Violated Bodies: New Languages for Justice and Humanity
JOHN JAY SCHOOL OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE
ANYA AND ANDREW SHIVA GALLERY | FEBRUARY 28 – APRIL 13, 2018
Amid contentious debate surrounding the gray areas and boundaries of sexual abuse sparked by the #metoo movement, an exhibition about domestic violence at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery at John Jay School of Criminal Justice lays bare the plight of individuals who have suffered direct physical abuse. Violated Bodies: New Languages for Justice and Humanity, curated by Kyunghee Pyun and Deborah Saleeby-Mulligan, features four artists and one artist collective, all focusing on the body as the site where violence plays out. The most successful work, however, is less concerned with the visible physical effects of violence but is instead narrative and documentary—intimate portraits of emboldened survivors who share their harrowing stories in unequivocal detail.
One in three women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.1 Several artists in Violated Bodies attempt to address the universality of the issue at hand. aleXsandro Palombo’s posters of bruised and battered female celebrities capitalize on shock value, depicting female celebrity mug-shots edited to portray the women as victims of extreme physical abuse. Through their swollen black eyes, the women—a black-and-blue Emma Watson; a bloody Madonna; a disfigured Kristen Stewart, among others—glare accusatorily at the viewer. The posters succeed in catching the eye and leave little room for interpretation.
Nearby, Simone Kestelman’s white ceramic sculptures of girls’ dresses, suspended in the air despite being bound by heavy chains, are shackled vestiges of innocence. They identify an often-overlooked demographic affected by domestic violence: children. The accessible if obvious metaphor seems wide-ranging; however, paired as they are with audio clips of Brazilian children’s songs (identifiable as such only to those familiar with them), the sculptures seem to reference a more specific issue, though they lack the context to communicate just what. Debbie Han’s Color Graces (2013–2016) series also alludes to social issues apart from domestic violence. A simple poetic digression, these digitally rendered photographs of hybridized goddesses with multi-racial female bodies and European classical sculpture heads illustrate common human emotions that transcend physical difference.
The exhibition’s most compelling work, by contrast, pairs the trauma of physical violence with the candid narratives of survivors. Though it can be painful to confront the specifics of domestic violence, these works help to clarify the ambiguous, euphemistic vocabularies that permeate polite conversation. The highlight is Cat Del Buono’s immersive multi-channel video installation, Voices (2014), a startlingly personal articulation of suffering that contrasts with the broad visual metaphors in the work of Palombo, Kestelman, and Han. A murmur of unintelligible voices echoes throughout the gallery from a small room at the rear. Inside the room, more than twenty small screens installed on all four walls show the moving lips of anonymous female survivors of domestic abuse as they recount their traumas. As the viewer approaches each individual screen, the cacophony distills to the speaker’s singular, dignified voice. Content ranges from calls to action to the moment-by-moment re-telling of gut-wrenching events. For example: “I never realized I was being abused until the day my fiancé came into my room, put a pillow over my head, and stabbed me 18 times.”
A stated goal of the exhibition is to bring attention to “a lesser-known realm of disabled bodies caused by domestic abuse.” An installation of at least two dozen black-and-white photographs by Denise Beckwith sensitively portrays disabled women around the world who have experienced violence (both women with previous disability who have been abused, as well as women who acquired their disability as a result of violence). As with Del Buono’s oral narratives, Beckwith’s subjects are candid and unabashed. The women are depicted in mostly pleasant environments—at work, with family members, or holding meaningful objects—and while wheelchairs may be present, these are not Diane Arbus’s marginalized “freaks.” In an exhibition highlighting the brutality of domestic violence, these disabled bodies are not defined by their physical traumas but by their strength. And they lack visual identifiers as survivors of violence, which underscores the silence of their suffering.
Beckwith’s photographs constitute one part of a multimedia project by the Australian collective, Blur Projects, led by photographer Belinda Mason. The collective produces exhibitions that present the firsthand experiences of individuals “impacted by multiple discriminations or disadvantage,” according to its website. The project presented in part at Shiva Gallery is Silent Tears (2013), a collaboration with three artists with disability and twenty-five participants (the subjects of the work) from five continents and twenty countries. The full scope of Silent Tears extends far beyond what is on view here, and absent further context—available only online on the collective’s website—the remaining work shown stops short of its message.
While the exhibition’s title suggests an aim of elucidating “new languages” with which to approach the subject of domestic violence, the strongest work makes a convincing case for more robustly asserting the vocabularies we already know. The most commanding stories neither enact subtle metaphors nor put wounded victims on display. Rather, they deliver a platform for empowered survivors to share an unmitigated glimpse of their experiences.
- Fact Sheet: Violence Against Women, World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/, November 2017.
ELLEREE ERDOS is a freelance writer and curator of a private collection in New York.