Nina Berman

Outrage, defiance, insistence, regret, loneliness, betrayal, forgiveness, resilience, shame, justice and above all an urgency to be heard: these are some of the emotions and themes articulated by the brave artists who delved deep to make work for this collection.

The artist sused music, poetry, drawings and film. They shaped their bodies in dance and in performance pieces. They assumed the voices of survivors, perpetrators, friends and bystanders, creating a collection that as a whole confirms an unpleasant truth that sexual violence is not a side issue, or someone else's experience, but a dominant aspect in our culture, within our families and in University life. Whether we know it or not, we all know a survivor.

Several artists explicitly referenced the University establishment in their work with pleas for action and more compassionate listening. Two works visually reconfigured the Alma Mater.

A common recurring theme was consent- how it is defined and why it is essential.

One piece "Search Engine Utopia" imagined a world of changed perceptions where consent is mutually agreed to be "sexy" "critical" "necessary" and "pre-requisite."

Another artist created a want ad seeking a friend as the previous one had betrayed, been deceptive, touched and groped, lied and defiled. The new friend, so the job description states, "does not rape."

In many works, artists railed against a culture that objectifies women and ranks and rates them by dress and shape, leading women to feel insecure and self-hating and men to feel that women exist simply for their viewing/groping pleasure.

"Since when are my measurements my measurement? asks Natalie Jeanne Petrillo - Alvarez in the powerful slam poem "Operation 2015."

She brings the poem to the street, describing a scene that will be familiar to most women.

I step out on the street and your eyes go directly to my ass,

Or my chest,

You hiss and click your tongue like I’m your dog,

As if the sole purpose of my thighs is the gateway to your salvation,

And I can hear you through my headphones!

Present for your viewing pleasure,

What else are women for except your pleasure?

I stare straight and say nothing.

Several works in the collection were submitted anonymously and of those I was especially drawn to narratives where the artists describe personal revelationsor re-evaluations.

On a trip home during academic break, the writer of "Her Secret" describes a quiet conversation with her mother that unfolded into a devastating story about sexual abuse. Her mother had been violated as a child and other female members of her family had also been sexually abused.

The painful shock led the writer to understand certain mysteries about her own upbringing. She had never been allowed to go to sleepover parties or sleep awaycamps, or spend weekends with her friends. Her mother had been too afraid to let her daughter out of her sight. More importantly, she writes:

"I began to understand my mother on a deeper level than either of us expected. I knew the source of her lack of self-esteem and struggle with body image. A beautiful woman, she hated her curvy body and the attention it garnered, so she would gain weight in order to hide and shield herself from sexualized attention. She blamed herself and internalized her guilt and shame into unhealthy habits that later manifested in life threatening health issues. She never talked about sex. In many ways, this was our first sex talk."

The power of art and exhibition is to create a space for conversation, reinterpretation and transformation.

Two men anonymously created works about their role as bystanders and how they now view their past behavior as having been complicit. They still struggle to understand why they didn't speak up or do more.

"I hate my 17-year-old self for letting that go. And I hate myself whenever I see him,

smiling and laughing and drawing a crowd, at the bar. I hate that I walked away. And I

hate that I continue to walk away from what happened—that I still shake his hand and

treat him like any other man," from "I am the Worthless Bystander."

In another piece "The Bystander" a writer recalls his boyhood friends. At 13-years-old, they spoke of sex, drinking and porn, about "wanting to get some, deserving to get some," that it's all right if a girl slaps you, because then you can really take charge and get some action.At 16-years-old, another friend told him how you have to "break" a girl, force it on her, teach her to like it. He describes his friend as feeling entitled. Only recently has this writer acknowledged that his silence during these conversations was a form of approval.

Several years ago I was walking up Broadway at night and across the street I saw a couple having a fight. They moved up the block and the fight became more violent, he was shouting and screaming, and began to hit her and drag her.I ran across Broadway, lookingfor a cop, hoping someone else would also come to help. By the time I got to the other side of Broadway, a small crowd had gathered to encircle the man and take the frightened woman aside to protect her.

I remember feeling both relieved for the woman and energized to know that I lived in a community where strangers would come to a woman's aide and not mistake violence for some kind of private love quarrel. I also remember hoping that the man, in the midst of all these people, would feel shame, humiliation, and condemnation for his actions.

I imagined that within the crowd of bystanders who had helped, and also those who lingered to watch at the edge of the sidewalk, that we in this group, this temporary community, must have all experienced or witnessed some type of similar violence before and had decided, in these few minutes, out on the street, that we weren't going to let it happen again.

 

Nina Berman
Associate Professor Photojournalism
Graduate School of Journalism

 


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