Rayelle Niemann

Introducing the Multimedia Art of Fatma Charfi

While time passes, issues of current interest remain over decades and centuries. Raising fundamental questions, picking up on day-to-day themes, transforming personal experiences into accessible languages representing the whole – these are the challenges taken on artists.
For Fatma Charfi, all of the varying influences shaping her individuality are reflected in her work. As a contemporary artist of African origin claiming her place in her new Swiss home while remaining aware of her background, the experiences and consequences of a life in diaspora are irreversible. Charfi fights to reaffirm her own identity as a woman, a creative person and an immigrant perceived as Tunisian in Switzerland and as Swiss in Tunisia. Looking back on 13 years of a broad palette of exhibition activities, her steadily growing, comprehensive body of work proves Charfi’s persistent and uncompromising attitude towards her self-image as an artist.
Born in Sfax, Tunisia, Charfi was the only woman to join the audiovisual class at the École des Beaux-Arts in Tunis in the 1970s. In addition to the required thesis for her examination, she presented a game consisting of photographical details featuring parts of children's smiling or laughing faces. These different images reinforced the results of her thesis research on children’s laughter and smiles. Utilizing depth analyses, Charfi took a closer look at the different meanings a casually received laugh or smile can have. Her inquiry led her to the paradoxical conclusion that a laugh or smile so easily been taken as a sign of joy might also express fear, timidity, insecurity or repulsion.
In order to increase her artistic knowledge Charfi decided to leave her secure family surroundings at the beginning of the 1980s. With her father's support, she yearned for further study in a broader and yet unknown cultural territory. At the Institut d’Esthétique et des Sciences de l’Art at the Sorbonne in Paris, a class with a purely academic orientation, she finished her studies enabling her to teach at universities. Again her examination was surprising. As an artist striving for free expression, she presented a practical study on water; displaying water games made of different tanks, varying watercourses and different colors of water. With these early installations, for children easy to relate to, a characteristic which was essential to her, Charfi demonstrated investigations on reason and effect, a subject area to which she has repeatedly returned. During her stay in Paris she had a very important experience which years later would come to play a major role in her life but was then manifested in the belief in and the understanding of her artistic mode of expression: that a universal language of art can exist without the loss of one’s own authenticity.
At the end of the 1980s, she moved to Berne, Switzerland. With a strong historical and theoretical artistic background, she refined her practical skills at the Atelier de Textile in Geneva, gaining profound knowledge in the handling of a wide variety of materials. While raising two children, the daily demands of her motherhood did not prevent Charfi from focusing on her art. On the contrary the supportive, educational and protective roles she fulfilled were further inspiration for reflection and scrutiny on essential questions of life. Charfi’s artistic messages demand these "maternal" instincts and considerations from human beings in general, regardless of gender. Yet Charfi remains aware that she as a woman has a unique connection to and therefore a responsibility for life. This conclusion made her more determined to take on responsibility as an artist using interactive media to reflect on worldwide events and the state of humanity. In fact, in dealing with the complexity of her life as an immigrant Maghrebian woman, Fatma Charfi generated the anthropological, social and political awareness for her artistic path. Hence she achieved certainty that there are concerns that must be communicated that reach beyond personal scores – related to one of the statements Frantz Fanon claimed in his famous speech "Wretched on the Earth" at the Congress of Black Writers in 1959: "…The consciousness
of self is not the closing of a door to communication. Philosophic thought teaches us, on the
contrary, that it is its guarantee…"
It was in 1995 that I invited Fatma Charfi to participate in an exhibition I curated entitled "The disappearing of the body." Her work "Gulf" was an installation consisting of hundreds of little creatures she calls Abroucs, a Tunisian word describing someone who is clever, sly, yet ludicrous. The Abroucs became a matter of form, laying the foundation for and serving the economical means of the artistic expression Charfi defined in her Rap poem "System D."
While watching coverage of the Gulf War on television at the beginning of 1991, her hands formed hundreds of Abroucs in tissue paper dyed with black ink, cut and rolled in accordance with the special breadmaking technique used by Tunisian women. The figures symbolize the deindividualization of human beings during wartime. The installation "Gulf" was spread out on the floor; the Abroucs, scattered like disturbed insects, were crawling, falling, paralyzed in motion, searching for contact and support with their long extremities – charred dead bodies, dehumanised creatures.
Fatma Charfi’s comment on war was strong and intriguing, questioning as it did the value of human beings, their intentions and fates. This piece, first shown at the Biennale de Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1992 captured much attention and marked a starting point for the sophisticated development of her body of work. Since then, Fatma Charfi must have formed thousands and thousands of these figures, each looking alike but each different from the other. The lives of the Abroucs progress constantly, undergoing different phases.
In her later works, such as "Pyramidal Installation" and "Shelters," each individual Abrouc is locked into a transparent plexiglass box, isolated from other Abroucs and from the outside world in an act recalling practices of modern science and the pain of social ostracization.
Fatma Charfi’s investigations juxtapose personal distinctiveness with common experiences and hierarchical boundaries. The Abroucs, these hybrid and fragile yet strongly expressive figures, set out alone, in pairs, in groups, in plexiglass boxes, shrink-wrapped, embryo-shaped, dancing, settled peacefully, in close embrace, lost, with restrained violence, embody universal metaphors for the presence of individuals and their social status in the world.
In 1999 Charfi invented a new figure deriving from the Abroucs: "Le petit Swiss" bears the same hybrid form but this time is a red figure with a white cross on its body. "Le petit Swiss" allowed Charfi to reflect upon and express her problematic relationship with Western culture and the contradictory reactions she receives from the Swiss art world and from abroad. Charfi has found very little acclaim in the country she has long called her home. Due to its inherently complicated approach to people in diaspora, Switzerland, one of the few European countries without a colonialist past, takes a rather reserved and disinterested position in discussions concerning postcolonialism and eurocentricity. Although large missionary movements, especially from Basel, have arisen there, Switzerland has also been the setting for intense economic associations to dictatorships and non-participation in economic boycotts, e.g. against South Africa. In ignorance of those people of the diaspora who live in Switzerland, these discourses are rejected as imported, as imposing difficulties.
The perception of Charfi's art in an international context underscores its powerful expression and inherent meaning. She was awarded first jury prize at the 1999 Alexandria Biennial Festival in Egypt. In Summer 2000, she was the only artist resident in Switzerland to be invited among 100 international artists for the Uppsala Biennale Eventa 5 in Sweden. At the World's Fair in Hanover, Germany, she represented Tunisia, her country of origin. Again in 2001 she was the only Swiss artist to participate in the 1st International Contemporary Art Encounter held on the Canary Islands. The Swiss media, however, only mentioned her honours with a few lines, if at all.
Apart from these major events, the Biennale of Dakar in Senegal continues to exert a powerful impact on Fatma Charfi’s international acknowledgement. In 1998, she was invited for the first time. At this second Biennale in Dakar, Charfi exhibited her work "Undershirt," an oversized vest made of transparent plastic with several pockets into which Abroucs were welded to float connotations of ammunition pouches.
At that time, understanding at the Biennale for artististic expression was still strict and limited. The quest for a reasonable answer to the identity of an "African expression" itself had not yet gotten started. Charfi's work was misunderstood and displayed in the textile section. In spite its being exhibited in the wrong place, the work did not lose its powerful emanation and many international art critics and visitors recognized and valued its inherent expressivity.
Since then Charfi has been invited to the Dakar Biennale twice again, each time selected by a different international jury. At the 4th Dakar Biennale Dak’Art in 2000, she was honored with the "Leopold Sedar Senghor Grand Prix." In having matched herself against artists of the same continental heritage, yet with diverse cultural backgrounds, this proved to be a significant and important event, both for Charfi personally, as well as for her artistic biography. But within the context of the Biennale itself, it also marked a turning point: for the first time a woman and an artist from North Africa, from the Maghreb, was awarded the prize. This time there was no misunderstanding or confusion in positioning her oeuvre according to its true nature. Due to fundamental changes undertaken by the Biennale's organization for the participation for non-African residents of African origin, the "African space" was enlarged both in terms of space and of artistic language. This time Charfi exhibited in the International Exhibition Section, displaying four different pieces summing up an encyclopedia of human susceptibilities. One work, entitled "Numismatique," is a folder containing a number of plastic sheets originally used for coin collections. These sheets now contain flat pressed, rolled up Abroucs to resemble a display catalog questioning the value of human beings.
"Installation Vertical" is a 2.3 meter tower, built of plexiglass boxes each containing innumerable Abroucs cramped into the space. This installation gives the impression of being research material left behind from a scientific laboratory. On the floor, Charfi's Abroucs are spread out on a frieze of rectangular modules, arranged by pieces of cotton batting alternately covered with mesh. Although the cotton batting would indicate protection and insulation, the application of mesh creates an opposing perception: is it protecting or locking away? Are the uncovered Abroucs left vulnerable or do they gain more liberty?
Charfi also showed a video piece in which an Abrouc moves in exuberance. The light dance changes into movements of insanity. Almost in smooth transition, the single Abrouc's dance passes into the grim macabre spectacle of a crowd, shadows stagger and sway, conducted like puppets by invisible hands, each turning into mere form.

In spite of having been awarded this important prize in Dakar, Charfi’s work was again not chosen for the annual Christmas exhibition in Berne, her place of residence, nor has she been invited to exhibit in renowned Swiss Museums. Although a major exhibition on African art was taking place in Switzerland and the art world was preparing for the documenta XI curated by Okwui Enwezor, the Swiss approach towards Charfi’s work remained one of restraint and uneasiness.
Rather than being proud of a foreign artist living in one's own country, it is easier to make use of the "other" from afar. This is less dangerous than acknowledging the "other" in one's own garden who, by dint of a different view of things provokes unwanted and unasked for looks at that which one likes to call one's own. The "other" from afar remains "other"; it can be pushed out of sight again quickly, and its content and the questions it raises are easily dismissed as "not pertaining to us." Power is plainly distributed. The saying, "Never expect gratitude once you've served your purpose," reads in German as the well-known phrase "Once the Negro has done his duty, he may leave."
The "African" art scene itself had a great deal of trouble with "other" artistic positions as can be inferred by the reactions of both individuals and the African press to the distribution of the awards in Dakar. One could read and hear, for instance, that the awards were considered concessions to Western trends in art, the works honoured "un-African" and their distinction a betrayal of one's own culture. This all indicates that it will still take a long way to rewrite the canon, to overcome reciprocal prejudices and the enduring pain of colonial history and Western supremacy.
In spite of the friction with which she lives, Fatma Charfi’s artistic expression continues to progress as she resists adapting to the required language of globalized art practices, yet using the genres of installation and conceptualism. Rather, she maintains her own artistic system within which is developed a strong and sensual universe of its own.
Her recent works show an increasing awareness of her deep knowledge of "otherness" and inner vulnerability. At the most recent Dakar Biennale in 2002 she presented her poetic video work, "The cry of a child". A girl dressed in white is seated cross-legged on the floor. Hundreds of red tissue paper pellets lie in her lap. The girl's fingers unfold the pellets carefully. She throws them into the air and heart-shaped leaves fall onto her white dress and the white floor surrounding her.

The image of the red pellet, a small grain dormant with the richness of life, stands for the heart which should open up to spread humanity, kindness and understanding.
This symbol is also used in one of her interactive performances, "The Offering", which was also presented at the Dakar Biennale in 2002. While the sound of Jacques Brel’s song "Fils de Bourgeoisie," the theme of which is the equality of humankind, fills the room, Charfi, dressed in black, lies on the floor, covered with a long net full of black Abroucs attached to it and red pellets placed on top. At the end of the song, Charfi slowly gets up, still covered with the mesh; the red pellets roll and spread out on the floor. Like a bride rising from the dead she stands, carefully taking away the mesh, the veil. Slowly but determinedly she moves away, taking one of the calabasas filled with plexiglass medals, hanging on red ribbons and offering them to her audience. Inside of each of these delicate medals, embedded in white cotton batting, is a little red pellet. The person receiving a medal is asked to carefully open it to unroll the pellet tucked inside the batting; a heart made of tissue paper appears. Here, within the cotton batting, a material similar to the bandages and gauze used in hospitals to protect and comfort the wounded and/or newly born, the little red pellet stands for a drop of blood, for the initial grain of life.
At the last Dakar Biennale event Charfi presented one of the medals to Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, as well as to various cabinet ministers, asking them to put them on – which they did. In return, she invited them to give medals to heads of state and ministers from other African countries in order to share human magnificence. With this symbolic act rendering deep hope and belief in humankind, Fatma Charfi performs a gesture of splendid generosity, reaching out for the center of life in people and sharing precious pieces of her art by distribution. With her passionate approach to life Charfi offers participation in a Utopian vision set against hatred, violence and greed for a better, more just and peaceful existence.
Although Berne's art world has failed to respond, within the context of science and research Charfi's work has generated a good deal of interest. Since 1997 she has been asked to exhibit several times at the Academie des Sciences in Berne. In artistic statements she pays tribute to ethical discourses with which scientists are confronted in working in the field of tension between their develeopment of useful new technology and their interference with nature's course.

The artistic alphabet being invented by Fatma Charfi embraces different media, each utilized when appropriate. Her own body and voice are suitable when she performs to create a theatrical atmosphere. Displaying the Abroucs in different arrangements, she opens up space for visitors to enter and become part of the installation. Her videos absorb attention in a dreamlike world. Each media serves to break down ossified social positions.

Regarding her means of expression, Charfi always makes use of materials from her immediate environment which are in daily use. In employing ordinary things such as cotton batting, tissue paper, plastic, mesh, water she defines axioms of practical simplicity. Her reduced color spectrum – black, red, white and transparent – is no coincidence. Rather, it is proof of a radical statement opposing a disoriented world. Only a complete thought process and a clear artistic strategy can lead to an enhancement of ordinary material. Charfi's set economy of means is endowed with a remarkable richness and profundity shaped by her creative imagination. A dive into this realm seems to be virtually endless. By designing a universe she takes up space in this world, depicts strong reactions to global matters. There is no doubt that Charfi's work enlarges and deepens our views on essential and fundamental issues.

Zürich, January 2003