It Happens Here

In 1612, Artemesia Gentileschi was put on trial for accusing her painting tutor Agostino Tossi of sexual assault because the people around her assumed she was lying. The trial lasted seven months and subjected Gentileschi to torture and thumbscrews. At the end, it was Tossi who was punished and exiled from Rome, though he was never sentenced.

In the wake of her trauma, Gentileschi started to rebuild her life. She went on to become a prestigious artist and the first female member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. However, her experience with sexual assault and the aftermath never fully left her, and the trauma of both the assault and the trial influenced her work. Striking Baroque paintings of Biblical women became her signature — all women who faced struggles and trauma. Through her depictions of characters like Judith and Susanna, Gentileschi reshaped their stories from one of victimhood to one of survival, reclaiming their power and strength as well as her own.

A lot, as one might imagine, has changed culturally since Gentileschi’s time. But at the same time, a lot has stayed the same: the legal system with its re-traumatizing procedures, the cultural and personal shame that follows relationship violence, and the women who fight to make the world better. Gentileschi’s work pioneered a narrative of survivorhood. In contrast to being a victim, being labelled a survivor implies strength, subjectivity, and healing. Survivors of sexual and domestic violence have for centuries since used art to take back their voice for healing and growth.

On Friday, Oct. 27, SAFE (Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Activism For Everyone) at CMU organized an art exhibit titled It Happens Here for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, following Gentileschi’s artistic and philosophical tradition. The show was only up for one day, in the Peter and Wright rooms of the Cohon Center. Though small and short, it was an important show. While less formal than the art exhibitions I normally cover, the intention of the show rang clear. It existed to educate about and honor the lives of those affected by violence.

In part, the show was a platform for the voices of survivors. On one side of the room lay delicate pattern pieces, photography, and an installation as a series of self-portraits created by fine arts junior October Donoghue to document her process of mourning and healing after trauma. On the other were double-sided photos; on one side, the photography of an art student, on the other, the artwork from a child of a family affected by domestic violence donated from the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. At the center of the room was a projector playing clips of students reading out messages from survivors and to survivors, sharing their experiences with trauma and their messages of support.

But the show also brought in a more analytical voice. Posters lined the room to talk about what relationship violence looks like, the crime statistics, and the resources that exist for those at Carnegie Mellon who are looking for support. Cutouts of silhouettes of people held the stories of people who have lost their lives to domestic violence. A table set with broken dishes displayed the statistics of domestic and sexual violence. With these numbers and these crimes mixed with the personal narratives of people in our community, it’s hard to walk away from these kinds of shows without being affected.

The event was quiet. I don’t know how many people stopped by, but I was the only one at the time I visited. People, especially in the art world, often talk about how issues of sexual violence get put into an echo chamber so that the only people who consume art and information on the subject are the ones already looking to support these issues. Perhaps there is some truth in that statement. But you don’t have to look far for proof that exhibitions like It Happens Here are still controversial and deeply needed everywhere. On the news we see Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rolling back Title IX regulations in support of the accused and the horrifying accusations against Harvey Weinstein continuing to pile up, and it is clear providing a platform for discussion of these issues is as important as ever, if not even more so.

Sexual and domestic violence are crimes committed with the intent to degrade and dehumanize. The lasting effects of that are clear in the stories we hear from survivors. I don’t think people who have never been in the same position understand the power of the shame. The bravery and the strength in the work of It Happens Here’s artists is immense. In some ways, the small, tucked away nature of the show was beneficial. Existing in that quiet space, which feels safe and without judgment, is essential to combatting this burden of shame that is put on survivors. The organization of this show in many ways the standing in contrast to the #MeToo trend, which favored numbers and publicity. It Happens Here focused on making more specific change in the smaller scope of our community.

It Happens Here sends a clear message: Wherever you are in the process of dealing with sexual and domestic violence, whether you feel ready to share your story or not, there are resources here that can help you. And we, as the larger Carnegie Mellon community, support you and hear you.