Voices of Memory: Living Memorial for Women Victims of the Dictatorship

A colorful event poster in French for an art exhibit.

Voices of Memory was a traveling exhibition, with shows in Tunis, Kef, Sfax, and Redeyef, running from September through December 2018.

A worn, pink plastic basket sits on top of a small table in a dark room.

El Koffa

The traditional Tunisian basket used to bring food to prisoners

“In Tunisian dialect, when it comes to food that the family brings to a prisoner, we say 'I'm preparing the basket.' And there begins the difficult journey: finding 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 suffer the shouting of the guards before you are granted access, watch them search and turn upside down the food so lovingly prepared, often endure refusal of all or part of the food, and to be at the mercy of the guards, who may decide to deprive a prisoner of their basket.”

The top images shows a concrete wall with two openings in it, that have an art installation behind them.


Lassaad Ben Sghaier

Installation (steel structure, concrete panels, photographs, black light, and sound)

Meaning 1: Bringing a situation to light

Meaning 2: The chemical bath in which an X-ray is soaked to make the otherwise invisible picture appear

The installation appears as a closed structure that reminds the visitor of both an isolation cell and a black box. On the face of the structure, slots are cut out that allow the viewer to see the inside. These slots reveal photographs of several items linked to prison, including the baskets prepared by the relatives for their incarcerated loved ones.

The installation ties together the conditions of incarceration and the photographic process. Space itself is paramount: It is confined, dark, and solitary. The series of photos hint at the searching of the baskets by the prison guards. Finally, waiting for the photos to gradually reveal themselves evokes the moments spent by the inmates eagerly waiting to unveil the content of their baskets.

A collection of x-rays of various objects, like keys, glasses and a book.

"Scanner," Abdesslem Ayed, Installation (X-ray).

"Scanner" is an installation that scrutinizes the status of objects in our control-based societies, and more particularly in prisons, which bring to their paroxysm aspects of the modern, everyday civic life of citizens who can move "freely."

The scanner device consists of a series of movable aluminum frames in which X-rays of prohibited objects are displayed. The mechanism allows the viewer to scroll through X-ray films using a crank; a neon light eventually reveals the X-rayed objects to the viewer. The dominant color is a dark blue, but it becomes transparent under the neon lights. This color, which evokes a dream state and a marine environment, is paradoxically displayed in a mechanical and closed environment. "Scanner" represents this contradiction between the open and the enclosed, the clear and the dark, and the one who controls and that which is controlled.

Six containers are arranged in a grid, each one with an image in the bottom of two hands interacting with fruit and other food items.

"From Hand to Hand," Najah Zarbout, Video Installation

The "koffa" is for the prisoner and his family a challenge to separation. Prepared with affection, it is loaded with unwritten messages; the dishes sent are not simply a set of nutritious food items but a specific alchemy to best convey feelings and thoughts.

In this ritual, the intruder is the jailer who at the checkpoint of the prison entrance mocks and disfigures this "offering," indulging in unpleasant and aggressive gestures. In search of a possible hidden message, and out of fear of a hidden object, the guardian cuts the food and crushes it between his fingers. It is there, in this game of hands, that one is transported from love to negligence, from envy to disgust, from respect to contempt, from hope to despair

A piece of textile art, where the artist has embroidered four people at the top and an upside down koffa basket near the bottom, on a piece of transparent tulle.

"Threads of Time," Salma Wahida. Textile Installation (Tulle Embroidery).

The women depicted in the textile are fixed and still. The searches and prison the corridors, where they are piled up like old rags against the gloomy walls, deplete them of their dynamism. They stand facing the barbed wire, with their bodies showing very little emotion. Though deprived of their dignity, they still hold and fight on.

Each node, each thread is nothing more than a set of constraints and obstacles that these women must overcome, thereby creating the human beings that they are.

Symbols of eternal revolt, these women are up against all odds. They get lost but manage to find themselves, again; though incomplete, they are always ready to take on a new challenge, and while tired, they are happy to stand together as a threat to all those who hide in a bigger prison far from them. No barrier stops them, but what about the cowards who think they are free, locked in the abyss of their fears?

Nine black frames hang on a wall, each one framing a piece of fabric in a different color that has some embriodery on them.

"Between the Lines," Salma Wahida, Embroidered clothing.

Traditionally, clothes are signs of identification and allow concealing and showing, veiling and unveiling; they are a second skin that personifies the one who wears it. If the garment features embroidered text, it becomes a means to communicate with others. It is also an instrument of resistance, transgressive to the regime's oppression.

A drawing of men in a room, sitting on bunkbeds close together like in a prison, with some fluorescent paint, shown under a black light.

"Triptyque 60/40,"  Walid Ardhaoui, Drawing and fluorescent painting on paper, black light.

"When seriousness is mistaken for laugh, a victim may turn into a rough criminal whoever turned the bodies free, reasoned minds but shackled the soul of you and me once a prisoner, but now her jailer, so many start big but end up frailer."

Poem by Mnaouer Smadeh (translation)

A square grid with four images, each image is a body part cast out of plaster, set on a white seamless background. There is a hand, a foot, a shoulder, and another foot.

"The Crack of Epiderm in the Invisible Realm," Wiame Haddad, Photographs.

First, there is the idea, vague and unreal, that runs through my mind. The incongruous, almost shameless, but joyous possibility of being able to recreate a body, a piece of this body, damaged, invisible, forgotten by history, giving back to it a substance, a form, an existence. Then you have to understand the material—one that by a precise and chemical dosage comes first to cover the arm, the foot, or the bust of my subject. In the mold, layers come in succession, and so does time. Mixtures dry and manipulations finally show only a fine and delicate white and powdery surface, faithful and almost complete. It is "quasi" because there are of course accidents in this attempt to master the technique, the same ones that give the final piece this precious imperfection.

History is immense and I am interested here in the smallest detail, the gesture, the desire to study a fragment of  the political body. It is not history that made this body a political body; it is you, it is me, it is our preconceived and unconscious projections that build it and define it in simplified perspectives. The photographs are a translation of this body through the fragment. By moving it, isolating it, cutting it out, they try to rebuild it. In what order should these fragments be presented? I wonder! The color, the shape, the size, the person and her history, chronology, musicality, depth. I choose disorder.

Two images together, the one on the top is a still image of a video projection on a wall, with a woman in a hijab waving on the left and a woman stirring a pot on the right. The bottom image is many colorful pots arranged on the top of a table.

"Prison Is a Liar and Who Is Alive Goes Away," Nabil Sawabi, Video Installation.

This work is framed by two juxtaposed screens that display alternating testimonies and scenes of everyday life using a poetic documentary approach. The double-screen video installation creates a complex space-time dimension and multiplies the narrative possibilities through editing processes such as slow motion, repetition, superposition, cohabitation, fusion, and the superimposition of multiple facets and strata of the real (the words of the witnesses) which gradually reveal a failed and painful life.

Words and Reminiscence

Testimonies take on a poetic and political dimension that plays out through the narrative. On the one hand, the emotional and human dimension gradually emerges through the strata of words and the daily struggle with pain, distress, and injustice. On the other hand, through the succession of images imbued with the real, the depiction of daily life creates an atmosphere of continuity, determination, and hope.

Memory and resistance, or poetics of absence

What is absent (the prisoner, the body of suffering) resumes its place through reminiscence, both as the memory of the torture and as a process of catharsis and resistance. Memory is about rendering the invisible visible. It becomes meaningful and momentous if it is kept alive as a matrix by which to build the future and reconcile with the past.

A dark room with a wooden box in the middle, that is surrounded on three sides with barbed wire, and there is a set of headphones on top of the box.

"Listen, the Sound of Memory Is Everywhere Around You,"  Wissam Ziadi, Audio Installion.

"The Sound of Memory" is an intergenerational artistic and cultural creation. Through the testimonies and stories of the women from the Voices of Memory group, this audio archive invites you to visit a piece of Tunisian history. It is addressed to all prisoners of conscience; as far as they can remember, they will hear a melody, a voice, a language they will recognize.

On September 22, 2018, the International Center for Transitional Justice and the University of Birmingham launched Voices of Memory, an interactive exhibition inspired by a group of nine Tunisian women from across the country and from different generations. It is the first collective testimonial of Tunisian women who experienced the effects of repression under the Ben Ali regime. 

In an effort to inspire visitors to envision a more just future for Tunisia, the women chose as the central motif for the exhibition the “Koffa,” the traditional Tunisian basket used to bring food to political prisoners. The Koffa, generally prepared with love and loaded with unwritten messages, was often arbitrarily denied to prisoners. It thus represents a loved one’s offering and a protest against forced separation.

Inside of a stone building, like up warm orange light.

“The power of this collective work of art lies in its ability to document and unveil hidden human rights violations endured by women in Tunisia under the dictatorship, including wrongful imprisonment, constant surveillance, physical and sexual abuse, and other violations,” explained ICTJ’s Virginie Ladisch. “By highlighting the everyday erosion of dignity caused to women, the artwork stands as a living testimony to exclusion and oppression experienced across society and promotes a deep understanding of the shared humanity of the other.”

By offering a distinctly interactive experience and platform for memorialization, this project invites participants into a dialogue about the universality of women's experiences and that builds a bridge between generations and among marginalized voices. "Voices of Memory" seeks to raise public awareness, instill a in participants a sense of rejection of these violations, and push for humane treatment for all prisoners. Through this exhibition and in partnership with Museum Lab and a team of artists, this group of Tunisian women sought to dig deep into the past in order to build a future where justice and mutual respect reign supreme.

Two women in a room, standing to the left of artwork mounted on a stone wall.

As visitors walk through the exhibition, they experience the sights, sounds, and even smells of a prison cell. In a designated reflection room, they are encouraged to share and record their own stories of confinement or repression. Through this distinctively interactive experience, the project engages citizens in a dialogue about the universality of women’s experiences. Ultimately, it seeks to build a bridge between generations, genders, and political and social divides, and to remind Tunisians of the other's humanity and the equality of all citizens.

Visit voicesofmemory.tn to explore more from the Voices of Memory project, including a graphic novel and an interactive, three-dimensional walkthrough of the exhibit, and to submit your own reflections.