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Proactive Art: Addressing Violence against Women

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From the Field, 2008 by Hung Liu

Above: Hung Liu's "From the Field," (2008). Courtesy of the artist and Magnolia Editions, Oakland, CA

"Can art foment social change?” Randy Rosenberg believes it can. Recently we spoke with Rosenberg, curator of the nonprofit organization Art Works For Change. This institution creates contemporary art exhibitions addressing crucial issues such as social justice, human rights, and environmental sustainability. Rosenberg discussed at length the organization’s current multi-media exhibit Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women and Art, which has been on the road for over three years and counting. The show launched in 2009, with 34 artists from 27 countries, and has since traveled to Oslo, Mexico City, Tijuana, San Diego, Chicago, Atlanta, Dakar, and New Orleans.

In this MutualArt exclusive, Rosenberg illustrates how the show utilizes art to address the issue of violence against women, serving as a catalyst for awareness and empowerment. “Our hope is that the artworks in this show can push the door open a little wider and, in the process, shed new light on an old problem forging a new journey—off the beaten path,” Rosenberg said. Below, in her own words, is the curator’s explanation of how this inspiring show was cultivated, and what insights she hopes viewers will come away with.

In 2008, one of the artists in “The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama” exhibition (an earlierLuz y Solidaridad, 2006 by Susan Plum exhibition I had curated in 2006), Mexican-born Susan Plum, created a powerful work addressing the missing women of Juarez called Luz y Solidaridad (“Light and Solidarity," pictured right). It evolved out of her love for her native Mexico, her social activism, and her belief in art as a vehicle for transformation. Susan wrote me, ”While creating Luz y Solidaridad, I knew that this was only one seed being planted for a much greater problem globally of violence towards women. It has been a dream of mine for many years to participate with others in bringing some cohesive awareness to this global problem.”

The geographically diverse artists selected for this exhibition were chosen for their capacity to hold an expansive vision, create content-driven artwork, and their position within the international art community. It was important to inform our audiences that the issue is an ongoing global concern... Every day throughout the world, women and girls are victims of countless and senseless acts of violence. The range of gender-based violence is devastating, occurring, quite literally, from womb to tomb. It happens in every segment of society, regardless of class, ethnicity, culture, or [political status].

The artwork ranges from video to performance art to more traditional art forms (painting, sculpture, etc). The quality of the artworks never plays a secondary role to the message we are trying to convey. We selected artists whose work resonates with the exhibition content and whose stories and visions motivate us to re-evaluate our perceptions about gender-based violence. Many of the works deal with basic human rights and for some, specifically the issue of violence against women.

J’ai reve que… (I have dreamed that…), from The Sleeping Self series by Gabriela Morawetz
"J'ai reve que...(I have dreamed that...)," from "The Sleeping Self" series by Gabriela Morawetz.

We asked the artists to play a visionary role and to share their stories as to how we get “Off the Beaten Path.” We were not looking to create a sensational, tabloid-driven exhibition of violent images. This would serve the purpose of simply recreating the violence. Instead, the variety of artists from diverse cultures lets us know that communities everywhere are thinking about these issues, and that these human rights issues exist all over the world.

Untitled (AL1002) by Laylah AliThe artworks selected often take on a poetic, highly interpretive quality. This provides an opportunity for the audience to bring their own perceptions and experiences while responding and reacting to the artwork. The exhibition is meant to push us in a more positive direction, creating a sense of empathy for the universal stories of women and girls, and offering the audience a sense of choice in their actions that results from a greater consciousness around the issue. (Left: "Untitled (AL1002)" (2002) by Laylah Ali).

Each venue and host city embraces the exhibition with their own agenda. When the exhibition was in Chicago, 40 activist organizations came together to create a series of programming, including “Stories on Stage,” with actors from the community reading literary works addressing violence against women and girls...In Senegal, the First Lady attended the opening at which a hip-hop concert was held, with graffiti artists writing “respect women.” This was particularly exciting coming from a Yoko Ono performing “Cut Piece” September 15, 2003 by Yoko Onocommunity where violence against women is part of the fabric of the culture and discussion of the topic is considered taboo. Each community has embraced the show differently and with a different sense of ownership—something that we encourage. We take great pleasure in seeing the various ways the exhibition inspires local communities. (Right: Video still of Yoko Ono performing "Cut Piece," September 15, 2003. Theatre Le Ranelagh, Paris, France).

Premised on the visionary potential of art, the stories that underlie these artworks help us feel and understand the essence of the problem of violence against women around the world.

Participating artist Joyce J. Scott sums up the exhibition intent well: “This is the one life we know we have. I can't be complacent about the world I live in. It's important to me to use art in a manner that incites people to look and then carry something home - even it it's subliminal - that might make a change in them. We're all trapped in gender, race, and class if you believe you have no freedom of choice and are relegated by other people's suggestions about what you are. To make a difference in the lives of children, we must be much more honest and upfront to them about the society we've created.”

Off the Beaten Path will open next in Denver at Redline on June 1, 2012. Rosenberg anticipates traveling the exhibition through 2014, including stops in Johannesburg and Cape Town in early 2013.

As told by Randy Jayne Rosenberg, curator of Art Works for Change. Interview conducted by MutualArt Staff

Untitled by Yoko Inoue
"Untitled," by Yoko Inoue, (2007). Digital print of performance.


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Laylah Ali
Hung Liu
Yoko Inoue
Gabriela Morawetz
Yoko Ono
Susan Plum