Tunisian women voice untold stories of repression through innovative art exhibition

A young visitor pictured as she explores the Voices of Memory exhibition.

The Voices of Memory exhibition has opened in Tunis, launched by the University of Birmingham and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). 

This interactive exhibition is inspired by a group of Tunisian women from across the country, with different experiences and different ages. Basing their works on these women’s testimonies, the artists created an immersive experience that evokes the sights, sounds, and feelings of imprisonment and of those loved ones who journeyed to visit the imprisoned.

Implemented by Museum Lab, an artist collective, the exhibition aims to increase understanding of the past, particularly women’s experience of repression in Tunisia.

The exhibition explores Tunisian women’s experiences under the dictatorship through “El Koffa,” the traditional Tunisian basket used to bring food to prisoners. The Koffa is a symbol of the economic burden for the women who struggle to bring food to their loved ones in prison. The Koffa is also a symbol of love and resilience in the face of repression.

“In Tunisian spoken language, when it comes to food that the family takes to the prisoner, we say: ‘I'm preparing the basket.’ And here begins the hard itinerary: find the money it takes to ensure a proper basket, a whole night of preparations, a long way to go in sometimes very difficult conditions, to undergo the shouting of the guards before you are granted access, watch them search and turn the food so lovingly prepared upside down, often endure refusal of all or part of the food, and for the prisoners to be deprived of a basket because the prison officer decided so,” remarks Mounira Ben Kaddour, one of the nine women members of the Voices of Memory group that has been collaborating with the University of Birmingham and ICTJ.

The project presents a unique museographic experience that incorporates the women’s testimonies. Some are victims of the dictatorship and others, newly engaged in activism—are united by their belief in the power of storytelling as a vehicle for change.

Dr Christalla Yakinthou, from the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham, commented: “This powerful exhibition gets people talking about how we can all identify in some way with women’s experiences, forming a bridge between generations and among marginalized voices.”

Experts from the ICTJ and the University of Birmingham have been working together since January 2017 with the Voices of Memory collective to help transmit women’s narratives through different means.

“This was a participatory process of co-creation, in which the final product emerged organically as we moved forward. Truth-seeking and collective memory are long term processes that cannot be achieved with a single approach. This project, which brings together artists, activists, survivors, practitioners and academics, uses art to reach different audiences and catalyse a dialogue about the impact of past repression and how to prevent its recurrence,” says Virginie Ladisch, ICTJ’s Senior Expert on Truth-Seeking and Civic Engagement.

The team has also used radio, a graphic novel, and written testimony to share narratives to create different narratives about dignity, respect for rights, and empathy, with a focus on women’s experience in Tunisia.

The narratives aim to promote dialogue, both in Tunisia and globally, as a way of building understanding for others and a more inclusive and just society. It will travel to three other cities in Tunisia – Kef, Sfax, and Redeyef.

Voices of Memory is designed by scenographers Marouen and Taieb Jallouli, with light by Ahmad Bennys and sound by Wissam Ziadi. In addition, it brings together the contemporary works of Wiem Haddad, Salma Wahida, Abdesslam Ayed, Nabil Saouabi, Walid Ardhaoui, Lasaad Ben Sghaier, and Najah Zarbout.

ENDS

For more information please contact Tony Moran, International Communications Manager, University of Birmingham, on +44 121 414 8254. Alternatively, contact the Press Office out of hours on +44 (0)7789 921165.

Notes to editors:

  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • The International Center for Transitional Justice works for justice in countries that have endured massive human rights abuses under repression and in conflict. We work with victims, civil society groups, national, and international organizations to ensure redress for victims and to help prevent atrocities from happening again.
  • For more information on the exhibition, please see www.voicesofmemory.tn.