Exploring Gender-based Violence in Feminist Art

The 1970s were marked by the work of feminist activists who were actively exploring the issue of gender-based violence in their artistic practices. Gender-based violence is a phenomenon deeply rooted in society’s gender stereotypes and has recently been descripted as a ‘global pandemic’ by the World Bank Group’s report ‘Gender-Based Violence’ (Brief 25 Sept, 2019). The representation of gender-based violence has been a prevailing theme in feminist art and artists such as Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Ana Mendieta, Faith Ringgold, and Kara Walkers, among many others, have been instrumental in exposing the experiences of violence and challenging socio-political norms.

This session will examine how gender-based violence is represented in contemporary art. The session aims to provide a platform to foster dialogue and develop new ways of thinking, which will enhance our understanding on how citizenship, social justice, and gender equality is experienced and negotiated through contemporary art practices. This session is inspired by Vivien Green Fryd’s research (in Against Our Will, 2019: 1) on exposing approaches in American art representing ‘issues of gender inequality, racial, and economic differences, and the impact of sexism and pornography in mass media’. Papers are invited to explore the ways these issues are addressed over the past fifty years in contemporary art and art history.

Session Convenor:

Maria Photiou, University of Derby


Karen von Veh, University of Johannesburg

Confronting Gender-based Violence in South Africa – one artist’s response

In 2018 Diane Victor (b. 1964), created The Fourteen Stations as a deeply moving commentary on the scourge of violence and femicide in South Africa. These are ghostly portraits of women who were killed by an intimate partner, projected onto bleak cement walls in a processional installation that evokes the meditational effect of the 14 stations of the cross in ecclesiastical settings. Through this association Victor’s female subjects are turned into contemporary martyrs, mementoes of helplessness and wasted potential. Victor has long been outspoken about the fate of women in our country and is well-known for displaying the evils of society in bitingly satirical works that disturb and shock viewers. These portraits, however, in their pared-down simplicity are haunting and evocative. Her technique of drawing with candle smoke onto glass creates a delicate, hazy effect as if these women, projected as disembodied presences, are already in the spirit realm. The ghostly effect memorializes their martyrdom and her technique transforms their affliction and pain into something that is as beautiful as it is affective.

I argue that Victor is able, in this work, to transform the ghastly realities of violence, and femicide into an empathetic cry for justice that is more effective than the blunt trauma of graphic details. In a close analysis, I consider the way she transcends the stark realities of unacceptable levels of gender-based violence through the sensitivity of her medium and technique, so the viewing experience becomes an emotional connection rather than a horrified withdrawal.

Akima McPherson, University of Guyana

A Journey Begun – the activist-turn in the art of Akima McPherson

Guyana, which lies on the northern shores of South America, is a multicultural mosaic of peoples whose cultural affinities are more closely linked to the Anglophone Caribbean than that of the geographical Latin American region within which it resides. Similarly anomalous for Guyana is the high incidence of domestic violence which characterises the social relations of its people; 55% of Guyanese women report experiencing some form of violence including intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual abuse. A Journey Begun – the activist-turn in the art of Akima McPherson chronicles how the artist has used art making as a means of spotlighting this pandemic in Guyana while also attempting to position the art as a tool for healing by victimsurvivors. The paper chronicles how by exploring the trauma of rape as a weapon of war in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the artist was eventually able to address the violence that was closer to home through multi-media installations that were performative or responsive to the characteristics of space. At the core of McPherson’s work has been the question, Can the art object/gesture not present itself as a protest-demonstration-placard-type, but with subtleties and ambiguities characteristic of contemporary art, yet be effective as an agent of change? The paper presents a practice that is peripheral to the centres of art’s discourses while engaging with the contemporary formats and discourses of the centre.

Briony Carlin, Newcastle University

Folds, death and dirt: situating an encounter with gender-based violence through Reconstrucción by Rosana Simonassi

Reconstrucción, by Argentinian artist Rosana Simonassi (b.1966) is a photographic series and a photobook published by CHACO (2016). Made in the midst of the ‘Green Wave’ of feminist protests against abortion and gender-based violence in Argentina, the overall project comments on society’s representation of and response to fatal acts of violence against women, as the artist uses her own body restage public domain crime scene photographs of femicide. The two iterations are materially complex works that destabilise their relation with the viewer/reader, implicating them in society’s morbid fascination with gender-based violence, meanwhile withholding and frustrating their access to images and information. Following a feminist epistemological ethic of situated knowledges (e.g., Haraway), this paper analyses a specific encounter with the photobook Reconstrucción in the National Art Library in 2018. The photobook of violent images reflexively stages an affective, embodied encounter with the spectacle of death through the use of obstructing pages, unusual folds and unexpected spills of dirt. This paper narrates an intense, personal embodied experience with the photobook, before looking outwards to conceptualise the destabilising effects of Simonassi’s work in the ‘epistemological regime of the museum art library’. Situating the photobook in relation to the earlier large scale photographic prints on newsprint additionally reveals how the photobook enables a new logic for presentation and dissemination that: expands the artwork’s conceptual resonance; re-examines contemporary photography’s relationship with death; disrupts notions of authorship and readership; and offers new modes of connection with issues around gendered violence.

Alyce Mahon, University of Cambridge

On Rape and the Sadean Imagination

This paper considers reflects on the ways in which the Catalan artist Laia Abril (b.1986), engages with the libertine ideas of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) to expose and give form to rape culture. Sade’s status as an icon of free and subversive political expression was largely bestowed on him in the twentieth century, thanks to the work of  male and female Surrealists, but his potential for explicitly feminist art emerged in the  1970s when Angela Carter noted his libertine philosophy presented female sexuality  “not as a moral dilemma but as a political reality” in The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978). Where rape had been traditionally represented across art history in figurative and voyeuristic terms – through mythological, biblical and historical reference, the 1970s saw feminist artists redress the balance and explore it in performative and abject terms to give voice to the victim and literalise trauma. In contrast to both traditions, Abril defies the figurative in her exploration of rape, critiquing the endemic miscarriage of justice in our institutions through stark photographs of uniforms of the Church (a nun’s habit), the Army (a female soldier’s uniform), and the Family (bridal dress). Above each photograph of these ‘universal’ uniforms we read a statement on rape within those institutions. My paper argues that this textual approach draws on what I term “the Sadean imagination” to make the subject of rape even more palpable and, critically, to ensure the spectator/reader is staged as complicit in rape culture by demanding they imagine the unimaginable.

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