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Art, activism & ending violence against women

The 25 November marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the first day in the United Nations campaign UNiTE, launching sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence that culminates on 10 December – International Human Rights Day.  
According to World Health Organisation estimates, 1 in 3 women will have experienced intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.  Violence against women and girls, manifesting itself in physical, sexual and psychological forms, happens in every country and every society. It happens at home, in schools, on the streets, at work and on the internet.  It remains largely unreported due to the impunity, silence, stigma and shame surrounding it.
It is therefore unsurprising that sexual and domestic violence against women and the need to protest against it, is the subject of a number of artworks. But what is the line between art and activism? Is the strength of the practice of art in transgressing boundaries? Despite the long-standing role of the artist as activist, for some it can be difficult to view socially engaged art making as an essential component for advocacy, intervention, and transformation.  However, as artists, community activists and scholars point out, art is a way of approaching and imagining different possibilities as to how we might live – it is a means of breaking the silence and challenging attitudes.
The pieces I am about to highlight are hard to stomach.  They are often considered explicit, provocative or confrontational.  They force us to reflect on humanity’s fascination with violence in art and the culture of spectatorship.  As Susan Sontag notes in her 2003 book-length essay Regarding the Pain of Others, “the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked”.
A significant early feminist work is Ablutions (1972) – a collaborative performance project about rape by Suzanne Lacy, Judy Chicago, Sandra Orgel and Aviva Rahmani.  Based on oral histories collected by Lacy and Chicago, the group staged a series of images around their bodies, representing metaphors of violence against women by bathing in eggs, blood and earth.  Another key work is Barbara Kruger’s large-scale black and white 1982 photographic collage Untitled, in which she lays the text “We have received orders not to move” over the silhouette of a seated woman with tacks pinned to her body.  Focusing on imposed social norms –the casting of women in the role of the passive agent totally subject to masculine control – Kruger has been quoted as saying that her work “welcomes the female spectator into the audience of men”, and encourages them to respond critically and freely.
Moving into the 1990s, Jenny Holzer’s Lustmord series (Lustmord is a German word meaning ‘sexual murder’) belongs to a group of works addressing the war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, in particular the violent physical abuse, rape and murder of women that occurred.  Her 1993-1994 photographs of handwritten, poetic and fragmentary texts on skin (printed in ink mixed with blood), subtly recount incidents of sexual assault and complicate the identities of the victim, observer and perpetrator, resulting in an uncomfortable viewing experience.

Similarly, as Sanja Iveković explains, her Women’s House (Sunglasses) project (2002 – present) started in Croatia, with the war in the former Yugoslavia forming the background to her interest in the issue of violence against women.  Iveković’s photo-text works juxtapose fashion photography (images of models advertising sunglasses) with first-hand accounts of domestic abuse gathered by the artist in her collaboration with women’s shelters across Europe.  According to Iveković, “the position of an artist differs from that of an activist, but rather than separating the two activities, we can see them as circles of human activity that overlap in a relatively small area, and that is the area in which I try to do most of my work”.  

Encouraging us to think about what draws us to look at art and consider it ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’, Argentine artist Marcelo Toledo has recently gained worldwide recognition for Detrás de las Paredes (roughly translated as ‘Behind Closed Doors’).  A collection of fourteen sculptures cast out of different types of polished metals including brass and copper, the works are designed to recreate the texture and appearance of the scars of survivors of gender-based violence.  “The idea isn’t to be morbid”, Toledo insists, “but to try to heal. To transform that wound and that pain into a work that will be beautiful, and transform it into something conceptual that helps testify and ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Back in September, students in Scotland may have visited Edinburgh’s Stills Gallery for photographer Alicia Bruce’s powerful Violence Unseen project commissioned by the Zero Tolerance campaign to end violence against women.   Working with groups and individuals, including women with learning disabilities, trans women, and female sex workers, Bruce explored the types of violence against women “that remain unseen and unacknowledged by mainstream society”.  Her images underlined Sontag’s assertion that “compassion is an unstable emotion.  It needs to be translated into action, or it withers”.  
As these examples show, art can be a form of action.  Against the backdrop of an unprecedented global outcry (think of the millions who have rallied behind the #MeToo or #TimesUp campaigns), art is becoming an increasingly important tool in raising awareness and provoking debate.  Creative practice can promote and effect positive change.
Image Credits:
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We have received orders not to move), 1982 © Barbara Kruger
Sanja Iveković, Women´s House (Sunglasses), 2002-present ©Art Collection Telekom
Marcelo Toledo, Detrás de las Paredes, 2016 © Marcelo Toledo 
Alicia Bruce, Violence Unseen, 2018 © Alicia Bruce

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Posted by author: Julia
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3 thoughts on “Art, activism & ending violence against women

  • I heard recently someone describe art as ‘educated pornography’ in reference to its predominantly naked female models and clothed male artists, and I’m increasingly concerned about the lack of agency women appear to have had as the subjects of art. Times are changing; women are exercising their power and making it clear that exploitation of women’s bodies and experiences is unacceptable. #MeToo triggered an avalanche but the pressure has been building for some years. Who can read about the Bechdel Test [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test] for women’s roles in films and view the narratives and screenplays the same way afterwards? Is there a similar test for art work? Should there be one? I’d like to think increasing awareness of historical exploitation will redress the balance but explicit action on a par with #MeToo might not go amiss. Thank you for this post, I’m pleased this is an issue up for discussion.

  • This would make a really interesting and thought provoking series of blog posts, especially including global perspectives that intersect across race, gender and class. There is so much feminist art practice from the 1960/70s on which the foundations of our contemporary discussions are laid. The link to Bruce’s work is a poignant reminder that these issues are still to the fore.
    A Bechdel test for artwork – there’s an interesting title for a thesis!

  • Good thinking! It shouldn’t be too tricky – application of the same principles and a search of the relative power/agency of the parties involved. It would be illuminating to have an academic perspective on something that’s become so entrenched as ‘tradition’ that scrutinising nude women in poses that sometimes appear quite gratuitously exposing is normalised. That male models are also under scrutiny might be a different matter. Speaking as a psychologist, it’s not women who expose themselves in public for kicks, sexual gratification, or the power it exerts over the person they’ve exposed themselves to, it’s almost exclusively men. Can we assume then, that men feel less objectified by being looked at in this way than women might? That their motivations might be a little different, or at least less lodged in the back-story of powerlessness that seems inherent in the history of women’s role as nude models? I don’t want to imply that men who model are exhibitionists, I know it’s likely to be nuanced as it is for women, but I do suspect a difference in underlying cognitive and emotional processes. A thesis would be a valuable thing.

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