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Documenting Survival in ‘Women as Witness’

"By force" by Heba Khalifa

By Laurel Jarombek

Women as Witness, a new exhibition at TI Art Studios in Brooklyn, documents a wide variety of perspectives on violence, confinement, and gender roles by featuring female artists from nine different countries. The purpose of the exhibition is to portray resistance, survival, and resilience through the medium of photography, and by doing so, to fight against the suppression of women’s experiences.

According to co-curators Zoraida Lopez and Qiana Mestrich, what mattered most in the selection of images was not solely their aesthetic value, but the intentions of the artists. The result is a collection of images that powerfully convey the deeply personal suffering of their subjects. By addressing victimhood and oppression directly and unapologetically, the photographs force the viewer to confront the harsh realities of women’s experiences all over the world.

The premise of the exhibition is that women can fight against male-dominated narratives by documenting their own experiences or those of other women. This focus is remarkably rare in photography shows of this kind, considering the sheer number of women who experience the forms of trauma depicted in the images. South Africa-based artist Neo Ntsoma’s statement accompanying her work articulates the value of this perspective: “It is our responsibility as women photographers to tell women stories as they are, not as they seem to be. Together we share a powerful experience, and daily we are faced with challenges that only [we] can document with complete fairness and feeling.”

"Holy Matrimony" by Heba Khalifa

A prominent theme in several of the artists’ work is the domestic sphere, expressed as both a restrictive space and an institution that traditionally hides women’s pain from public view. In her series “From the Inside,” Egyptian artist Heba Khalifa strikingly portrays her own experience of motherhood in the context of a society undergoing dramatic revolution. Her self-portraits emphasize confinement and silencing; the images show her tied to her duties as a single mother, forced to watch from indoors as events that will determine the future of her country unfold outside.

She writes, “I find myself unable to leave the house, to march in a demonstration. I hold my breath sitting in front of a TV, the military planes fly under my ceiling, and the tear gas fills the kitchen. The baby ties me down.” Her work articulates the pain that accompanies motherhood, a subject that is rarely discussed openly in modern societies.

"Bang you are Dead" by Cristina Santana

The most evocative works in the exhibition draw upon the artists’ experiences with various forms of violence. Cristina Santana’s series “PAIN,” for instance, highlights domestic, sexual, political, and religious violence against women, inspired by the Brazilian-born artist’s own past. Santana’s and her fellow contributors’ images of rape, war, and domestic abuse effectively capture moments of immeasurable anguish.

"Lingering Scars 1" by Farzana Hossen

Other artists, such as Bangladesh-based photographer Farzana Hossen, document social problems that specifically impact women. Hossen’s series, “Lingering Scars,” features female survivors of acid attacks, which have a higher prevalence in Bangladesh than in any other country. She cites data from the Acid Survivors Foundation in Bangladesh, which demonstrates that women and girls suffer disproportionately from these attacks, and that the perpetrators are usually the victims’ male partners. The photographs shed light on a serious problem – over 2,400 women and girls were victims of acid attacks in Bangladesh between 1999 and 2013 – as well as demonstrate the resilience of the survivors.

“X post facto (5.5—5.7)” by Muriel Hasbun

Representations of the female body are featured heavily throughout the exhibition. While most of the photographs in this category are portraits of some kind, El Salvador-born artist Muriel Hasbun takes a different approach; her series “X post facto" comprises the dental records of a female combatant in the Salvadoran civil war. Her work aims to preserve the memories of those who vanished in the conflict, whose roles in the war would otherwise have been forgotten, and it draws attention to the violence committed against them.

While the most visually striking images in the collection are those that express the raw emotion of suffering, the subjects chosen by the artists are not limited to violence or pain. Contributors from Brooklyn to South Africa find unique ways to portray their interactions with the spaces they, as women, occupy both in their personal lives as well as in broader historical and political contexts. The exhibition successfully tears down the wall between the private and the public, addressing matters traditionally confined to the domestic sphere and introducing long-unheard female artistic voices to conversations about a wide variety of social problems. 

The purpose behind the imagery included in Women as Witness is two-fold; the works are both a means of healing and self-expression for the artists themselves and an impetus for increased recognition of women’s voices. Progress toward the latter goal is achieved as exhibitions highlighting female points of view become more and more widespread. Claiming space for women’s stories in public discussions draws attention to previously suppressed attitudes and grievances. Artistic forums that focus on women’s experiences and perspectives are critical to encouraging such conversations.

Women as Witness runs at TI Art Studios until Saturday, Oct. 10. Gallery viewing is by appointment only. Please visit the project’s website for more details and for updates regarding future locations of the exhibition.

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Laurel Jarombek is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Zoraida Lopez and Qiana Mestrich]

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