The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S., which is reviewed in these pages by Erik La Prade, was at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, September 4 to November 3, 2018
KAREN E. JONES
You began this project well before the watershed #MeToo movement in which numerous powerful American men, particularly in the media and entertainment fields, have faced allegations and repercussions for sexual harassment and rape. Can you pinpoint the inspiration for addressing the topic in an exhibition? Have you found yourself framing the exhibition differently within the current cultural context?
The inspiration for the show came in December 2014 when Carolee Thea prepared a slide show of her artworks for me. Among them I saw Sabine Woman (1991) – a life-sized installation rendering a drastic gang rape scene. I remember coming back home wondering why I had never seen a work like that. Because I am particularly sensitive to censorship, I immediately thought that since I have not, there probably were other works by women about rape. I was right. But I could not guess what would become apparent within a mere couple of hours: a rudimentary internet search made it clear that the subject has been addressed by a majority of famous women artists, internationally. Its omnipresence meant that this would also be true for all women artists, whether more or less accomplished, and probably across time. I was stunned by the contrast between the number and quality of works about rape and almost complete absence of their discussion in literature.
Further development of my project was guided by people’s reactions to my interest in researching art on rape. At the beginning of 2015, they usually showed surprise, to put it diplomatically. Whether it was disgust or disbelief, it reassured me that the subject was worth inquiry. When I mentioned the idea of an exhibition, a common expectation was that it would be international and include artists from countries where “they rape,” like India. Such reactions made me aware of how strong the taboo was in the American society, and I decided that I had to make an American exhibition. The contrast between the silence around the subject and rape statistics was mirrored by the chasm between the silence of art exhibitions, art history and critique and the omnipresence of the subject in women’s art.
You have chosen 1968 as a starting point, and yet, the exhibition opens with Kathleen Gilje’s piece Susanna and the Elders, Restored with X-Ray that refers to Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1610 painting. Why bracket the subject within the last 50 years?
You would need a whole museum to give full justice to the subject. Yoko Ono’s 1968 film “RAPE” belongs to the earliest works on rape by contemporary women artists, and even predates them by a few years. The subject can easily be traced back to the early 1970s. It is more difficult to trace it before women gained broader access to the art world, and will probably be impossible to find more than a few artworks prior to the mid-19th century, except for works that used allegorical themes and were painted by the few women artists active then, like Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi (1610). Timoclea pushing the Thracian captain who raped her into a well by Elisabetta Sirani (1659) is more interesting as a type of representation and I would like to find historical works by women, at least drawings, representing rape realistically, and reactions to its impact on their psyche and sexuality. This, not “histories,” is the focus of works by contemporary women artists. I never intended to present the works chronologically within the exhibition, so Yoko Ono’s film does not open the display. Kathleen Gilje’s Susanna and the Elders, Restored (1998/2018) is the opening artwork because the exhibition is about iconography of rape, not about rape per se. It is not a selection of artworks on rape, which I found particularly compelling or formally interesting, but an attempt to analyze a representative sample of iconography of rape in women’s art. I marked this intention by opening the exhibition with a work that is a critique of the male iconography of rape in the history of art.
In your research, where did you identify the earliest representations of rape in both literature and visual culture?
I focused on how contemporary (mostly American) women artists represent the subject. At first, because rape is taboo, one might think that we have never talked or represented rape visually, but in the next moment the realization comes that rape is omnipresent in human culture, and therefore its descriptions and – to a lesser degree – visualizations. You find them wherever you look for the roots of our culture: in the Greek mythology, and in the Bible. In her book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (NYC 1975) Susan Brownmiller argues that the biological possibility of rape is the basis of the socio-economic relations of men and women, and that a marriage contract, according to which a woman belongs to a man, was just a safer way to secure a woman from another man than her abduction. Abduction of Sabines is one of the founding myths of Rome!
But as “heroic” rape is present in the dominant historical narrative, that of mythology and holy scriptures, and created by men, its different image is preserved in fables which were told by women and meant to be cautionary tales, like Little Red Riding Hood which early versions can be traced to the 10th century. When it was eventually written down and published by men (Charles Perrault in the 17th century and Brothers Grimm in the 19th c.), the girl was stripped of agency and wit, and the concepts of guilt, punishment and a male savior (the hunter) appeared instead, not to mention that rape was no longer discussed openly but disguised as wolf eating the girl.
When it comes to visuals, I don’t know what representation can be called the earliest. The context for my exhibition are numerous representations in painting and sculpture, which were popular in Western classical painting from the Renaissance through the 19th and even 20th century: Abduction of the Sabines, Rape of Persephone, Rape of Europa, Zeus and Leda, Susana and the Elders. I guess cave paintings also show scenes of rape. But what would interest me would be scholarly research of early representations by women, besides the era of Gentileschi or Sirani. Looking at modern and contemporary art is extremely interesting, too. The earliest 20th century depiction of rape by a woman artist I know of is the exquisite 1907 engraving by Käthe Kollwitz. I am sure there are more. We were made to believe that rape is an isolated event, a rare crime, happening when we come home too late, in a skirt too short. Rape happens all the time and everywhere. Women’s knowledge of that fact and its sharing, including art on rape, has been censored by patriarchal society. As a result, it is hidden in plain sight.
Why did you select Susan Brownmiller’s term the “heroic rape” that locates the glamorization and justification of rape? You upend the term as your title. Can you unpack the term and discuss why you selected it?
Brownmiller’s “heroic rape” refers to “the direct connection between manhood, achievement, conquest, and rape.” In art, the male narrative of the conquest includes a dramatic struggle ending with romantic submission. Also, the focus on action is characteristic of the male perspective as shown in the history of literature and film. One does not have to look for historical representations to find it. A 2017 film Wind River, ironically distributed by the Weinstein Company (in October 2017 its producers cut relations with TWC), which seems progressive because it draws our attention to the atrocities happening on Indian reservations, shows the raped woman only twice: running through frozen fields and lying dead in a pool of blood during the captions, and during the rape scene reconstruction as part of explanation of what happened. It is not a film about rape of a woman. It is yet another film of a man in pursuit of another man; “a good man” chasing “a villain.”
What makes works by women radically different from those by men is the focus not on the action or drama, but on the lasting psychological devastation of the victim: her suffering, shame, silence, and loneliness. Upending Brownmiller’s term seemed right for the title of the exhibition, which was intended to show how women narrate the rape of women, and call attention to the history of rape misrepresentation in culture. The adjective “heroic” used by Brownmiller is descriptive in the context of historical representation of wars, but already contains more than a hint of sarcasm. I planned an exhibition analyzing iconography of women’s art and I needed to illuminate the counterpart: the existing and charted iconography created by men.
Why did you decide to focus on women artists and the US? Could you see the exhibition expanded to include international artists?
The exhibition was originally planned as international. The reactions of its potential audience made me limit its scope. I am referring to my conversations from the beginning of 2015, before the #metoo movement was formed. I realized that New Yorkers often thought rape occurred predominantly in some “peripheries,” whether geographical or social; it happened elsewhere, but not “here,” not “to us.” By that time I knew most of American women artists made a work on rape, and I also knew that one in six American women has been raped. I thought that addressing our society was crucial: what happens now and here, in Manhattan, in the Bronx, in Ohio. There was also a problem of representation. Based on what criteria would I choose international artists? India but why not Sri Lanka? A Swedish artist because Sweden has one of the highest rape statistics, but only because its definition of rape is truly broad? Such a project risked finger pointing unless it were huge in scope and truly representative of many cultures.
I am fully aware of the fact that not only women are raped and I refer to it in the catalog. Men are raped, too, and quite a few men told me their stories during my work on the exhibition. LGBT people are raped. One may also think of a separate project about sexual abuse of children. A responsible exhibition cannot be about everything. Men’s rape is much more of a cultural taboo than the rape of women, and it requires a separate scholarly research of its specificity. Same with rape of LGBT people. I did not curate an exhibition about rape in general but specifically focused on women’s art.
Could you discuss the various artistic strategies in the exhibition, as there’s a wide range of practices here. For example, the abstract sculptural works of both Sonya Kelliher-Combs and Senga Nengudi to the document-based conceptual work of Susanne Lacy’s Three Days in May? Was it a conscious decision to have various working methods represented?
In order to curate a representative survey of some twenty works capable of representing hundreds that I found, the curatorial selection takes into account the following five elements at the same time: 1) three generations of artists; 2) ethnic diversity (artists of American Indian, African American, and Asian origins, and Latinas); 3) all visual mediums (from drawing to social practice); 4) themes that inspired artists to address rape (from fairy tales to rape as a war crime); and 5) varied visual languages they chose (from symbolism to performative re-enactment).The exhibition also explores themes that inspired artists to treat rape, such as trauma, domestic violence, child abuse, media coverage of sensational cases, college rape culture, the role of social media, criminal trials and responsibility of public institutions, rape in the military, rape as a war crime, slavery, rape epidemic on Indian reservations, women trafficking, rape in public and political discourse, and visual and literary tradition, especially art history and fairy tales. Often, several themes inspire one artwork.
The Un-Heroic Act examines remarkably varied visual languages artists employed in order to evoke feelings as contrasting as empathy and shock. Some employ realism (Ada Trillo, Carolee Thea), others symbolism (Sonya Kelliher Combs, Angela Fraleigh), sometimes verging on abstraction (Senga Nengudi). Some aim for poetic beauty in opposition to the act itself, in an attempt not to victimize again (Roya Amigh, Angela Fraleigh). Some avoid depicting the female body altogether and use text instead (Guerrilla Girls, Andrea Bowers, Bang Geul Han, Guerrilla Girls BroadBand, to some extent Jenny Holzer), others contest classical iconography through subversive representation (Kathleen Gilje, Kara Walker, Natalie Frank, Roya Amigh), or complicate the relation between reality and fiction in para-documentary treatment (Yoko Ono, Lynn Hershman Leeson). Yet others employ performative re-enactment (Ana Mendieta, Jennifer Karady, Naima Ramos-Chapman), activism (Suzanne Lacy, Guerrilla Girls, Andrea Bowers, Guerrilla Girls BroadBand), or conceptual instruction works (Yoko Ono). The artistic language of expression does not follow any specific theme which provided inspiration. Rather, expression follows the artist’s intention: to shock, to remember, to meditate, to heal, to express anger and pain.
It seems that you situate rape as a symptom of violence against and oppression of women, whether the psychological harassment and invasion of personal space in Yoko Ono’s “RAPE,” the brutal performance in Ana Mendiata’s Untitled (Rape Scene) — based on an actual event — orthe trauma and aftermath addressed in Naima Ramos-Chapman’s film, And Nothing Happened.
Each of the works you mention represents its time, but also the artist’s intention and cultural experience. For example, even though both Mendieta’s and Ramos-Chapman employed re-performance, Mendieta decided to re-perform the harrowing scene of rape with an intention of shocking her audience (a set of photographs documenting a performance Rape Scene, 1973/2001), while Ramos-Chapman re-performs her living with and battling trauma, clearly with an intention to win, and to give example to other young women to speak out (a film And Nothing Happened, 2016). Rarely a millennial artist represents a vulnerable female body avoiding re-victimization. Naima Ramos-Chapman’s work expresses the voice of the generation that finally speaks about rape, female sexuality and psyche openly, and despite pain, asserts that voice.
Ono’s work is an exception in the exhibition because the artist most probably considered it a metaphor, where stalking a woman and a threat of rape were to portray abuse of power and tensions in contemporary world, from international relations in the era of Vietnam, to the artist’s own experience of being stalked by the media. Ono’s conceptual score for the film said that camera may also chase men. Nevertheless, “RAPE” is also a great work on abuse of women.
What has been the reception and discourse within the university community? And what kind of critical reception are you getting?
I am independent curator but I volunteered to guide many John Jay College student groups through the exhibition. The exhibition makes a strong impression on them. I received several letters from John Jay professors praising the exhibition and thanking me for both addressing the subject, and for selecting renowned artists and bringing their art to this community. They appreciated guided walks and gallery labels. I was told that the gallery had many more requests for tours of the exhibition than usually. It is important to mention that a majority of the John Jay student population does not have much interaction with art and they do not visit museums. They have professional knowledge though on many subjects covered by the exhibition, like domestic violence or trafficking women and the exhibition certainly opened their minds to new language of expression. The College of Criminal Justice has been a great venue for this exhibition.
The exhibition has, so far, been very favorably reviewed in the press. Jillian Steinhauer in The New York Times not only praised it but picked exactly what I wanted the audience to understand, through careful presentation of varied iconography: that rape has been a major subject for women artists. The review also emphasized the historical aspects of women’s art and of the subject of rape. I couldn’t dream of a review closer to my intentions for the exhibition. There were also excellent reviews in The Brooklyn Rail and Art Papers, as well as interviews in the Hyperallergic podcast and Bomb.
How do you see the discourse on rape expanded by activist practices such as the Guerrilla Girls artworks in the exhibition? Do you think that their practices affect change?
No ultimate goal of activism is ever achieved. Our lives, both in the singularity of our individual biographies, and our collective life, are woven of doing, not of having things done. No single exhibition or artwork can make a change. But together they do. As part of the project, Guerrilla Girls Broadband organized a workshop with John Jay students, which resulted in two anti-rape culture posters. In order to make them, students first needed to learn the language of expression based on facts. I observed them working on it, and it was obvious what an amazing experience it was for these young women. Once students posted them on the campus, they obviously received mixed reception and had to learn and practice the language to explain and defend their project.
If you think of Suzanne Lacy enormous projects involving thousands of people, they definitely bring change. Among her nine projects devoted to rape, Three Weeks in May (1977), documentation of which we show in the exhibition, was re-performed at the invitation of the Getty in 2012 and the comparison of its many elements, reception, and impact in 1977 and 2012 is telling. We will never eliminate rape but the City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles Police Department and local media changed their attitude, developed the language to name rape, and mechanisms to fight it. It is impossible to prove what percentage of this change can be credited to Lacy’s project. But I strongly believe she had an impact. For example, as part of her 1977 project she organized a dinner for the City officers to discuss the language used in relation to rape. Three Weeks in May was one of the founding projects of social practice.print