Gender Through The Circus Ring

The story of SenCirk is the story of a circus that began without a circus tent or equipment. It is a story embodied, emboldened and lifted beyond the safety web of circus swings by a small group of young, die-hard dreamers. A story that captures best what it means to sail on the stormy seas of countless obstacles and how to do so, with awe-inspiring fun and vitality. 

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Our two protagonists are Marietou Thiam and Maty Niang. Their passion for the art of performing had brought these young acrobatics lovers together to devise new, and unsupervised techniques to teach and to learn from one another in their home country Senegal, where circus did not exist before.

After years of preparation without a physical space to train, upon hearing their story a French circus donated their old equipment and sent it all the way to Dakar. Although the tent was rusty and required a lot of effort to restore, it turned into more than a space of spectacle. It became a meeting point, the center from within their life would unfold. And this is how the first circus of Senegal was born. 

Although there are female artists in the group they are in a sharp minority. The girls who find their way into the group however, play a strong and defining role in their movement. Marietou Thiam is 27. She received a conservative education. She is one of the acrobats who have created her own small group of performers, Les Terribles. Her unyielding passion for performing led her to discontinue her degree and dedicate her life to practice. The rhythm of her life today beats to the pulsing, playful sounds of the circus, being at the heart of everything she does. She teaches her craft to orphans several times a week, in a county where the number of abandoned children is an ever mounting problem. Once old enough to leave the orphanage, many of her pupils would join the community. For them, the circus becomes their home, and their family. 

Maty is 28. She is the first female acrobat in Senegal to perform in a hijab (the Islamic headscarf for women) and she does so by working alongside men on a daily basis. Despite her fierce dedication and the joyful reception of the Senegalese audience, her family doesn’t want her to continue on this path. Maty has lost hope with conventional education, and similarly to Marietou dropped out of university to fully align her life with her passion. As Marietou, she also teaches acrobatics to children. 

For Marietou the fight is not over yet. Her family, she says, wants her to marry as soon as possible. It is difficult however, as she put it, to find a man who would understand her art, and also, accept her to keep pursuing her dream. For her the circus is equivalent with hope. That is why her next performance project is titled “Freedom”. She says it is about her life. 

To celebrate the International Day Of The Girl, KOVENT had the chance to catch the two acrobats, Marietou and Maty for an intimate and inspiring interview where they talk about their struggle as the first female acrobats of their country, and the role of art in shaping their community and inspiring other young women to never give up the fight for their dreams. 
 

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KONVENT: Marietou and Maty, thanks a lot for finding time for this interview with KONVENT. Do you remember the earliest memory of when you wanted to do what you do today and why?

 

Marietou: The first time when I saw a female circus performer, I felt immediately enchanted by her. I remember telling myself, if she can do it, I can do it as well. At the beginning I had a lot of fear, but I managed to overcome it. 

 

Maty: I used to be a gymnast before but I also wanted to enter university to study law. Once I started my studies I realised I won't be able to continue training and the competitions, and that the campus was also too far from my home. I couldn't train and attend classes at the same time. Once I started going to university, I discovered Sencirk which was close by. When I visited it, I realised it was very similar to gymnastics, and that’s how I started training. I was training for two years. I don’t regret having chosen the circus. I could still go back to study if I wanted to but I will definitely not leave the circus. 

 

"Circus is not only my passion but my profession. It allows me to revolt."
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KONVENT: Is it important to you to raise questions and awareness about certain subjects through your work? 

Marietou: Of course, already through our art - when we perform for people, we don't only do it to provide them with beauty. We are artists, we have to transmit messages. What is important, is to show to people that we have the right to be independent. That is why I directed a performance called Liberty. I wanted to show society that I have rights. That I cannot be forced into a certain role, job or a marriage. We can't force Maty to veil herself or to reveal herself.  It has to come from her.. Whatever we chose must come from us. Our society doesn't know the circus but that doesn't mean we shouldn’t practice. Our culture is limited, but that doesn't mean that we should limit ourselves as well. We have to go beyond our culture. We must cultivate a spirit of overcoming, superseding, see what the others are doing. Try to be there with them. Exchange, collaborate. In my culture there are positive things, but that doesn't mean other cultures are negative. Each culture has positive and negative aspects. We have to go out into the world and search for the positive things in the whole world, to collect, safeguard and share them in order to create something new, better and different. 

KONVENT: What was or still is your biggest challenge as the founder of the first circus of Senegal? What did you learn from it?

 

Marietou: In Senegal there is only one circus, and that is SenCirk. Evidently we are the first women who practice circus in Senegal. So for me, personally it was a big challenge, because I toured in different festivals in Africa where there were very few women who did acrobatics. Since I'm part of an association with SenCirk, my dream is to open a place where I would love to train the youth, sooner. We have no school, no diplomas. Personally, I dream about opening a school, where the kids could learn what circus is. So it won't be as difficult for them as it was for us. 

 

Maty: For me, when I debuted, Senegal didn't know anything about circus. So people were asking what is this? What are you doing here? My first objective was to create awareness amongst the Senegalese society around this art form. I was also asking myself why shouldn't we travel? To make connections? And then come back to Senegal and share this knowledge with the youth. To me this seems realistic as we have many opportunities to make connections within and beyond Senegal. 

 

KONVENT: What does circus mean to you? What lies behind your passion?

 

Marietou: I can only say circus is my life, as I don't do anything else at the moment and for always. It is my passion, but it is also my profession, because it is with the circus that I am earning my living. I feel lucky to have work that I love a lot and that also gives me the possibility to be around children, as I love kids. Besides the performances, I also play in different spectacles and give courses to children.  And this is something very important for me. The circus is my life, and I wouldn't want to do anything else. Even if one day I stop performing I would prefer becoming an artistic director, or teacher, as this would allow me to keep working with artists or children. So in short the circus is my life. 

 

Maty: To me circus is not only my passion but my profession. It allows me to revolt. 


 

Maty: As Marietou said, art helps me to translate difficult questions. To transmit messages to children and the elderly, allows us to express ourselves without limitations. If I was a singer, I could sing my feelings to others, but it is our body that speaks to the audience, it is our body that tells a story. 


 

KONVENT: What does women empowerment mean to you? Do you translate it into your work?

Marietou: Here in Senegal women are treated in a very difficult way. To be with a man is already very problematic. In my society, men dominate women. We are always second. Personally, I don't have a sense of superiority. To me it's a matter of equality. A woman must have the right to speak, to take decisions, to express her sentiments, to make choices. But in our society we are very limited. So my aim is to give more space to women, to be able to express themselves, because we have the right to be free and not be below men. We also need to give women recognition for their merits. We have to give them the chance to choose their path and to be free from limitations. I consider myself a woman who wants to be an example for other women, and to provide them with knowledge. Already with my work, I did four festivals, every time I was the only woman with the male performers. When a man only plays one performance, I play in three other performances at the same time. I feel very exhausted at the end, but I don't mind. After every performance people would come to me and say, but how do you do that, you must be exhausted? But in that moment I'm proud, and I tell myself, voila, I'm a fighter, I can also attain what a man can attain. 

 

Maty: I have a twin, for instance, who is a man. I realised that at home, we always say men are ahead of women. Women always have to pass behind the men. I realised that most of the decisions are made by him. That, most of the time it's him who works, goes to school, goes out or speaks at home, as if there was no space for women in the house. I realised he is treated with more attention and importance than I am. So I wanted to show to my family that I am a woman and I'm not going to stay home, clean, cook etc. I will leave, look for a job and return. And I showed that, as a woman I can find work, and what's more, turn my passion into my work, and earn enough with it to sustain myself.  With SenCirk, I had the idea to create a performance with the contribution of all the women and present it on the 8th of March, but unfortunately with corona we were not able to continue creating the project.


 

KONVENT: If you could have one message to young girls today, what would it be?

 

Marietou: In Senegal, men treat women as objects. This objectification is what hurts me the most.  So I would like to say to all women, especially those women who feel they won't be able to succeed without a man, to think being independent. That they are able to achieve anything they want by themselves. And to stay together always, forming a union of support. 

 

Maty: Women must learn to be independent. Not to be dependent on men or anyone. Not to let society choose for us. We have to be fighters and make our own choices, and not regretting them afterwards. We must do what we love.


 

KONVENT: As someone who has lived and worked in the Middle East, I have a lot of respect for Islam as a spiritual, social and artistic practice, such as Sufism. In the West and Europe in particular, we have a very reductive view on Islam. I was interested in your experience as women to spirituality, and whether the domination you described previously is informed by this practice or is it socially rooted? 

 

Maty: In my opinion it is because our religion says that men aren't equal to women, that men are always ahead of them. This is something implanted in our heads at a very young age. When men are taught this at a young age, this is how they will grow up, and this is how they will continue their lives. 

 

Marietou: I’ll give you an example: My grandma told me that at the beginning, a long time ago, men refused women to learn to read and to learn the Koran, because it was evident that it gave them rights. They didn’t want women to learn about their rights and that men also have obligations towards them. In our religion, women are important in the eyes of God, therefore men must respect and treat them well. Of course there is a difference between men and women in the Koran, but each difference has its advantages.

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"Each culture has positive and negative aspects. We have to go out, and into the world, and search for the positive things in the whole world, to collect, safeguard and share them in order to create something new, better and different."