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While many traumas have common characteristics, survivors deal with their aftermath differently. Many develop mental illnesses and substance abuse issues. Others enter intensive therapy, and still others others repress their experiences. There are also those who transform traumas — their own or collective traumas — into works of art, including well-known artists. These artists form the subjects of Vivien Green Fryd’s Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970, published by Penn State University Press.
Faith Ringgold and Kara Walker, two artists who receive their own chapters in the book, perhaps best exemplify how the same traumas can be approached in radically divergent ways. Ringgold confronts American slavery, and the legally sanctioned rapes that accompanied it, head on in her narrative quilts, such as “The Slave Rape Story Quilt” (1984–85) and “The Purple Quilt” (1986). While Ringgold unflinchingly depicts the sheer terror of these experiences, she incorporates materials and references that hint at the possibility of spiritual renewal — for instance, a cruciform shape in “The Slave Rape Story Quilt” and the quilt’s form, appropriated from sacred Tibetan Buddhist silk thangkas.
Walker’s imagery, on the other hand, feels caught in a repetitive loop of endless trauma. In Walker’s art there is no redemption. There are only perverse, horrific, and sexually violent acts. Some scenes are so grotesque they appear physically impossible: In a series of watercolors titled Negress Notes (Brown Follies) (1996), for instance, children are depicted climbing back into the bodies of women through their vaginas, and one child (of color) hangs suspended between two white men, being raped by both from either end.
Fryd also looks at artists who address rape in contemporary culture, such as Suzanne Lacy. Lacy’s unprecedented and groundbreaking Three Weeks in May (1977) was an extended event featuring multiple performances by several artists. It took place 42 years ago in Los Angeles, then considered by many to be the “Rape Capital” of the country.
One of the most enduring works in Three Weeks in May is “Maps,” in which Lacy updated a municipal map of the city installed in City Hall Plaza every day, writing the word “RAPE” in bold, four-inch tall, red letters across its surface. Each of these markings documented an actual report of rape that had occurred the night before, using data provided to the artist by the Los Angeles Police Department. Lacy lightly marked more “RAPE”s around the bold one, indicating the estimated nine additional rapes for every one reported. By the end of only three weeks, the map was covered in smatterings of red.
In the book’s final chapter, Fryd compares two versions of Leslie Labowitz’s performance Myths of Rape to highlight ideological shifts that occurred between second- and fourth-wave feminism (representing the 1970s and today, respectively). In the original piece, female performers dressed in black and wore blindfolds while displaying posters that described various myths about sexual assault, such as “rape occurs only amongst strangers” and “it could never happen to me.”
Thirty-five years later, self-declared feminist artists and collaborators Elana Mann and Audrey Chan reimagined the piece, updating it with new knowledge about sexual assault. They retained the black clothing but removed the blindfolds and included males as well as females as performers. Notably, Mann and Chan had their performers wear the posters across their bodies, instead of carrying them, to signify the sexually assaulted body as the site of trauma. This revised performance both modernizes and pays tribute to the original by acknowledging the continued need for rape activism and the historical legacy and collaborative nature of feminist art.
Sexual violence takes one of the most beautiful and fulfilling acts of intimacy between people and corrupts it into a form of brutality from which some never recover and no one remains the same. In her book, Fryd makes a convincing case for the need to examine artworks through the lens of sexual trauma, a violent reality that unfortunately spans across gender, ethnicity, race, and time (while not discussed in this review, many male artists are included in the survey). In art communities that rarely discuss sexual trauma, even as it occurs within the communities, and in a cultural climate in which the #MeToo movement remains necessary, Fryd’s book provides survivors of sexual trauma and their allies with deserved acknowledgement and sometimes cathartic release.