IMG_1772

The MWASI Collective Prove That a Safe Space for Black Femmes is Not “Reverse Racism”

Despite backlash, the first ever Afrofem Festival "Nyansapo" is a safe space for the African femmes in Paris. We speak to artists, organizers and activists who tell us how necessary these events are for the past, future and present of the African diaspora in Europe.

MWASI is a French Afrofeminist collective based in Paris and the suburbs. It was created in 2015 and its mere existence challenges France’s state-condoned colorblindness. The collective operates in a non-mixed environment, being exclusive to black and mixed-race women and femmes.

 

9mars afroféministe MWASI-24

 

In a country where the gatekeepers of feminism are largely elderly and White, this organization of young black women is seen as offensive. MWASI advocates for black womens’ liberation and fights for multiple causes — from fighting against police violence to fighting for workers’ rights. Fighting the good fight.

Last year, the collective published the book Afrofem with the aim of controlling the narrative around their actions and ideologies. In the summer of 2017, they organized Nyansapo, the first Afrofeminist festival in France. Some of the workshops held at the festival were designed to be attended solely by black women, leading to huge backlash from the Mayor of Paris who entertained the claims of “reverse racism” and threatened to cancel the festival.

 

IMG_1648

 

This year, for International Women’s Day, the collective decided to highlight art as a form of expression and activism. A two-day event was organized at La Générale Nord-Est, an old building once used for electricity distribution, which has now been transformed into an artistic, political and social cooperative located in the center of Paris. The theme of the event was “Déjouer le silence”/ “Thwarting Silence”.

Very often in professional settings, I am considered a negligible and replaceable data item

Their unapologetic focus on black women’s self-determination is also perceived as a threat. This further proved that in a country where race is taboo and has been erased from the constitution, Mwasi’s presence s necessary. They are making their mark on French feminist history, refusing to be erased by white feminism. They are breaking the silence.

The event was packed with exhibitions, workshops, talks, a DJ set and was a tribute to Ntozake Shange, the African-American feminist who passed away last year and whose work remains obscure in France. I spoke to artists and guests while I was at the event to gain insight on why this festival is so important.

 

9mars afroféministe MWASI-64

9mars afroféministe MWASI-66

 

Estelle Prudent lives and works in the Parisian suburbs. She is a multidisciplinary artist and her work mainly deals with queer and racial representations in France. She focuses on discriminatory spaces and French colonial history. Estelle has facilitated a workshop based on two of her projects: LITTLE SHE*T and QUEERSUPERPOWER. She decided to participate in this year’s event because she considers International Women’s Day to be an important day.

“It is rare that space is given to black artists dealing with racial, Afrofeminist and queer issues. Very often in professional settings, I am considered a negligible and replaceable data item. My work is often devalued and as a person, I am not respected.”

 

IMG_1603

 

Marie-Julie Chalu is an actress and author. She also runs the Afropea project. The Instagram page (@afropea) is a visual essay combining archives, bibliographies and artistic curatorship questioning the black presence in Europe through creativity. The collective asked her and Idjiatou Barry, another actress, to create a stage adaptation of the book “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When The Rainbow Is Enuf in order to pay tribute to Ntozake Shange at the event. They then began to look for women to play the other characters in the book,

“We created a team of seven women and we all participated in the creative process, in the work of re-translation, stage direction, costume ideas, artistic direction and political reflection.”

Being a woman and black puts you on the margins of history and the dominant memory

Chalu’s believes that the erasure of Ntozake Shange’s work in France is due to various factors: “Already, being a woman and black puts you on the margins of history and the dominant memory. In addition, I think that the topics addressed in this work, especially the racial issues, freedom and radical ideas she employs, are not easy for a French audience.

For example, France 20 years before translating bell hooks’ books into French, when she is a major figure in feminist theory! I also think of June Jordan, Audre Lorde and all those black feminist American women writers who are still obscure in France, maybe because their work isn’t as translated as much as other authors’ work.”

 

IMG_1668

 

Founé is a black feminist, a Pan-Africanist and a black Muslim activist. She is a schoolteacher by profession. She heard about the festival on social media and is part of black feminist networks and often attends events.

“I decided to come to this event because French black feminists are very present on social media and these kinds of events are necessary as they allow us to meet in real life, update our knowledge on the issues affecting us, support each other, support the hard work of the Mwasi collective and create networks in real life.”

You feel like you belong, and this is important as being black and a feminist in this society can get very lonely

She believes that these events are very important for black French women’s self-esteem and well-being whether they are activists or not, as they need spaces where they can speak up.

“When you enter the space it’s visually incredible, you see the decoration, the messages on the signs on the walls, the creativity, other women, their beauty, their inner light, the way they are happy to be here. It fills your heart with happiness and you feel safe, you feel like you belong, and this is important as being black and a feminist in this society can get very lonely.”

 

9mars afroféministe MWASI-51

 

Her favorite part of the two-day event was the DJ set, as it allowed the women to dance and move without fear of judgement. She also enjoyed the exhibitions, especially the Agua Benta installation by Maureen Douabou and Ana Laura Nascimento with its altar to black erotica.

“Those erotic African elements are sometimes hidden and taboo in our cultures, yet they exist and seeing them in this exhibition breaks the taboos. It shows us that we have the right to use them outside of the patriarchal, male-centered system they were intended for.”

The event also created space for children to learn. It also showcased a play intended to explain the concept of a workers’ strike to them, had a children’s book fair and the presence of organizations focused on the education of children of African descent.

 

IMG_1767

 

“I am so happy to see that many organizations for children of African descent are being created. It is important for us as black women who raise black and mixed-race children in a Western context, to be able to educate our children with Afrocentric references they can identify with”, Founé said with pride.

Despite the backlash against the previous black feminist festival it held, MWASI will be back with a sequel this summer. The 2019 Nyansapo festival will bring together various Afrofeminist collectives from across Europe and will take place in July in Paris. The theme chosen for this year’s edition is ‘Ton pied mon pied” / “My foot, your foot”, an expression from Côte d’Ivoire meaning “we’re together”. A perfect way to summarize the dreams of this Afrofeminist collective, if you ask me.

 

 

All photographs were taken by Virgina Quadjovie and Elsa Rakoto.

Maureen Douabou was born in Abidjan on a day of general strike. Her mother told her that the nurses closed the windows of the delivery room, but she believes that some tear gas entered her nose when she took her first breath and that explains many things about her personality. This self proclaimed queen of headwraps now lives in the suburbs of Paris where she carves out a place for herself as a translator, a writer and a visual artist. She is passionate about everything black feminism(s) and the beat of traditionnal drums is one of her favorite things in the whole wide world.
FacebookTwitterWhatsApp