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Art and Arab Women’s Narratives: Insights from Michket Krifa

21 March 2012 No Comment

Michket Krifa

“My last words about Tunisia are that we believe in the strength of our wonderful youth, and we believe that tolerance, freedom of expression, and creativity are fundamental to building new citizenship and a strong civil society.”

Connection Point Manager Yasmina Mrabet interviewed Tunisian author and artistic director Michket Krifa about her work in the Middle East and North Africa region and the important roles of women and art. Her responses are below.

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What inspired you to begin a career as an author and artistic director? 

I always have been interested by the visual arts, image, and representation. The lack of self-representation of the Arab world in the arts pushed me to work and to develop this issue in my several works through writing and curating. I began my career quite young. As a writer, my first project was working on a book that documented cartoonists during the Lebanon war. When no one wanted to publish it, I thought, “Ok, I will do it myself!” And it became my first exhibition on Arabic cartoonists at Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) in Paris, 1988. At the time, I was also working in the film industry through festivals.

Step by step, my career progressed as I decided to promote artists and to curate exhibitions and events. I turned to photography and film to communicate with audiences, as the representation offered through these mediums is immediate and direct. I believe that the language of images serves as a way to build a memory and narrative. I was ready to develop this language of images about the Arab region in Europe especially, where the only images of the East were constructed and transmitted by Western eyes. I wanted to develop more accurate visions in the photography and visual art scene in Europe. I believe that visual representation is part of the history of a culture and in many of the Arab cultures the image is still missing in historical archives. Today and in the last 15 years or so, a lot of young artists and curators have become aware of this gap, and have taken steps to fill it.

As a woman who has worked in Tunisia and other Muslim majority countries, what has been your personal experience, and what have you noticed related to the conditions for women in the region?

Contrary to stereotypical perceptions, I have never experienced any suffering as a woman in the Arab or Muslim countries, and certainly not in Tunisia where I grew up and worked in the field. In Tunisia, despite what we may see today through more extreme religious demonstrations, men have always respected women at the workplace. In my experience, they have always shown respect to strong women. I have experienced the same elsewhere, including Algeria, Palestine and Egypt; although I will say that there is a strange duplicity that exists in the region. In many cases women are respected and treated well, but there are also cases where a lack of respect and discrimination are a reality for women in their daily lives. In Iran for example, there are many strong women, and although they are required to cover, there is a double life that exists in the public sphere where there are many restrictions vs. the private sphere where everything is more or less allowed.

I had some difficulty as a woman with cultural codes in Iran, since growing up in Tunisia I had a very liberal education and deep belief in freedom for women, including choice of clothing. Despite my views on clothing choices, the question of the veil, which for over 20 years has been discussed on the public, political, and art scenes, has been over-used. For a long time we have been overdosed with images of veiled women as representatives of the Muslim woman. I believe veiling is an issue for women themselves to consider, and not an issue that should be used as a political instrument by the West, or by Islamic regimes, or by secular governments in Muslim countries. The issue deserves a much more nuanced approach as it has to much more to do with the way that women’s bodies are objectified. Additionally, the question of the veil is just one of many issues that can be debated in relation to women’s rights. There are other issues such as monogamy, protection of the civil rights, the right to an education, equal wages, and so on. It is a great pity to reduce issues related to Arab and Muslim women’s rights to a debate on the veil. It seems that this simplification of issues may be a strategy to avoid crucial questions and take attention away from women’s rights and issues of gender discrimination.

In Tunisia, women enjoy a high level of freedom and independence thanks to the secular laws that were implemented under under Bourguiba with the independence of the country, although there remains a need for education and awareness to change social mentalities toward women’s rights. During the eighties and nineties most urban women were not veiled in Tunisia. This phenomenal aspect of the hijab and the niqab may be attributed to the Arabian Gulf countries that broadcast values from their societies that are not a part of the Tunisian culture. Due to the use of the hijab as a political instrument, today we are witnessing more and more veiled women in Tunisia. Fortunately, the majority of women, veiled or not, have been strong in their fight to defend their rights as women.

There are multiple layers to the tradition of veiling, and many different points of view, even within the same families. My personal view on the niqab and burka in particular (where everything is covered except the eyes) is that women wearing them can appear just as aggressive as if they were walking naked. I see complete coverage as a way of erasing the woman’s individuality and limiting herself to the female body which is nothing but hidden flesh. I see the body and soul as a sacred part of human beings, and feel strongly that women should not see their bodies as objects that are up to interpretation by men.

Femmes d'images

In terms of art, since 2000 I have done a lot of exhibitions on women artists and photographers from the Middle East and North Africa region. In fact I started with Iran, where I displayed views from the Iranian diaspora to local Iranians. After the September 11 attacks in the United States, I curated three solo shows at the Arles Photography festival (Jananne Al Ani, Zineb Sedira and Raeda Saadeh). The overall title for the three shows was The Body as Territory. For me, these shows were a way to speak out against the objectification of women’s figures—which are objectified and used in both West and East, although the two regions employ different methods of objectification. The purpose was also to tell every woman that she has her own identity, that she is unique and can express her identity in many ways. I also explored how women in the field of photography have been representing other women in their photographs. That show was Women by women at the Frankfurt International Center for Photography. I also went into documentary work, to cover press coverage of women as well as self-representation in the field of art. I curated Femmes d’images, fragments d’intimité, an international touring exhibition, which showed how women from the Middle East and North Africa region were representing intimacy. In Tunisia I did an exhibition called Private space, as way to say that women’s issues are also private, and woman has the right to determine her own way of dealing with her issues. It does not mean that there should not be any civil rights to help fight for women’s rights, but that there must also be space to allow women to figure out their own realities or fantasies without any preconceptions or labels. This show was also a way to speak out against the framing of Arab women in rigid definitions. Arab women living in their countries or in diaspora all have multiple layers of identities and share the ambient cosmopolite values of the art world. Each woman has a unique way of expressing and defining her artistic universe by combining all that she is surrounded by, and all that she is influenced by. It is quite simplistic to report on and define women’s concerns as only those related to their gender condition. Women share in daily life experiences, and as such are navigating all the social, political, spiritual, material preoccupations and issues of the world, just as much as their male counterparts.

What insights can you provide us on the role of art in cross-cultural dialogue and understanding? And what are your thoughts on the role of women in this field?

Art has always been a universal bridge to gain knowledge of the “other.” We can learn as much, and possibly more about the other cultures through art than we can travelling. It is very fascinating to see that from one point of the world to another you find artists, writers, and film makers who share the same values, mindsets, and visions. I deeply believe in human universalism, though I respect the specificities of all cultures and cultural codes.

Regarding women, I can tell that when you take a look at artists now, almost half of them are women. Despite all the misconceptions and clichés, they are sharing the art scene across every field.

What about the role of art when it comes to the relationship between “the West” and the Arab and Muslim “world”?

It has its ups and downs… this unfortunately depends on the political and economic situation. The bad aspect of art can come with how it is used at times to promote ideologies—the use of artists to defend a particular position or an agenda. Artists are not state ambassadors. They are free and unique. Sometimes curators or institutions use a certain kind of artists or statements to show the faces of Arab countries that fit the vision and preconceptions of their region. We are still fighting with a kind of neo-Orientalism that has translated to the 21 century. The use of art in a way that perpetuates stereotypes and misconceptions is directly related to the political and economic landscape.

Though it is very encouraging that it has captured the attention of the world, the so-called  ”Arab Spring,” which has by now been documented in exhibitions all over the world, can also have a negative effect of feeding a feeling on the surface of events, rather than the intricacies of what is taking place. I myself curated an exhibition on Tunisia a year after the revolution, in which I really wanted to focus on how artists have interpreted the events in this first chapter and then what are their questions, hopes, or doubts, at the same time exploring the formal and aesthetic elements of their artwork. The situation after the revolution is still fragile and the only thing everyone can applaud is the new emerging freedom of expression and creativity that we have witness during these last months.

On the other hand, a lot of international galleries and museums in the last few years have demonstrated a commitment to representing Arab artists and a real market has emerged in the Gulf region, along with the development of Arab art collectors. The good other thing is that in every country, artists and institutions are organizing to promote either local or regional art scenes.

Can you tell us more about your recent work, “Dégagements… La Tunisie un An Après“? What was this project, and what message did you want to send to the world about Tunisia?

In this work, I tried to show how artists witnessed unfolding events, and how they behaved as citizens themselves. It explored circumstances after the euphoria of the first month of the revolution, how artists integrated ideas of their future and challenges that lay ahead through aesthetic lens. Their own work can speak to their perspectives—I cannot allow myself to talk on their behalf. I just wanted to give a tribute to their courage, fights, hopes and doubts, and to honor their diverse talents. I wanted to show how complex the situation is in Tunisia, beyond the two-word summary “Arab Spring.” For example, usually others call the Tunisian revolution the “Jasmine Revolution,” but the Tunisians call it Thawrat al Karama (the Dignity Revolution)—a description quite far from the exotic reference of the sweet jasmine flower.

A strong symbolic event occurred recently on the eve of International Women’s Day—at a university in Tunisia, when a Salafist took over the national flag to put up the Islamist flag. A 21 year-old female student confronted him, and in her jeans jumped on the roof and fought to put back the national flag. This event has been covered by all the social networks, TV, newspapers, and is quite indicative of the strength and high level of involvement Tunisian women have in democratic process and their strong love for their country. We are all very proud of her and of the symbolic value that is behind this event.

My last words about Tunisia are that we believe in the strength of our wonderful youth, and we believe that tolerance, freedom of expression, and creativity are fundamental to building new citizenship and a strong civil society. Knowledge and a sense of beauty in the way we view ourselves are also part of the construction of a better future.

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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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