December 11, 2015
by Joo Kyung Lee, Emma Volk, Students of English W3775 Narrating Rape: Gender, Testimony & Violence
One of the speakers on the “Legacy of Rape” panel was Anna Di Lellio, a sociologist and policy analyst who partnered with artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa to produce “Thinking of You,” a participatory art installation in Kosovo that paid tribute to survivors of sexual violence during the Kosovo War. The evening after the panel, Di Lellio screened a documentary on “Thinking of You” and answered further questions about the project.
“Thinking of You” played with the idea of “airing clean laundry”—using clean clothing to respond to the crisis. The project featured thousands of donated dresses hung on clotheslines in a football stadium. Di Lellio explained that its installation in a football stadium suggests penetrating a male world and showing a sense of active response, in a space that is both public and private (confined). This form of response is shown through airing laundry. Airing laundry is a banal scene from everyday lives of people. It is simple laundry hanging on clothesline, and while it is a scene that may have disappeared from the urban landscape, it is still visible and a large part of everyday life. The project takes this ordinary, everyday practice and object and gives meaning to it. In using simple clothing and not an obscure object, the project is able to reach out to everyone who has been violated.
The usage of clothing is an interesting one too. During the panel discussion of “The Legacy of Rape: Art, Law and Social Justice,” artist Patricia Cronin (“Shrine for Girls”) and Di Lellio discussed the presence of clothing in their works. Cronin suggested that clothing served as a kind of reminder of the absent body; that in viewing a piece of clothing, one could imagine that “the body had touched the clothes.” In her arrangement of clothing for her work, she explained that they were presented as if “bodies have just left” the clothing. This significance of clothing seems to resonate with Xhafa Mripa’s “Thinking of You.” The body is a witness to the trauma. In viewing over 5,000 dresses of women—both victims and their supporters—the viewer is able to imagine the bodies that have touched the clothing, the women, their stories, their traumas, all presented so casually yet neatly in a stadium. In viewing, we get to “think of you:” all the women who have been violated during the war.
Yet a difference from Cronin’s work is that in “Thinking of You,” clothes are put up so that they resemble clean laundry; the aspect of physical cleanliness and organization is emphasized. Clothes are not arranged to represent the corporeality of the object. Rather, while the clothing embodies the traumatic experience of women, it does so in a way to exonerate them. That is, the cleanliness of laundry serves to restore honor to women socially disgraced by their rape. As many of the project’s participants noted, “Thinking of You” was successful in not portraying the survivors as victims. “Thinking of You,” both in its installation and presentation, allows the viewers including survivors to experience the project as a moment of empowerment and community without glorifying victimhood or retraumatizing the survivors.
“Thinking of You” as a project was not just an artistic response to genocidal rape, but was also highly participatory by design. Indeed, according to Di Lellio, mass participation was the project’s primary goal. For sixteen years, no one spoke about the estimated 20,000 women who were raped during the Kosovo War. For the month when Di Lellio and Xhafa Mripa travelled across Kosovo collecting dresses, the nation as a whole could no longer feign forgetfulness. The participatory and high profile nature of the project created space for Kosovars to confront the silences surrounding the sexual crimes that occurred during the war and to initiate the formation of a collective memory—both social and institutional—honoring the victims of these crimes.
The installation’s success depended on the donations of over 5,000 skirts and dresses, given to the project by both women and men. This collection process was arguably as important a part of “Thinking of You” as the installation itself was. Xhafa Mripa and Di Lellio visited towns across Kosovo to hold a series of collections that were themselves commemorative, even ceremonial events. At each event, Xhafa Mripa had the chance to individually speak to and thank each person who donated a dress. The documentary on the making of the project shows each donated dress being laid out with great care. Solidarity and respect was evident everywhere, even in the small gestures of women smoothing the wrinkles from the fabric of their dresses before giving them to Xhafa Mripa.
Many of the clothing items had special meanings for those who donated. The Kosovo ambassador to the United States donated the dress she wore on the day she signed the declaration of independence, telling Xhafa Mripa, “I want to give back to those women for whom the war has not yet ended.” A woman who gives psychosocial assistance to survivors donated a dress the women she works with gave to her in 2001. “Now,” she said, “I am giving it back to them.” Other dresses were donated by survivors themselves, including two dresses with messages from survivors handwritten on them. The multitude of stories told by the various dresses highlighted the project’s focus on creating a space for memory that was at once individual and collective.
Above all, the participatory aspect of “Thinking for You” facilitated the creation of a very tangible solidarity of all Kosovars with the silenced survivors of sexual crimes during the war. The collection events and the installing of the project featured laughter and tears alike, with space for both quiet reflection and collective acts of remembrance. Through its participatory nature, “Thinking of You” was able to realize its goal of remembering and honoring survivors.