Hundreds of thousands of Congolese females, from toddlers to grandmothers — possibly as many as two million, according to one study — have been raped by rebel fighters or government troops. Notoriously brutal attacks have included gang rapes and penetration with guns, knives and other objects that have torn apart women’s reproductive systems and intestines, sometimes beyond repair.
As a daughter, a mother, and a woman, these stories are sadly too familiar. And, at the same time, where I live and work, I am relatively safe. It is this dual connection that I was exploring in the series https://smithgarcesart.com/kindling/.
How different are the concerns of mothers the world over? How different are the needs of families—in cities, villages, refugee camps? Children need care. They must be tended to—fed, clothed, sheltered. These essential truths do not change no matter where you live, or what condition you find yourself in. These are the thoughts which occupied my mind as I took a group of local mothers to collect firewood in the town in which I live, and interviewed them to find out what the essential needs of their families are, and how these needs are met.
Traditionally home is the center of the family, the hearth is the heart of the home, a place where families come together for comfort and warmth. The kindling in these drawings echo this ancient ideal of comfort and security, just as the fragile and unsteady piles of wood echo the vulnerable position of women struggling to sustain their families in the most severe conditions imaginable. These drawings of kindling gathered by individual local mothers, and accompanied by their own quotes obtained in interviews, reveal how universal are the needs of families, just as it made clear how precarious and out of reach these most basic of needs are for hundreds of thousands of mothers, fathers, and their children, world wide.
A few years ago while on vacation in Europe, I went to dinner with my husband, walking hand-in-hand on a lovely winding street. The shop keepers we passed on the street were friendly and smiled as we passed. I felt happy and light hearted as we headed to our much anticipated meal. Our spirits were not dampened on our return walk after dinner, despite the rain that had started to fall. I felt proud of my own ingenuity at adapting to the change in weather by tying a scarf on my head. Something had changed though: the shop keepers did not smile at me this time, their smiles were replaced with something else—scowls, angry stares, and flat expressions. One man looked from my face, to the scarf on my head. He took a step toward me, but then seemed to hang back uncertainly when he saw my husband walking briskly beside me. I was relieved when we made it back to the hotel without incident, and I removed the scarf from my head. The scarf in my hand was nothing more than a piece of fabric, and yet it made all the difference in the world to people who knew nothing of me, except that my head was covered.
I am a professional artist, a visual essayist working on editorial images focusing on the effects of social constraints, physical abuse, social injustice, and intolerance on women of varying cultures. Veiled Identity is an art project which seeks to understand what is behind the banning of the headscarf. The news in recent years is full of stories concerning debates throughout Europe about the criminalization of the headscarf. To some, the headscarves are symbol of repression, and banning it’s use is seen as liberating to the wearer. To others, the headscarf is a proud symbol of Muslim identity, and attempts to ban it’s use are rooted in racism. Lost in the debate are the voices of Muslim women, who are seldom asked what wearing the veil, or deciding against wearing the veil, means to them. Is forcing women in a democracy to remove headscarves liberation, or oppression?
I am looking for a number of Muslim women who would be willing to take part in my latest art project, by answering a few questions about issues related to identity and belonging. If participants choose, I am also looking for headscarves to photograph as models for still lifes. All scarves will be returned upon completion of the drawings. Scarves which you may wish to donate will be exhibited with the drawings at a later date. I’ve posted a questionnaire above for those that are interested in being part of the project. Questionnaires should only take a few minutes to fill out, and will remain anonymous.
My goal is to create an art project that seeks to illuminate and understand these debates over identity. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“My daughter was 13 years old. She was not having a man, she didn’t reach that age.” Father of victim, Somalia, 2008 “He said she was raped.” Eyewitness, Somalia, 2008
“More than a thousand of people arrived there. They brought the lady to the place, and when she came out she said, What do you want from me?” Eyewitness, Somalia, 2008
“Two men forced her to the buried place. They tried to catch her hands and her legs into the hole.” Eyewitness, Somalia, 2008
“The crowd was very, very busy. Every person trying to see what was happening. The time was 4 p.m.. After one hour the lady was brought there, and the forces tried to stone her.” Eyewitness, Somalia, 2008
“Those who were the closest, they were saying there was more bleeding on her face, and her head was bleeding very bad.” Eyewitness, Somalia, 2008
“After they had finished stoning her they tried to cover her… and they took her to the hospital to bury.” Eyewitness, Somalia, 2008
This visual essay and collection of stones was first inspired by an interview I read regarding the then recent conviction of a young mother who was accused of adultery, and sentenced to death by stoning. The subject of the interview was the public official who was put in charge of carrying out the execution. In reading the interview I was struck not only by the horror of the penalty—what does it mean that in the 21st century there are still women being stoned to death—but by the thoughtful way in which this official ruminated on the correct way to carry out the sentence: a pit would need to be dug, many volunteers would be needed to throw stones, and the right size stones would need to be decided on. This last item, though chilling, made me think—what is the perfect stone for killing a woman?
There are few outdoor places where stones are not plentiful, even in the town where I live, so I began looking for the perfect stone. What would it look like? What shape would it be? How large? Little things we take for granted take on new meaning when studied up close. Stones are natural and varied, they are often quite beautiful. They have no malice on their own. When drawing them they began to appear as fragile and helpless as the young girl whose recent death by stoning is described from an eye witness account below each image.
In the end of the interview, the public official drew his own conclusion of what the perfect stone would be as he held up his own closed hand “about the size of a man’s fist”.
Is this the Answer?: These medieval instruments of torture, real and imagined, are visual comments on the state of safety for women in the 21st century.
What is the answer to keeping the world’s women and girls safe from physical and sexual abuse? What will it take for our sisters, mothers, and daughters to live in safety without shame? “Is this the Answer?” reflects on the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse, victim’s internalized feelings of shame, and the failure world wide to provide women and girls with protection and redress. The juxtaposition of these medieval instruments of torture, with western proverbs taken from history, are comments on the continued vulnerability of women in the 21st century. Together the proverbs and images underscore mixed messages that women still struggle to reconcile today.
In the middle ages women could be sentenced to wear shaming devices for being too outspoken, for dressing in a way that was considered shameful, or simply walking in a way that was considered enticing to men. Today, women no longer are sentenced to wear a branks, or mask of shame, but may still be silenced by internalized notions of self-blame. Feelings of guilt are frequent among victims of physical and sexual abuse. Women continue to “Suffer and Be Still”, witnessed by the continued under reporting of rape world wide. Women, young and old, frequently internalize blame in domestic assault cases, insisting that they elicit abuse by provoking their partners or by not being docile enough. The double pillory presented in “It Takes Two to Make a Quarrel”, literally binds both victim and abuser together, making no distinction between them, in much the same way women have been known to make excuses for an abusive partner.
Despite the romanticization of the chastity belt, women who were locked in this devise (“Under Lock and Key”) to maintain their “honor” despite it’s inability to protect, were more often inflicted with physical and emotional pain. Then, as now, women who lose their “purity”, even in cases of rape, can face a punishment of death in certain cultures. A cage or “gibbet” once used to inflict a slow and torturous death, might today be put to better use as a protective devise for a young woman coming of age.
“If tiny feet suddenly became fashionable, would American women subject themselves to foot-binding?” This was the question posed in an article of the Los Angeles Times, denouncing breast implants, with the headline “Draw the Line at the Knife”. Standards of beauty are continuously changing, but what is the often grotesque reality behind the extreme measures taken to reshape women’s bodies?
I began to investigate these notions by exploring various bodyshaping practices beginning with ancient Chinese foot binding. The vision of a teetering, helpless young bride was considered erotic, and a family prosperous enough to support a young woman made—by design—unsuitable for any kind of physical labor, gained status within the community. However, the reality of these treasured “golden lilies”, were deformed, painful feet, often malodorous due to rotting flesh and infection.
Corseting began at a very early age in Victorian England and North America of the 18th and 19th centuries, and extreme tight lacing had an understandably negative effect on the developing body of young girls, effecting not only outward appearance, but the growth and position of internal organs. The vision of the delicate swooning young woman at this time was considered ideal, but how robust and active could an individual be with a compressed rib cage, gasping for breath? A loosely corseted woman, by contrast, was judged not only to be imperiling her health but to be of loose moral fiber as well.
Today, there is no longer a need for girls to be excessively corseted, when they are willing to carve out their own bodies through surgery or self-imposed starvation. The rise in incidence of anorexia, has made clear how much young girls today have internalized societal ideals of beauty, just as foot binding and corseting of young girls and women were signs of past repression through the idealization of the female form.