To make art about sexual violence is to intervene directly at the crunchy intersection of the personal and the political; to shine a light on the private and isolating experience of rape and say loudly that this is everyone’s problem.
Artistic practice can be a means of engaging with pain. Sexual violence leaves scars that are invisible, and painful memories that are often unspeakable. Art offers a personal process of catharsis and healing, as difficult feelings are creatively rendered.
Art can also be a political tool to confront taboos and break boundaries, disrupting discourses and power structures that underpin gender inequality and rape culture.
The following local and international artists are fine artists, activists who have turned to art, and creative practitioners. They have all addressed sexual violence by making work that evokes anger, healing, action and empathy.
Art that breaks taboos by intervening in public spaces
1. SA’s Dirty Laundry: Nondumiso Msimanga and Jenny Nijenhuis
In November last year, South African artists Nondumiso Msimanga and Jenny Nijenhuis hung 3 600 pairs of used underwear on a 1.2km-long washing line above the streets of Johannesburg. Their public statement set out to represent the 3 600 rapes that are estimated to take place in South Africa every day. The underwear was donated by women who wished to share their stories of rape, and was hung in a public space to get people to talk about the intimate, personal stories of violation and connect them to the public problem they represent.
2. #padsagainst sexism: Elonë / liebeueberall
Feminist activist Elonë staged an intervention in her city of Karlsruhe, Germany, by writing messages on sanitary pads and sticking them up in public places on International Women’s Day in 2015. She wanted to draw attention to the intersections between different aspects of sexism and sexual violence, and spread feminist messages. The images were shared on her Tumblr and went viral, sparking copycat campaigns now known as #padsagainstsexism.
3. Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight): Emma Sulkowicz
Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) is a work of endurance performance art. Columbia University art student Emma Sulkowicz carried a 23kg mattress – the kind used in dorms at her university – wherever she went on campus, saying that the performance would end when her alleged rapist was expelled from or left the university. She carried it from 2 September 2014, until her graduation in May 2015. Emma’s performance and the related media coverage increased the profile of the case brought by her and 23 other Columbia University and Barnard College students against their universities for mishandling sexual assault claims.
Watch Emma talk about her performance here:
Art that challenges discourses that perpetuate rape culture
4. Loslappies: Boitumelo
The way women’s bodies and sexuality is described can perpetuate and normalise violence. The Boitumelo collaborative , together with Erica Lüttich, examined words that relate to women in multiple South African languages. Their artistic statement explains that they found many slang terms that “illustrate a very complex and derogatory manner of how we speak about women. These words brought attention to hidden and ugly meanings and evoked strong emotions from the crafters.” The artists embroidered the words on underwear, and engaged members of the public in a dialogue about how the words describe and frame female genitals by linking them back to personal and historical stories.
5. #SignedbyTrump: Aria Watson
Aria Watson was too young to vote in the US election, but was horrified by Donald Trump’s victory and wanted to draw attention to the consequences for women. Now 18, the student and vlogger photographed some of Trump’s worst comments, painted on the bodies of her family and friends. The results make it clear that the comments are not harmless or unrelated, and show the misogyny behind them. The pictures were pulled down by Facebook and Instagram, but eventually found a home on Tumblr, where they have gone viral.
3. I want to know about HER, HER, HER: Lady Skollie
In March 2016, South African rapper Simiso Zwane, known as Okmalumkoolkat, was arrested and held in an Australian jail after a performer on tour with him accused him of sexual assault. After his release he shared a statement with his thousands of fans and followers. South African artist Lady Skollie created a print of the statement, highlighting that Simiso didn’t refer to the woman once: his self-centred non-apology erases her story completely. Lady Skollie posted her print on Facebook with the comment, “I want to know about HER, HER, HER”. Lady Skollie told Marie Claire she intervened because Simiso’s influence on social media is significant, and that he was perpetuating rape culture rather than using the moment to encourage fans to think differently about women. Centralising perpetrators and their reputations in stories of sexual assault is a secondary layer of violence and erasure, which Lady Skollie disrupts with this work.
6. Untitled: Showers of Angst: Negiste Yesside Johnson
Negiste Yesside Johnson’s installation art challenges the trope of ‘showers of angst’ so often seen in movies and soapies, which suggest that the trauma of sexual assault can be washed away. Firstly, a shower cannot fix the psychological and physical aftereffects of rape, and perpetuating this idea denies the seriousness of the consequences of rape. Secondly, in a context like South Africa, many people use buckets and tubs to wash, and do not have access to showers – this Western idea of a remedy is not available in any case.
Negiste created a large installation in WHICH GALLERY of plastic wash basins strung across the ceiling, which visitors had to find their way through to view an iPad showing scenes of showers of angst. Her work suggests that talk around rape and healing are not neutral or universally applicable, and should still be interrogated. Negiste writes: “The idea is to reconstruct the idea of Shower Angst and offer representation that is valid and relatable within OUR society… acknowledging our bodies in our settings, subverting the Western gaze and rejecting its standards of acceptability and appropriateness because it does not serve the crisis of gender-based violence to simply wash water over ourselves.”
Art that aids healing
1. Iris: Celia Anne Rudolph
Celia’s Iris blurs the boundary between natural and human forms. The painting is a meditation on female sexuality. The petals are poised to open or close – a metaphor for the choice to invite or reject intimate interaction with the viewer. The piece evokes the interdependence of natural systems, suggesting that everyone is affected by sexual violence. The iris offers hope for healing and holistic sexual encounters that are playful and mutually pleasurable.
2. In the Name of Love: Brenda Loukes
South African artist and healing practitioner Brenda Loukes creates painstakingly detailed ‘wall tattoos’ filled with intricate patterns. In this work, Brenda drew the body of a young girl over many hours. She then wiped some areas of the body out: the ‘physical and energetic centres’ of the child, which are harmed by the perpetrator, leaving a fractured image which represents the consequences of sexual assault. Although the image addresses trauma, the process of the work is a way of rendering and honouring the stories of all those represented by the figure of the child. “The ritual of drawing patterns is, in some ancient traditions, a form of meditation or prayer. This work is a prayer for the healing and safety of all women in South Africa, and especially young girls,” Brenda says.
Watch Brenda create In The Name of Love.
Sexual violence cannot be definitively solved by making art, and healing is not a linear process that is ever completely done. However, these works demonstrate the power of art to find a language for the unspeakable, to connect myriad private experiences of sexual violence and make it a question of public politics rather than personal shame, and to effect change by redirecting attention to the power dynamics that enable sexual violence.