Anita Glesta, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last week in London, made this short film about what inspired the artwork she is making for the 'Intimate Transgressions' exhibition in New York.
Glesta, a third generation New Yorker from a non-religious Jewish and originally Polish background has often worked in Europe particulary in Spain and the Basque country. We both had connections to the Gernika Gogoratuz (Gernika Peace Centre) though a decade apart and we both knew the original director Juan Gutierrez. It truly is a small world....
https://youtu.be/097fMLZzWqU via @YouTube
Fion Gunn 31 May 2015
When I first started researching this project, reading books like 'Horror in the East (by Laurence Rees) I was immediately struck by the connection between a brutal military training system and soldiers comitting acts of extreme sexual violence - well, it's not difficult to see how one can lead very easily to the other.....
Michael T. Crawford a Communications assistant, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape; Public affairs specialist, Army Reserve writing in the Huffington Post (04. 14.2014) declared that
"Rates of sexual assault in the military are staggering. Our service men and women deserve better than this. A culture of hypermasculinity -- strength and stoicism -- breeds the sense of power and entitlement that drives sexual assault.
When an institution has a blind spot for an issue, it's hard to create real solutions. One ineffective military policy attempting to the address the issue is its risk reduction training. The practice assumes that all soldiers must take steps to reduce their risk of falling into harm's way. This mentality places blame squarely on the victim for everything from being shot to being raped.
Commercials, training and command messages not only reinforce an old and dangerous frame of mind that only a victim is to blame, but also illustrate a sad reality: The military can't seem to free itself from its own thinking."
One of the artists in the Intimate Transgressions exhibition - Nermine Hammam, who is Egyptian and who witnessed the drama unfolding in Tahrir Square, had another interesting insight into the military mindset - but from the point of view of the young inexperienced soldiers, who were pressed into service in the course of the Arab Spring in Cairo, 2011.
She writes that
"Watching these young soldiers in ill-fitting army fatigues, astride incongruous military hardware, I wondered: What is power and who, ultimately, wields it? Then it dawned on me: Power is a myth, a construct. It resides only in the images that we hold of it, rather than in its inherent reality.
During that time, the power of the military was symbiotic: a frantic to and fro between army and civilians. Power conferred by onlookers, endorsed by long-held beliefs and projected back on those who looked on it, as fact. Soldiers and citizens, alike, engaged in that transference of power: from us to them and back.
Growing up, we learned that power has a certain ‘look’. Now, I see that it is an elaborate performance complete with props. What transforms wide-eyed youths into the loaded symbol of the army is a carefully choreographed performance of uniforms and equipment, a strength in numbers, a united display of force."
Hammam recognises the vulnerability and the 'manipulability' of these young soldiers. So how do we warn them of the danger of chasing this 'look' of power, of losing sight of their humanity and their moral compass?
If we are serious about addressing the issue of extreme sexual violence used as a military strategy then we need to inform ourselves about what the military does in our name and put pressure on our governments to instigate change.
Many artists involved in this project, spend a lot of time reading histories and various studies which explore recent and current armed conflicts; the narratives of how they began and the legacies they leave behind. 'Child Soldiers' by Guy Goodwin-Gill & Ilene Cohn is a study commissioned on behalf of the Henry Dunant Institute, Geneva and I believe, provides some valuable insights into the psyche of those who have sometimes gone on to become perpetrators of savage sexual violence.
I read this book with particular interest because of an experience I had earlier this year. Back in early March I was a participating artist in an exhibition 'Mémoire et Sublimaton' held at the French Senate as part of a Symposium which investigated the trauma suffered by victims of sexual violence. In the course of the talks one particular speaker Dr. Desiré Alumeti, a paediatric surgeon at the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had an enormous impact on all of us who attended. Alumeti reconstructs the bodies of little children who have been raped to the point of extreme life-threatening injury - he showed us images which will remain in our nightmares for a long time to come.
A man of extraordinary kindness and generosity, I was privileged to have a long conversation with him afterwards. I asked him questions which have been haunting me throughout the research into 'Intimate Transgressions' : who are the perpetrators? what drives people to do these things and can we develop a preventative strategy?
His answers were:
'Child Soldiers' is particularly relevant in the case of Africa generally because it was written in 1994 and the generation of child soldiers which were brutalised during civil wars in the DRC, Liberia, Sudan in the late 80s and into the 90s are the generation which commits war rape and genocide rape. Obviously not all former child soldiers become perpetrators, but all have been victimised and damaged to a terrible degree.
This is very depressing because so little money is spent on rehabilitation, on trauma support and providing psychological help for these former child soldiers. It's even more depressing to think that maybe it's too late for them anyway......
What is for sure is that victimisation, militarisation and the brutal treatment of boys & young men has a tangible knock on effect of endangering women and children. These are 2 sides of the same coin.
It's worth remembering that for those who live in democratic countries, we pay taxes which support our Defense Departments, our military structures and we are in a position as tax payers and voters to demand that they behave correctly.
The 83% of Americans polled after the My Lai massacre who didn't want Lieutenant Calley prosecuted were supporting the inhuman brutality of their army, supporting war crimes and betraying the victims.
We hope 'Intimate Transgressions' will remind people that even in the throes of armed conflict, we should act ethically and morally to the best of our abilities. As voters and tax payers we should hold our armies to account.
Last year, at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict held in London, Irish Minister Joe Costello made some heartfelt comments when talking about the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the young women who had been raped to death in India:
“Gender based violence is the most pervasive - yet least recognised - human right abuse in the world. It is now time to act. Women’s voices must be heard. We must translate our global commitments into concrete actions to ensure that women and girls can reach their full potential and live a life free from fear”.
As someone, who grew up in Ireland in the 60s & 70s, in what was a very unequal and repressive environment for women, I am genuinely impressed at the societal changes which have taken place there and how most Irish people have embraced Ireland's role in the arena of human rights globally.
Seeing the rapidity of this social change gives hope for the future. Those countries in which sexual violence is most savage can also undergo positive change, if the tools for transformation are made available.
The following is a quotation from a press release issued by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs during the summit:
"Preventing and responding to all forms of violence against women is an essential part of Ireland’s development cooperation programme, Irish Aid. Ireland’s policy on international development, One World, One Policy describes gender-based violence as “a major abuse of human rights, which can have serious impacts on women’s health, well-being and livelihoods”.
Irish Aid is committed to tackling gender-based violence in our partner countries, including Uganda, Zambia, Timor Leste, South Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mozambique. This includes delivering healthcare, counselling and other services to survivors of gender based violence (GBV), developing and implementing legislation on GBV, engaging men in programmes to prevent GBV, and building awareness of the impact of this violence among communities.
Irish Aid is an active member of the Irish Consortium on Gender-Based Violence, which is a unique collaboration between Irish humanitarian, development and human rights agencies, and the Irish Defence Forces. The Consortium counts Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as patron"
Ireland has come a long way since the time of the Magdalene Laundries....
In 1970s Ireland here are some examples of what Irish women couldn't do (quoted from an article by journalist Fintan O'Toole) :
Keep their jobs in the public service or in a bank once they married
Women who worked in the civil service had to resign from their jobs when they became wives.
Sit on a jury
Any Irish citizen who sat on a jury had to be property owners according to the 1927 Juries Act, thus excluding the majority of women.
According to the 1935 Criminal Law Amendment Act, the import, sale and distribution of contraceptives was illegal. As a result the majority of women had no access to contraceptives....
Women were unable to get a barring order against a violent partner
Before 1976 they were unable to own their home outright
According to Irish Law, women had no right to share the family home and her husband could sell their property without her consent.
Women could not refuse to have sex with their husband
A husband had the right to have sex with his wife and consent was not an issue in the eyes of the law.
In a generation this changed, largely I believe, because of increased integration with Europe and greater exposure to global media & culture.
There is a ground swell of opinion which rejects sexual violence and as artists and curators we can be facilitators of change.
Jewish and Roma women had their heads shaved upon entering the death camps during WWII, and more than a ton of this hair remains at Auschwitz where it is slowly turning to dust. In my work for the Intimate Transgressions exhibition, tattered linens embroidered with hair are strewn across a four-foot pile of deteriorating, inhospitable mattresses, like phantoms that once warmed living bodies. The hair sewn into the bed linens also references the traditional “woman’s work” of sewing, weaving and spinning, which was also the work enslaved Jewish and Roma women were forced to do in Gestapo sweatshops and factories.
This tactile imagery will be juxtaposed with another phantom, this time a projection of a woman’s abstracted legs and genitalia floating over and onto the mattresses. The reduction of the female body to dismembered and mute body parts underlines the destruction of identity, physical security and agency experienced by Jewish and Roma women during WWII. I also find the mattress a compelling symbol for this work because it references the work of Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who has been dragging her mattress around campus to protest the treatment of rape victims, herself included, by the Columbia University administration. This brings the work into the current dialogue about sexual violence against women in the world today.
This work was also inspired by the story of SS Oberscharführer Josef Schillinger, who was shot and killed by a young woman, possibly a dancer, in the undressing room of the Birkenau camp gas chamber on October 23, 1943. An essay by historian Kirsty Chatwood explores a version of this story in which the young and beautiful dancer seduced the SS guards by undressing provocatively, then grabbed their guns while they were distracted. I decided to incorporate an overhead projection of a partially-undressed woman shooting upwards at the viewer to acknowledge that even in the most horrifying of circumstances women’s sexuality is not only about victimization. It can be a survival mechanism, a weapon and a source of empowerment.
Andi Arnovitz sent me the text below and I think it is worth noting how the theme of 'Intimate Transgressions' is not one that can be confined merely to the physical act or rape; sexual violence distorts personal, emotional relationships which in turn distorts societal and political ones. Arnovitz bravely confronts what this means in terms of her own family, her ethical and moral concerns over involvement in conflict.
"Andi Arnovitz’s practice is informed by the fact that she is ‘a woman, a wife, and a mother: my work is feminine, therefore feminist. How could it be otherwise?’ Because she is observantly Jewish, she lives with a consistent tension between what was, what is, and what could be. She explores the politics, myths, and challenges of the woman within Judaism, as well as the cultural and political expectations of what a woman is in the 21st century. Living in Israel means having sons and daughters who have to go into the army. Of concern to her as a mother is this specific aspect of war and violence . She uses many art forms that have been traditionally relegated to the realm of women: thread, needle, decoration and uses them to create awareness, protest, dialogue, and disapproval. She reclaims power on behalf of women who have been dispossessed, disempowered and violated by the regimes of men." Andi Arnovitz
As curator of the Intimate Transgressions exhibition I thought that it might be useful to write a narrative describing the origins of this project from a personal perspective.
Perhaps an exhibition, which at its heart, is about disclosure, about illuminating a terrible darkness in our society, demands that the artists and curators should also rise to this challenge and be as transparent as possible about our own creative motivation. From now until the opening of the NY show at Whitebox Art Center this blog will include regular updates from all those involved and follow our journey with this difficult theme.
One of the factors which we as curators have to consider in this project is that we want to draw people in, we don’t want to horrify people with images which will stop them from being able to see the artworks and understand the issues. The artists featured in the exhibition will be making an imaginative leap, finding a way to encompass visually all the complexities experienced by those who encounter sexual violence as victims and as perpetrators.
As a curator there are also a number of personal touch points:
- my exposure to coverage of the My Lai massacre when I was 10 years old,
- my experience of working in organisations like Minority Rights Group and International Alert,
- my personal experience of violent sexual assault,
- my visit to the Nanjing Massacre Museum and subsequent reading which is listed in the project bibliography.
I believe that factors we need to address in this project are: