” The invitation asked for contributions towards the project from the broadest spectrum of disciplines. The point being for artists to show how art, when used for the purpose of socio-political activism, has the power and ability to shift the status quo.
Activism aims to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change – to make societal improvements and to correct social injustice. Through this call, we invited artists to truly observe, reflect and comment on what the rape crisis in SA looks like.” SA’s Dirty Laundry
When I came across the invitation to artists in South Africa to join Jenny Nijenhuis and Nondumiso Msimanga in this creative initiative to raise awareness around the issue of rape and sexual abuse in South Africa, I jumped in and got involved. It was an opportunity for me to use my art for a real purpose – a cause I feel strongly about. The initiative was to coincide with the international campaign of 16 Days of Activism, which highlights issues of violence against women and children.
My proposal was accepted, and I felt honoured and priveleged to be a part of this project. It is the first time I have taken part in a group initiative, and the first time that I was really putting myself out there as a dedicated, full time artist. It was also the first time I would be creating art in public, and making a video art piece to accompany it. Lots of firsts for me – and it was daunting.
That said, being involved in the way that I was, meant that I was to spend two whole days sitting in the gallery, drawing on a wall, surrounded by the artworks, being there during the performance art events and seeing the responses of the gallery visitors. Not many artists get this opportunity.
My Experiences of the Viewers
On the opening night, I got home feeling traumatised and unhinged. Nondumiso Msimanga did a performance art piece in a wedding dress made of underwear, in the street in Maboneng.
I wrote in my journal:
“gut-wrenching, powerful, traumatising, abhorrent, authentic, haunting. I felt it rip through me – the shock, horror, torment, pain, shame, guilt, disgust, the feelings of the trauma that never really go away, and continue to affect one’s life long after the event.”
What interested me, was what happened on the periphery of the exhibition:
Near the end of the performance Nondumiso took off her dress, and stood in her panties, shaking, as she wailed in a rasping voice the first lines of ‘Nkosi Sikelel i Africa’.
It was haunting and real.
At this moment, I witnessed two men behind me take out their phones to photograph her nakedness. I heard other men who chuckled as they walked past, and saw a man pull his smartly dressed wife away, when she stopped and gaped in horror at the scene of a woman in a wedding dress wailing and screaming and rolling on the ground.
In the gallery on the weekend, I heard two men talking and giggling during a performance piece where a young girl was relating her experience of how her father abused her. The men eventually left with an attitude of ‘ah this is rubbish’.
And I witnessed the two men who came up the stairs, and stopped to comment and giggle at the g-string panties hanging on the line between the girls panties and the granny panties, and the men’s underwear too.
My thoughts went like this : “Those men could be the perpetrators. Those are the men we will never touch with this work, let alone change.”
I wondered about the point of doing this truthful, hardhitting, raw kind of art. Why do we bother if the men (and women) who are guilty of the violent acts will probably not be changed?
And then there were the viewers who cried and felt the pain of the performers. Those that stood shocked to their core by the extent of the pain on show. And those who held others in their pain. I saw men and women, young and old, who were moved to tears by the art performances.
My Thoughts about Art for Change
I had lots of meditative time to reflect while drawing on that wall.
I also wondered if art can really make a difference and if so, how? From my immediate experience, I realised that the way it was making a difference was through healing.
The intensely intimate and deeply moving performance by Nondumiso, during which I was so deeply touched, portrayed the deepest emotions of shame and pain and guilt and destruction that a human being can experience. All of which I have experienced in myself and witnessed in others during my work and training as a Kahuna massage therapist. (Read more about this therapy ).
In any deep transformational type of healing modality, these emotions, in response to trauma are expressed through the body in similar ways for everyone. Crying, wailing, moaning, screaming, flailing about, going into a fetal position, wanting to run away, getting angry, kicking, bashing, gasping for breath, crying some more. This is the way we can let our traumas move through us, in order to heal. If we allow it.
Having an artist like Nondumiso bravely bare her soul and take us, the viewers, with her through this tormenting experience, allowed us to cry and wail with her, and in so doing, release some of the pain that we didn’t even know we were holding in our bodies and in our emotional selves. The process of watching and feeling with her, felt like a form of healing.
I spoke to the facilitator of the bodymapping workshops, and she said that it was amazing to hear how these women have been through so much, and yet, they keep going forward. She said “For one lady, a light came on”.
So back to the question, can art bring about change?
Perhaps it’s not the kind of change we want or would like to imagine (a world where there is no violence and abuse.)
It creates awareness, brings the issue out into the light. We can hope that it affects a politician somewhere who puts something into action to change something at a causal level. (I like to believe that all things are possible).
And it brings about healing for those who have been affected. It makes people feel less isolated in their pain, and when we know we are not alone in our suffering, somehow it lightens the load and gives us strength to carry on.
Hearing the response of the artists who organised the initiative answered my question a bit more. Watch this video
I felt exhausted by the end of two days of drawing in the gallery space, and at the same time, enriched and deeply moved by the experience.