Feminist Art and the French Revolution

A conversation with Iman Kerroua about feminist art and the role of art in the revolution.

DYS: I have had the amazing pleasure to work on Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists with Strawdog Theatre Company for the past several months. With a team of intersectional artists including Alex Casillas (scenic design), Claire Chrzan (lighting design), and Leah Hummel (costume design). We brought together a very intentional cast and production team to tell the story from an intersectional feminist perspective.

DYS: While working on The Revolutionists, I was also in planning an pre production for GHL’s next big international project: Medusa. It was the great fortune of collaborative art that I was doing one project about a badass french art and activism, and was deep in another process with a modern day french artist and activist. I couldn’t help it. We had to chat about it.

DYS: Hi Iman!! I’m SO excited to chat. Before we get into the thick of it, can you tell me a little bit about yourself, where you're from, what you do, and the kind of art you make?

IK: My name is Iman, I was born and raised in Paris. My parents are from Algeria, I was raised with Arabic / Muslim backgrounds. I am an actor, writer and director. I co-founded a theatre company in Paris, I directed (and acted) our last 2 productions. My practice is hugely influenced by physical theatre (Grotowski, Jan Fabre and Yorgos Karamalegos). Before working on a theatre project, I always remind myself of this Picasso's quote: "What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world. Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It's an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy." I agree with Picasso, Art is a weapon. The purest weapon. Art is intrinsinquely political. My theatre pieces have to challenge the audience and engage them to reflect on societal themes. I absolutely adore when people come to discuss, argue, share their opinions at the end of a show. It means my job is done!

DYS: What does revolution mean to you?

IK: A revolution is when a shift occurs in a defined order. A substantial shift which shakes the rules. When a class of individuals rebel against the established order. A group of people suffering from exploitation, discriminations and enslavement, who get together and organise to change the system which enslave them. The notion of unity is very important. We have a saying in French "L'union fait la force" ... union is strength, a revolution can only occur if people unite and fight together. I believe this is much harder in nowadays society. People are much more individualist and narcissistic,which prevent larger scale contestation movement. 

The Revolutionists    by Lauren Gunderson  Kamille Dawkins as Marianne Angelle, Kat McDonnell as Olympe de Gouges, & Izis Mollinedo as Charlotte Corday

The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson
Kamille Dawkins as Marianne Angelle, Kat McDonnell as Olympe de Gouges, & Izis Mollinedo as Charlotte Corday

DYS: The Revolutionists is about Women demanding to be included in revolutionary conversations. In the play we meet Olympe de Gouges, Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, and La Marianne. What do you think of when you think of these women? How does your relationship to them inform your ideas of Revolution?

IK: These women have a powerful resonance in people's mind, but they are drastically different. Olympe is an extraordinary avant-gardist political and social thinker / philosopher (and theatre maker!), Marie-Antoinette was a victim of her birth and political context of her time, Charlotte was a fierce revolutionist, she had the courage to act upon her ideas and La Marianne is a fantasy, a man-created representation of a utopia (French Republic... but what does / did it mean??). Their tragic destinies reflect the violence and chaos of their time. I do believe that chaotic times produce or enhance genius. They reveal the courage or true colour of people. These women died for their ideas, they never denied who they were or their convictions. Marie Antoinette, Olympe and Charlotte remained dignified until the end. There is a sense of martyrdom in revolutions. Che Guevara wouldn't have been such an icon if it wasn't for his tragic death (Fidel died as tyran...). Even for Marie Antoinette's case, she died as a queen, she never denied her birth or status. Her death marked the beginning of the darkest time of French Revolution. You have to be ready to sacrifice for your ideas, you have to be ready to go all the way for what you believe.

DYS: What revolutionary woman has inspired you?

IK: I admire every day hero, every day revolutionary individual. Like Rosa Parks. Her courage is so inspiring. She did not need an army, a philosophical essay or violent deed to start a revolution. She just stood her ground with dignity and refused to stand up. Rosa Parks bravery truly moves me and inspire me. Revolution can start anywhere, any day. It takes courage and commitment.

DYS: Do you think art can be revolutionary? If so, how?

IK: Yes. Hell yes. I recently saw an exhibition of Dorothea Lange photography. Her work is profoundly social and political and I daresay revolutionary. She was the first photographer to depict the awful reality of Great Depression. She was the first photographer to make elaborated portrays of farmers, workers and their families, showing their tragic poverty but with artistic dignity. When he saw her pictures Roosevelt demanded to build emergency shelters for these people. 

That is for me the purpose of Art, to show / challenge people's perspective on things. And change them.

DYS: What excites you about making feminist theatre? 

IK: Feminism is imperative, not just for theatre or Art, but for everyone. Justice and equality should be a fundamental (basic level) topic which should concern male / female individuals. Unfortunately Feminism remains a complex and nuanced debate. As a woman, I can experience inequality everyday (for me and female friends). I think that these experiences inevitably influence me in my thinking and the work I want to make. I believe strongly that theatre is a place for raising questions; for creating dialogue with audiences; for sharing; and for meaningful exchange to take place. 

The Revolutionists, produced by Strawdog Theatre Company, runs Nov. 15-Dec. 29 at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave. Tickets are $18-$35 each; visit Strawdog.org or call 773-644-1380.

Medusa workshops kick off in London in January of 2019. Keep up to date, and help us fundraise for our travel!