Witness: The Artist's Response
On Saturday I was pleased to speak about my work along with the other artists in the Witness exhibit at Elephant Room Gallery, up until March 31. http://www.elephantroomgallery.com
Here is the story behind my work.
My piece, which is called Fierce Will: Love, Survival and Memory, is part of a larger project examining societal violence, particularly against women. The women that you see in the photographs are survivors. They look back at you with strength, defiance, and hope. Those in the center are resistance fighters against the Ottoman Turkish government’s ethnic cleansing of indigenous Armenian people. The women on either side of them were trafficked by Ottoman soldiers during the Genocide of 1915, and tattooed by their owners to prevent their escape into the general population.
To create these photographs, I asked contemporary subjects to learn the stories of the historical women in the antique photos that are re-imagined here. As the modern women absorbed the stories of the survivors, they began to talk about their own histories, their experiences of violence, their own families’ cultural dislocations. They began to inhabit the spaces left by those long-ago women from the vintage photos, to feel the historical as personal. They began to imagine what it might have been like, and what it might be like in a world where the violence of rape culture is no longer the norm.
The sort of misogyny that breeds horrific violence is often deeply embedded within our nationalist narratives and so it surfaces with particular force during war and other times of social dislocation. For all our presumptions of being civilized, a trail of violence against women winds its way through our times. Beginning with the Armenian Genocide, the first genocide of the twentieth century, women have been singled out for extreme sexual violence throughout modern times. Do you remember the rape camps filled with Bosnian women used as weapons of war in the 90s? And what of the Yezidi women today who have been trafficked by ISIL only to rise up and fight back? But we live in Chicago, so why should we care? Because the violence continues here in Chicago. Depending on the source, Chicago ranks third in the nation for trafficking, which includes sex trafficking. With a major airport and a large volume of convention business, Chicago is at the very least a major hub for trafficking. The sort of deeply ingrained prejudice that underlies rape culture supports sexual slavery of women and girls. It also explains much about a man who admits to committing sexual assaults, but still becomes president.
In the end, though, my work is about hope. It’s about the power of love and will to help us survive. And it’s about the power of memory, sometimes embodied in art, to motivate change.