December 10, 2015
by Egon von Conway, Andrea Duerr, Alay Syed; Students of English W3775 Narrating Rape: Gender, Testimony & Violence
In the silent and desolate halls of Schermerhorn Extension, an intervention is being made. A tale of violence and violation, trauma and memory, testimony and witnessing, unspeakability and legibility, refusal and empowerment, is being told. A space of collective acknowledgement, grieving, accountability, and healing is being created. If you make your way up to the seventh floor before December 15, you’ll come face to face with five looming panels displaying text and photographs, breaking the silence that we’re so often confronted with when talking about rape and gender-based violence in the everyday.
The panels comprise a photography exhibit curated by PROOF: Media for Social Justice, in collaboration with UNHPR and hosted by Columbia University’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS). The exhibit, titled Legacy of Rape, interrogates and displays the use of rape as a weapon of war. Attempting to highlight a global phenomenon, the exhibition focuses on rape and sexual violence during war in four different regions, depicting groups of women in Nepal, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Bosnia and Herzegovina and Colombia. The exhibit presents sixteen photographs of rape survivors and accompanying selections from each of the survivors’ testimonies and stories.
The aim of PROOF’s exhibition is multi-faceted. As described by PROOF’s founder and executive direction Leora Kahn, the Legacy of Rape project aims to assist in building strategies and tools for activism and social reform with groups of women in the four regions. For this project, PROOF partnered with survivors of rape and sexual abuse in these regions to produce images, testimonies and stories. The organization and the groups of women worked with documentary photographers to take portraits of the individual survivors. PROOF has organized a number of different exhibitions from these materials. The groups of women, with the help of PROOF, organized exhibitions within their own communities that function as catalysts for testimony and activism. In each country, stated Kahn in an accompanying panel discussion on December 1st, the exhibit was designed differently, maintaining cultural sensitivity and optimizing impact. For instance, in the DRC, relatable testimonies were selected with the hope that the exhibition would provoke a response amongst a hidden community of survivors, whereas the one designed for Colombia aimed to provoke political action and reform. Furthermore, PROOF is engaged in a long-term project to organize the materials into traveling exhibitions aimed to educate and target different populations. The instantiation of Legacy of Rape being presented here at Columbia University, is designed to educate university students. This exhibit, states Kahn, is supposed to serve as a “springboard for discussion,” not only for the communities documented and directly impacted, but for the wider international audience in order to educate, build solidarity, and meticulously chip away at the silence surrounding issues of rape and gender based violence.
The takeaway question of the photography exhibit, along with the accompanying panel discussion, is one that holds both the artist and viewer responsible in bearing witness to the stories of these survivors: how does one narrate or portray a victim without further victimizing them? What is the role of the artist in presenting a narrative that is not only provocative and impactful, but also respects the boundaries of these victims? In this respect, the photographers/artists included here found a way to pay homage to the wishes of the victim in what is allowed to be shown of them and what is bearable for them. According to Kahn, the subjects of these portraits were actively involved in the process of selecting testimonies to be presented within the exhibit. The portraits on the other hand, attempt to give voice to something beyond language, providing a sharp contrast, as well as accompanying visual evidence to the testimonies laid out.
The provocative exhibit captures something beyond words, as texts and images function as different forms of testimony and recognition. There seems to be no official or standardized way to show victims or bear witness to their testimonies. Each photographer involved utilizes different styles of portraiture. What seems important within this exhibit is to keep the dignity of the victims and portray them in a respectful manner. All sixteen portraits seem to reference this wish. This is directly highlighted within the portraits of the women in Nepal and the DRC, in which their faces and therefore identities are hidden from the camera, in order to prevent any further social stigma, humiliation, and repercussions that this visibility may cause for their children, spouses, family, and social standing. However, the choice to hide the faces of the victims does not take away from the gravity of their testimonies, but further invites the viewer to bear witness, to read the testimonies, to hear the silences these bodies have been enshrouded in.
Presenting a different modality of testimony and photography, the Bosnian women are shown in everyday settings with their full names accompanying their portraits and stories. There seems to be an indication in these portraits and texts that the personal stories of these women are well known and documented. These women have been trying to get justice and reparation from the government for years, some successful, others not. Yet their poses in the photos demonstrate resilience, determination and awareness of their legal rights, even if bringing their perpetrators to justice is not always possible and is often painful. The four Colombian rape victims are portrayed at a very close range. Only their faces are shown, their faint smiles central to the photographs that have been cropped just below the neck. This makes for a very intimate moment between viewer and subject. These portraits look destined to be shown in a gallery show. In the narratives, all the women reference the unimaginable that was inflicted on their body over and over again. Not showing their body in the portraits underlines the atrocities committed against them. An accompanying blurb presenting the overarching theme of the panel states that four million Colombians are considered to be “internally displaced” within the country, and gender-based violence is the cause of the displacement of two of every ten women by some estimates. “These women” reads the blurb, “have yet to receive any compensation or justice.” This exhibit presenting the stories and portraits of survivors of rape and sexual assault, aims to open up conversations about these issues in order to educate and build international awareness, solidarity, and pressure on state governments to provide resources and assistance to these victims.
Tuesday night’s panel discussion, titled Art, Law, and Social Justice, echoed some of the concerns and questions provoked by PROOF’s exhibit. The panel comprised of Kahn, artist Patricia Cronin (Shrine of Girls), professor and curator Anna di Lellio (Thinking of You), and Professor Katherine Franke of the Columbia Law School. The panel was moderated by Professor Marianne Hirsch of IRWGS. Along with how to portray the story of a victim without further victimizing them, the evening’s discussion centered on the role of art as a medium for social justice, awareness, and reform, interrogating the role of testimonies and legal systems within the processes of healing and accountability. Cronin highlighted the importance of finding a “solemn way to talk about women.” The power of art, stated Cronin, “can work across language and geographical barriers to move people to care, think, and feel.” The aim of her work was to “unnumb people” from the violence of the 24 hour news cycle. Anna di Lellio agreed with Cronin in her belief that art can reach and move individuals across cultures, language, and even gender demarcations. Hers was not just an artistic project but a “participatory project” which promoted community building, not only for survivors, but also their families and allies.
The works of Cronin, di Lellio, and PROOF, all deal with the erasures and silences surrounding the issues of sexual assault and rape. One way to grapple with the idea of erasure, stated di Lellio, is to answer by visibility. In addition to visibility these projects engage ideas of legibility, requiring interpretation and presenting more than just what the image or exhibit depicts. Furthermore, these projects make arguments about “rendering forms of human suffering legible,” leaving a lot to the viewer to digest and process. This project of legibility, agreed the panelists, is a political project in its own terms. Whereas in many societies, law is the highest form of recognition and legibility, it can also do “epistemic violence at times to subjects it is supposed to be serving and protecting,” stated Franke. Thus in order to once again grapple with the question of how to present a victim’s narrative and provide some semblance of justice and healing with sensitivity, care, and responsibility, it is important for artists, activists, academics, and audience alike, to engage with the intersection of law and art critically and effectively.
In these so often silent halls, exhibits like these force us to engage, disrupting business as usual.