OAKLAND — As the daughter of a World War II veteran and prisoner of war, for years, I witnessed the generational trauma and effects of the war on my father. Yet he refused to discuss his experiences with me. There are stories about war that go years unspoken, and in the past few years I’ve grown especially interested in learning about the atrocities of World War II, in particular those afflicted on a population that was long silenced: the women and girls living during this horrific time in the Philippines.
During World War II, the average age of a girl captured and forced into sexual slavery in the Philippines was 14 years old. As of 2016, the remaining survivors have yet to receive a formal apology for the sexual violence inflicted on them by the Japanese government. These stories and lifelong struggles find a home in an incredibly moving and poignant anti-war memorial and group exhibition titled Songs for Women Living with War at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland, California, curated by the Bay Area-based artist Johanna Poethig.
Poethig’s own installation, which is about eight feet tall, sits in the middle of the gallery space. “Bahay ni Lola,” which means “Home for Grandmother” in Tagalog, is a narrow structure through which we can step inside, where we encounter the stories of women who have long held pain, suffering, and memories of war within their bodies. The walls are covered with stripes of painted canvas that have been weaved together, some bearing bold, colorful words written in various languages, including Spanish and Tagalog. Anne Perez’s abstract sound compositions emanate from speakers fit snuggly between the openings of Poethig’s installation and traverse the gallery. The sounds are a mixture of the women’s voices that seem to serve as specters of the past, attempting to speak to the unspeakable.
The faces of Filipina comfort women are embedded in the structure’s woven wall. The words “women of Juárez” remind us of the femicide in Latin America, while the phrase “wartime violence has been one of history’s greatest silences,” stenciled in all capital letters, demands to be seen and read. By coming forward and telling their stories to the world, these women make up a vast network of survivors and a fight to make certain history doesn’t repeat itself.
On the other side of the shelter, ceramic pieces form an abacus. The piece strikes me as a representation of the lost count of days these women were subjected to violence and the lives imposed by militarization, colonialism, and imperialism.
Artist Jadelynn Stahl has us dodging vinyl words and phrases on the floor: “tracking movement,” “a wince,” and “you begin to explain yourself away again.” To read the text, your head must hang as if in shame — moving through the gallery, you get a sense of what it might feel like to hover over the words you may be thinking, but are unable to speak.
Stahl’s work forces the viewer to walk in a circle that leads to Binh Danh’s daguerreotypes, which appear on reflective glass and depict the massacre of My Lai in Vietnam. Upon looking closely, the viewer’s face becomes a part of the photographs, as if we were looking back into history and seeing ourselves within the massacre itself.
One of the more distressing pieces of the show was Kija Lucas’s “Pillows.” While it is a photograph of an everyday object, the pillow is stripped of its protective cover and reveals marks from what can be assumed to be secretions or human bodily fluids. The photograph changes our perception of a comforting object and forces us to look at the soiled and tattered surface. On the opposite end of the gallery, Angelica Muro’s photographs similarly disturb with stains. For “Cultura de Femicidio,” she used light-sensitive paper to create monochromatic images of women protesting the rampant violence against women in many Latin American countries, and appropriated each image from the media, superimposing them so that there appears to be blood dripping down over them.
Against the black painted wall along the gallery’s ramp, Jenifer Wofford’s portrait series, aptly titled Lolas, shows the relentless spirit and beauty of the surviving Filipina women who have bravely shared their stories as comfort women. The contours of their laugh lines, bright eyes, and white dresses capture their vibrancy and commitment in their fight for justice — one that still, decades later, we need to continue. Every piece in the show explores the nature of living with war, but through the eyes and experiences of girls and women around the world. Poethig’s curation of these impactful and intense works not only provides a potent and incisive memorial, it is a sobering reminder of how these women, artists, and the viewer can help break the silence.
Songs for Women Living with War continues at Pro Arts Gallery (150 Frank H Ogawa Plaza, Oakland, California) through November 12.