The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S.by Jessica Holmes
THE SHIVA GALLERY AT JOHN JAY COLLEGE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE / CUNY | SEPTEMBER 4 – NOVEMBER 2, 2018
At the entrance to The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S., on view at the Shiva Gallery at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the viewer is accosted with a distressing scene: Four men restrain a woman, who lies prone on the floor. A fifth man looms over her body, penetrating her, while a sixth stands behind the action stimulating himself, apparently awaiting his turn. That each individual is composed of chicken wire does not lessen, but rather amplifies, the barbarity in this installation, made by Carolee Thea: the anonymity of the figures and lack of background detail suggests that rape can affect any woman, any place, anywhere.
Despite the fact that sexual violence is overwhelmingly experienced by women—one in six American women will endure rape, or attempted rape, in her lifetime1—the subject has traditionally been rendered from a man’s perspective within American and European art. As Susan Brownmiller identified in her seminal 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, classical artists of the Western canon historically tended to romanticize the act, portraying female victims as seductresses, or suggesting their enjoyment of their own violation. She pejoratively termed this male-centered depiction “heroic rape.” The exhibition, whose title subverts Brownmiller’s epithet, recaptures the experience of rape from this art historical romanticizing, presenting work by twenty female artists from the past forty years on its decidedly “un-heroic” nature.
The opening piece, Thea’s chilling Sabine Woman (1991), establishes the exhibition’s mission, alluding to the rape of the Sabine women in ancient Rome, a foundational moment in Roman mythology that was crucial to the settling of the city, and also a favorite subject of Renaissance artists. Though the show has a constricted format, omitting perspectives from outside the United States, as well as the subject of rape of “LGBTQ people, or men,” as curator Monika Fabijanska acknowledges in her thorough catalogue, it still manages to represent a heterogeneous mix of viewpoints. The prevalence of rape in the military and amongst American Indian and indigenous populations is addressed. So is the theme of slavery and rape—both in contemporary human trafficking and the historical rape of African American slaves in America’s antebellum years. Female rape seems to be an alarmingly diverse topic whose surface, it seems, is only beginning to be scratched.
The show includes work by prominent female artists as well as younger, emerging voices. A few pieces in the show, such as If You’re Raped You Might As Well Relax and Enjoy It Because No One Will Believe You (1992), by the Guerilla Girls, or Susanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in May (1977) may be recognizable to many viewers. Both were made in response to information broadly available at the time of their creation: the unsuccessful rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, a member of the American Kennedy dynasty, in the case of the Guerilla Girls, and the public record of every rape reported to the Los Angeles police during May 1977, which Lacy stamped daily onto an oversized map of the city that hung in a mall beneath City Hall for the duration of her project. Bang Geul Han’s digital piece, Through the Gaps Between My Teeth (2017), displayed adjacent to these earlier works, is a descendant of them. Han makes use of the transcript from Donald Trump’s 2005 Access Hollywood tape, where the future American president infamously spoke of grabbing women “by the pussy.” The script in its entirety is projected onto a screen, and the viewer watches as the letters of his words scatter and fall away only to rearrange themselves into the text of tweets with the hashtag #notokay, used by women in descriptions of their first sexual assault posted online in response to Trump’s comments.
The many wending thematic threads that make up this ambitious and challenging show coalesce in two important video pieces. A short film entitled And Nothing Happened (2016), by Naima Ramos-Chapman, also known for her work on the HBO series Random Acts of Flyness, is a standout of the exhibition. The film’s action takes place entirely in a New York City apartment, where a young woman attempts to masturbate, but finds she cannot orgasm until she watches pornography depicting rape. She subsequently goes about her day in the apartment, which she shares with her mother and sibling: rummaging around a cluttered dresser; bickering with her sister; and changing shirts indecisively in front of a mirror as she prepares to go out. But through the woman’s dialogue with the camera, and her correspondence via letter and voicemail with a lawyer (which the viewer hears in voiceover), we slowly learn that, until recently, she was living happily in another city that she was compelled to leave after being date raped during a night out with friends. The residual trauma of the encounter has forced her to quit a job, and return to her mother’s apartment. The seeming normalcy of her routines is suddenly upended, and her sexual activity in the first scene retroactively takes on an additional, complicated psychological dimension as the reality of the woman’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder dawns on the viewer. The fallout from assault persists like the aftershocks of an earthquake and, as Ramos-Chapman seems to say in the disturbing final moments of her film, remains an insidious companion. The deed of rape doesn’t end when the act is complete—for the victim, it’s just the beginning.
Ramos-Chapman has said in interviews that the piece is a response to her own rape, and in this sense, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s video Electronic Diary Part III: First Person Plural (1988) might be called its spiritual companion. Leeson also speaks directly to the camera and in brief, lacerating scenes, recounts the hells and memories she was forbidden to talk about as a child, including both her personal experience of assault and rape as a child, and her extended family’s suffering during the Holocaust. The scenes are periodically overlaid with World War II footage, with which Leeson underscores the trauma of rape as another sort of holocaust—one perpetrated upon women. Their bodies damaged, their souls annihilated; it’s horror that seeps through generations.
- From the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). Accessed 11 September 2018: https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence
Jessica Holmes is a New York based writer and critic who contributes regularly to Brooklyn Rail, Artcritical, Hyperallergic, and other publications.