DAY EIGHT: On the Appropriateness of Cultural Representations of Mass Violence Against Women

How can the experiences of women affected by sexual violence from war be highlighted through art without further reproducing and perpetuating trauma? Projects like Thinking of You (Alketa Xhafa Mripa) provide a powerful example.

Image above: Thinking of You by Alketa Xhafa-Mripa. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Maria Alina Asavei

Can we represent or commemorate victims of gender-based mass violence as part of processes of justice without objectifying and retraumatising women? These are the dilemmas faced by transitional justice scholars and practitioners. 

The experiences of the women affected by armed conflicts and political violence are often overlooked in the official institutions of remembrance and transitional justice processes of commemoration and symbolic reparations. This happens on various grounds, among which, the most unsettling takes for granted the claim that “sexual violence has always been part of the war” and is therefore unremarkable and unworthy of attention. At the same time, the survivors of mass violence have often felt reluctant or unwilling to evoke memories of their past sexual abuses and other forms of aggression, finding it too painful to relive traumatic pasts, even in the name of retributive justice. 

The fact that these memories of sexual violence cannot be tackled openly and publicly is not surprising, and, as the artist Judy Chicago asked rhetorically, ‘how open can you be when it is shrouded in shame?’ Yet, the preference in many legal traditions for individual memory in re-establishing truth and justice (the traditional rules of evidence in transitional justice focus on individual representation, testimony and memory) offers less space for collective representations and collective memory (forms which might prevent trauma for those women survivors of mass violence). 

Equally worrisome is that some cultural representation (especially in the film industry) does harm rather than support the process of redress because they keep reproducing a pattern of cultural memory that displays women victims of mass sexual violence by exposing nakedness, body parts and romanticizing the relationship between victim and perpetrator. Such art cannot count as a form of symbolic reparation. Nor does it establish relations across difference. These representations fail to pay respect to the women who suffered violence and even risk re-traumatizing them.

For these reasons, these art pieces do nothing to highlight women’s agency in political, economic and social transformation within post-conflict societies.

This does not mean that all artistic/cultural responses to mass violence against women are inappropriate. There are several instances of collaborative, participatory and collective artistic memory work that has the ability to foster communities of remembrance beyond gender, biographical and national borders divides. Participatory and/or collaborative artistic memory work has the merit of enabling witnesses and post-witnesses to collectively experience the women victims ’painful past without relying on the proclivities of the gaze alone. At the same time, the collective representations of painful memories, displayed by both witnesses and post-witnesses, can trigger a critical collective memory whose cultural materializations did not employ the sexualization and objectification of women and girls. One instance of this collaborative cultural memory is the huge installation Thinking of You (conceptualized by the artist Alketa Xhafa-Mripa in Kosovo, 2015). 

Image of the artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa inside her installation Thinking of You. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Thinking of You commemorates the victims of mass sexual violence focusing on the public’s participation as crucial in the artwork’s final form and meaning. Every person from the public is at the same time a participant to the artistic memory event by donating skirts or dresses which have been eventually hung on elongated washing lines on the main soccer stadium in Pristina.

Still above taken from the video ‘Thinking of You’. Click on it to watch the full video.

The artistic memory event gathered dresses and skirts not only from the people of Kosovo but from people from all over the world, who had no biographical ties with the victims of the former Yugoslavia. The ravishing documentary about the production of the unprecedented installation Thinking of You reveals the extraordinary participation of the post-witnesses of mass violence against women. The documentary titled The Making of Thinking of You by Anna di Lellio and Fitim Shala displays the campaign of collecting dresses and skirts all over Kosovo and several interviews with the participants to this commemorative event. 

The same type of participatory memory work meant to empower the women victims of mass violence beyond national and biographical ties emerged in Cairo during the Arab Spring (2011). What is currently known as the “blue bra stencil” commemorates an unknown Egyptian woman victim of the military police during the revolution. The violent act perpetrated by the military policemen was recorded by an amateur camera and circulated then worldwide. The footage shows a young woman severely beaten with her abaya (Islamic robe) stripped off. The viewer cannot see the woman’s face but only her clothing, including a blue bra. The cultural responses occurred immediately after the violent act ended. Many walls in Cairo started to reveal the blue bra stencil in various designs. The same feminine garment appeared online worldwide as Facebook profile pictures.

Artwork by Bahia Shehab done in memory of a Muslim protester who was dragged by Egyptian soldiers from Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising in Egypt. Source: creative commons

The cultural memory of the act of mass violence against women in Cairo exceeds both the border of Egypt and the borders of its initial meaning being associated with other sets of political and social concerns. To give only several examples, the “Blue Bra” is represented and disseminated in the political cartoons of the Brazilian artist Carlos Latuff; in the pieces of textile art created by the Jordanian designer Naser Al-Khalylah and in the political video posters disseminated online by the anonymous artist collective Operation Blue Bra Girl. 

Maria-Alina Asavei is Assistant Professor at the Institute of International Studies, Charles University Prague and curator of contemporary art. Drop her an email at maria.asavei@fsv.cuni.cz