People First: A conversation with Tania El Khoury and Bochra Triki

This spring I was invited by TQW magazine to speak to Tania El Khoury and Bochra Triki about their work as curators of the current edition of the Tashweesh festival, taking place in Tunis, Vienna, and Brussels. This edition of the festival started during the pandemic; it included an online retreat for artists late last year that tackled different urgencies women face in the art world and beyond. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation, which offers insights into the festival, its program, as well as the artists’ reflection on their own role as curators, and what one can hope to achieve with an international feminist performance festival today.


Sarah Rifky (SR):              How would you describe your roles in the context of Tashweesh?  

Tania El Khoury (TEK):    I would say we are two Arab women, artists and activists who are guest curators in this festival that takes place in three locations that are very different in how they think about feminism and in their relationship to the state and in their relationship to various people who have power over females’ bodies and lives. We are aware of the white gaze – as well as the contemporary art and contemporary performance gazes, or the industry gaze. We are aware of our role that sits within all these places comfortably – but also uncomfortably. We also share an interest in work that doesn’t just complain or protest, but also offers alternative ways of being and knowledge production.

SR:                                  How would you introduce Tashweesh, the scale and the nature of your edition of the festival?

TEK:                               There is a common program that will happen in the three cities. It includes two live performances, video works, a concert, and an opening talk. Then there are local programs that are developed with the local venues. These are dictated by the available spaces and local audiences. The scale is different depending on the cities.

SR:                                  Can you tell us about the common program? 

TEK:                               One of the Tashweesh commissions is an immersive performance by the Berlin-based Lebanese performance artist Rima Najdi; the work is called I Grew An Alien Inside Of Me. She looks at both the experience of being in a protest movement and giving birth. The other performance, Behind Your Eyeballs, is by Salma Said and Miriam Coretta Schulte. The artists have invited an archivist to take part in the project in each of the three locations the performance takes place in. And there’s the film program, Tashweesh Cinema.

Bochra Triki (BT):          I want to add a little more about the movies: the one by Amel Guellaty was produced by a local Tunisian queer organization – they produced eight short movies, including Love and Violence. It was also important for us to also create links with activist communities. Sophia Al Maria is someone we discovered through her work. The filmmakers’ nationalities are very diverse, mostly coming from the Arabic-speaking world. There will also be the common concert featuring DJ Haram, who is queer, and is based out of New Jersey. It’ll be cool to mix her in with local DJs that will play in Tunis and in Brussels.

SR:                                  The work on the festival, however, has already started. Last year you put out an open call for a set of workshops. How do these relate to the festival programs?

BT:                                 Last year we held a retreat in December. It was important for us to think of the themes we wanted to highlight during Tashweesh and which emerged during the first meetings of the retreat. It was an important moment for us to meet with feminist artists from our region. Some of them we already knew, some of them we were discovering for the first time.

SR:                                  What were some of the themes that you were interested in and that emerged from the retreat?

TEK:                               There was an interest in work on the body, on the politics of the body. And mythology. There were works on vulnerability and domesticity, and on public space. The retreat felt like a safe space, especially in the middle of the pandemic when people weren’t meeting all that much. It just felt really good to be in an international group of women sharing work, opening up, but in a closed conversation. It was beautiful.

BT:                                 It is interesting how emotional it can get – even though the event was online we became very emotional during the last day. We were able to figure out how to create intimacy and safety between us.

SR:                                  Could you describe a day during the online retreat? What was that like? What happened? Was there just a general discussion or were there breakout rooms as well? Were there readings?

TEK:                               We had different sessions; we didn’t have breakout rooms. Each session was led by a different presenter and followed by a conversation. What took all of us by surprise was the extent to which this mix between the practice and the daily personal lives of women was very present. An artist was breastfeeding her child on camera, another was talking about the difficulties with creating work while also having to survive as an artist, about managing the patriarchal structures – both within the art world and outside of it. There were a lot of similarities and a multitude of experiences that felt beautiful to share and created this intimate and emotional space.

SR:                                  What are the takeaways, and ideas, from the workshops that you feel have directly contributed to the shaping of the festival?

TEK:                               What I take from the workshops are not just the themes, but the form. Beyond whether the work fit the categories of public space, domestic labor, and so on, what was interesting for me were the various forms that participants used to present their practice; the levels of exposure and of symbolism used. Also, the research of looking back, into the history and the law – legal and other aspects that affect our lives.

SR:                                  What would be an example of this?

TEK:                               I’m always interested in work that is based on research – not just academic research. Some participants presented academic research, but also work based on, let’s say, a myth or a story, and then they transformed it. Also, the film Cairography by Dalia Naous. The choreography was based on oral histories, speaking to women in Cairo who survived sexual harassment in the streets. The use of oral history – even as it becomes a choreography in a video – is still based on historicizing that period, documenting those people’s experiences. I am interested in works that produce research and employ various media. 

SR:                                  I saw Tanzquartier Wien hosted the project The School of Mountains and Water by Amanda Piña, and it relates to what you were saying about dance and choreography as pedagogy through research. Tania and Bochra, you both have a connection to pedagogy and teaching. And I wanted to know more about how you think of pedagogy specifically within the context of the festival, where you feel it shows up in the selection of projects or in the methodologies. Also, do you think of the festival as a pedagogical device?

TEK:                               For us, it was about offering a space – not just about presenting shows or hit pieces – but really opening up conversations with local activists, bringing in someone to give a lecture, inviting students… We haven’t had the chance to think about audiences in relation to the specific venues across the three cities yet, but our interest has always been in work from within social practice. Work that involves long processes and is based on research. What I’m interested in is work that is not just about giving a political opinion or is, let’s say, protest art, which obviously has its own value, time, and place, but works that accumulate, building on other people’s work, opening up conversations that present knowledge production that other people can use. The films offer an entry point into certain conversations, for example Marwa Arsanios’ work on eco-feminism that she’s done in collaboration with Kurdish women and villages. These types of practices produce knowledge academics have failed to do, or simply haven’t been on site or have not been able to do.

                                         You could think of it as an alternative or non-traditional pedagogy – to bring that to art spaces [is important]. It also is...what’s the word that I’m looking for? It is accessible to people beyond academia and beyond the art world by virtue of sharing it. Both Bochra and I are interested in this type of work.

BT:                                 My interest in pedagogy stems from my previous experiences of doing an activist festival as well as queer and feminist festivals, also from my work in advocacy, trying to change laws, as well as teaching. We, as a collective – the Chouf collective – were always thinking about the festival as a medium to rethink questions, ones that we don’t want to deal with or that might be seen as sort of taboo – especially that we were based in a very popular neighborhood. We really found art and discussions and music, and just hanging out together in a chill space on the green, and just discussing things, was more effective than the advocacy that we were doing with the state and that is completely opaque.

SR:                                  This resonates. It also makes me think of the rise in gender-based violence in the Arab world, or at least its increased visibility, which has been animating and attuning public discourse to questions around intersectional feminism. I wonder how these realities show up in Tashweesh – less in terms of “protest art” as you brought up earlier, Tania, but how are these issues reflected in practices presented in the festival?

TEK:                               These issues were discussed during the retreat, partly because it was a much wider pool of artists and conversations, and because it was a safe space to have these kinds of discussions. Themes of violence – domestic, physical, and emotional – were all present in our discussions. Power was another issue that was a focal point: the exercise of power, power exercised on the body, power struggles. In how we talk about the festival or present these issues, we aren’t being very forceful, in a sense. As two Arab women working on this, we are very aware of the risk of representing women, brown, black and indigenous people as subjects of domestic and social abuse, and mere victims of violence… So we didn’t feel that it was our place to do that. We are not an NGO. In the curatorial text that we wrote, we specifically said that we are interested in work that brings up that vulnerability, that both individual and collective experiences work, that it’s about producing knowledge ourselves, about ourselves, etc. Rather than kind of using... I would be very careful about using language that we mainly hear in our areas of the world coming from NGOs, which mainly states how many women are killed on a daily basis and how their program alleviates that. This is very useful, especially when the state is completely denying that women are being murdered. But I don’t think it’s our role to do that, despite being quite aware of the white gaze.

SR:                                  Many practices adopt positions of dream logic, speculative fiction, mythology, and extend into the imaginary realm. I imagine you’re interested in these aesthetic, poetic, and political strategies. I would love to know more about this specific area of your interest – and what examples of these types of practices might be.

BT:                                 These last years there has been this rising of emotion, of poetry, of rethinking mental health, rethinking a lot of things, I mean a lot of subjects that were always put like, “Okay, no, they are these crazy women”, or “They are living in their heads.” Or not having any reason or rational practice. And if I have to choose now, it’s totally this way that we want to go, and that we feel we can identify with, but not only identify, it’s also creating this kind of fictional but not so fictional art. It’s a way to really transform and really go to a deeper level with this distance of fiction. These new waves of practices and discourses bring a strong identification of issues that weren’t in the spotlight before. But I think it’s a common interest that we have and it’s also on the rise… So we are super happy to be able to show this. To give you an example: There is this movie called Rocks In My Pockets, that is kind of fairytale, but a fairytale about a woman investigating the suicides of women in her family. Her mother committed suicide, her great-grandmother, etc. So she goes on a quest and it’s an animated movie and it’s funny. It, like, totally is. The way she was able to talk about this very difficult subject through fairytale and through all of this was, for me, like, “Yes, thanks for that.”

TEK:                               This reminds me of a film called Moonscape by Mona Benyamin. It’s from Palestine and has a lot of fantasy and humor. The filmmaker uses her own parents as actors in it. It talks about spatial sovereignty and expansion, and specifically looks at how many Palestinians own shares in the moon, which is super hilarious. She does it beautifully, looking at displaced people and their relationship to something as poetic as the moon.

SR:                                  There’s a fresh wave of Arab diasporic creatives in Europe, and you’ve mentioned a few names of artists from that group. In your view, what does Tashweesh mean for Arabs in Europe?

TEK:                               For us, I would say this question is mainly relevant in Brussels where there’s a more significant Arab diaspora than in Vienna. This is obviously not relevant in Tunis, though we did think about what it means to bring artists from the Arab diaspora to Tunis. We discovered some incredible Tunisian artists who live elsewhere and thought: Wouldn’t it be great to connect them back to local audiences? These were some of the things that we discussed. In Brussels, the venue we are working with is sensitive to this question of the Arab diaspora, with many people working there being diasporic themselves. They are very aware of this in their usual programming. We think a lot about these ideas of what it means to be growing up in the diaspora and be part of what you’re calling emerging diaspora right now in Europe, also with hypervisibility in the art world and what that means.

SR:                                  Thank you for this. Do you have any final thoughts you would like to conclude with?

TEK:                               I would say that we both also like the fact that – or aware that – we are not actual curators. I mean, I don’t know what an actual curator is, anyway. It always feels like this is the kind of thing that people do or just practice. We’re aware of that and we think that this is an opportunity to force venues and institutions – the industry – to create work that is artist-centric. To put people first, before the program. That’s been one of the things that we’ve enjoyed about this, to be aware that we’re not always allowed to be in these positions and that this is an opportunity to shake that space up a bit, to question it and be playful with it.