highlights of my piece ‘soft fists insist’ check out my Instagram post from September 22 or watch the whole thing on Vimeo!