Art as Activism

Aug 22nd, 1970

Alison Branitsky MCASA Programs Intern Sexual assault awareness campaigns that feature survivor artwork are in the unique position of both enacting social change and facilitating individual recovery. Over the past several years, the topic of sexual assault has gained national attention, and survivor-led activism has played the crucial role of pinpointing exactly which issues need to be addressed. Projects are being created to shed light on each one of these issues, including consent awareness, victim blaming, and recovery. Survivors are using art and media to capture their stories in both personal and profound ways. The Clothesline Project, which began in 1990, was the first national campaign that used survivors’ art to shatter the silence surrounding gender-based violence. Women affected by violence express their emotions on a t-shirt, which is then hung on a clothesline as public testimony to the ongoing problem of violence against women. Clothesline Projects are an annual awareness event in many communities, including college campuses. Many sites host shirt-making events as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the display continues to grow annually. Since its inception, The Clothesline Project has grown worldwide and now features hundreds of shirts designed by individuals of all genders. Today, a number of projects allow survivors to submit photographs as contributions to large-scale collaborative art. Campaigns such as Surviving in Numbers and Lasting Impact highlight specific aspects of survivors’ experiences: Surviving in Numbers enumerates survivors’ stories, and Lasting Impact focuses on the long-term effects of sexual violence. Other campaigns, such as Carry that Weight, share messages of solidarity with survivors. Carry that Weight was inspired by Emma Sulkowicz’s year-long Mattress Performance; the now national campaign encourages individuals to submit photos of themselves carrying mattresses or pillows as a sign of support for survivors. Large-scale public displays such as Force’s Monument Quilt aim to create a public space where survivors are supported, not shamed. Inspired by the AIDS quilt, the monument quilt strives to end stigma surrounding sexual assault and create a community where sexual violence is not tolerated. The quilt is comprised of individual squares, each adorned with survivors’ stories, images, and messages. In 2014, the thousands of quilt squares blanketed over one mile of the National Mall, and have since been touring around the country. The social impacts of art-based campaigns are immense. These campaigns reach thousands of people every year through news articles, social media, or physical displays. The presence of such personal stories catalyzes the conversation about sexual violence. Critically, these campaigns help us move away from the detrimental “stranger-in-a-dark-alley” rape stereotype and come to understand that there are many complex and nuanced forms sexual violence. These campaigns are particularly important on college campuses, where 1 in 5 women will be the victim of sexual assault. These displays on campus give survivors a space to share their stories, provide an opportunity to connect with both on- and off-campus resources, and incite conversations about consent and bystander intervention. This ongoing, peer-to-peer dialogue is vital for the prevention of sexual assault. While artwork is an integral part of the public sexual assault social movement, these projects are not just political activism. They can also have profound health and wellness impacts at the individual level. Psychologist James Pennebaker found that putting pen- or in these cases, markers and paint- to paper and writing about deeply emotional events, such as a sexual assault, results in long-term physical and mental health benefits, including lower overall stress and negative emotions. Because disclosing trauma can release the stress associated with keeping it concealed, this creative self-expression ultimately allows deep and genuine emotions to be processed [1]. Psychologists Philip Ullrich and Susan Lutgendorf believe that writing about a sexual assault may be a means of regaining control over the trauma and may serve as a form of desensitization in which the survivor forms a nonthreatening relationship between the trauma and her/his emotions. Additionally, the cognitive process required while writing may serve as a form of meaning making, which can facilitate the process of posttraumatic healing and growth. [2] According to expert art therapist Cathy Malchiodi, pictorial representations can be as helpful as words at expressing trauma, particularly in situations where emotions and experiences cannot be adequately expressed through words alone. Specifically, art addresses both mind and body trauma reactions. [3] Be it through words, pictures, or both, when survivors create art it is an act of reclaiming their story and expressing it in a way that is meaningful to them. As impactful as it is for a survivor to share her/his story, it can be equally as powerful to bear witness to the stories of others. Renowned trauma researcher Judith Herman cites reconnection with others as a vital part of healing from sexual assault. [4] For many survivors, participating in an activism project and having the opportunity to engage with other stories lets them know that there is a supportive and empathetic community. Survivors validate and normalize each other’s experiences with processing trauma and foster a sense of community and connectedness. As one survivor powerfully stated after participating in Lasting Impact: “For the first time since the assault I feel truly connected to other people. I thought I was alone in my experiences, but now I know that many people struggled the same way I have. I feel like I can finally start to move forward.”   Survivor Centered Art Campaign Resources: Carry that Weight: The Clothesline Project: Force’s Monument Quilt: Lasting Impact: No More: PACT 5: Project Consent’s “NO” Campaign: Project Unbreakable: Surviving in Numbers:  
  [1] Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3). 274-281. [2] Ullrich, P. M. & Lutgendorf S. K. (2002). Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. The Society of Behavioral Medicine, 24(3). 244-250. [3] Malchiodi, C. (2012). Trauma-informed expressive art therapy: Tapping the arts’ power as trauma intervention. Psychology Today. [4] Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic.    
  This article appeared in the Summer 2015 Issue of Frontline.

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