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Using art to influence social change

Ballarat’s Backspace Gallery is putting the spotlight on violence against women, with an exhibition, book launch, talk and workshop which all contribute to The project, titled Beyond 50%.
It is the initiative of curator Felicity Martin and is currently on display until March 24.

Beyond 50% examines art made to influence cultural change in the #MeToo era, presenting work by six international and Australian artists who identify as activists, craftivists, agitators and feminists. The artists are Panmela Castro from Brazil; Ram Devineni, Paromita Vohra & Dan Goldman, who are Indian film makers living in the United States; Melbourne craftivist Tal Fitzpatrick; and Ballarat-based artists Catherine Gomersall and Aldona Kmieć. The exhibition also includes a community quilt inspired by the Monument Quilt in the United State, which features stories of local survivors of gender-based violence and their supporters.

Backspace gallery Curator Felicity Martin at yesterday’s International Women’s Day, at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. Photo Debbie Kolarik

Ms Martin said that the project was intended to help break the silence on violence against women and the culture of rape and sexism.

“The second wave feminists of the 1960s were making art that examined sexism, inequality and the objectification of the female form, but they remained relatively silent on violence against women.

“This exhibition is based on my research into the growing movement to expose violence against women and change the culture of shaming and blaming.

“Artists have a unique way of starting conversations about difficult or taboo issues in our society, so in this exhibition I have looked at how these artists are examining violence through their art practice and creating spaces of support for survivors.

“I felt that it was important to bring artists from a range of cultures, because violence against women is a global catastrophe that has nuances in relation to culture and structures of patriarchy.”

A key part of the exhibition looks at how crafts traditionally regarded as being the province of women are now at the forefront of the movement against violence against women.

“Women have been quilting secret messages to each other and stitching banners in protest for equal rights for centuries, while print collectives, self-published zines/books, and radical performances have often been the preferred strategies of activism since the 1960’s.

“While artists are still using those mediums, they are now adopting online and social media to build up support within communities.”

Highlights of the exhibition include the first showing in Australia of the performance video, Caminhar, by Brazilian artist Panmela Castro. Castro travels the globe with her Graffiti Around the World project, which employs street art to campaign and advocate for changes in legislation around domestic violence.
Felicity said that Castro’s performance work is influenced by the radical second wave feminist artists.

“Creating safe spaces in the street, Caminhar aims to reclaim environments for women and their art-making. It is a response to the 4,657 deaths of women in Brazil in 2016, equal to one woman being murdered every two hours.”

The exhibition also touches on the problem of sexual violence in India. Priya’s Mirror is the second chapter in a series of comic books where a female rape survivor is a super hero. The comic uses augmented reality to delve into the stories of survivors of acid attacks, another gender-based crime prevalent in India.

Felicity said that the creators of Priya’s Mirror (Ram Devineni, Paromita Vohra and Dan Goldman) are Indian-American film-makers who were inspired to write the series after the violent rape and murder of a 23-year-old female student in 2012.

“After disturbing conversations with police, Ram Devineni realised that rape and sexual violence in India was a cultural issue, backed by patriarchy, misogyny and people’s perceptions.”

Melbourne based artist and craftivist Tal Fitzpatrick is the author of the Craftivist Manifesto/Methodology, a book sharing her ideas on thinking deeply about craft and art making as a mechanism to drive social change. She has worked on craftivist projects in relation to gender equality, women’s rights and human rights, accessing online forums and social media to build community and distribute messages. Beyond 50% will showcase a new installation work of banners made using quilting and applique.

Polish-born photographer Aldona Kmieć often addresses gender equality and human rights in her practice.

Ms Martin said that Kmieć’s installation, the wedding dress was used as a potent symbol to discuss sexism and the misogynist cultures that impact women in Poland and more widely.

“Marriage and weddings can be one of the most significant events in a women’s life but for many women, weddings and marriage can be prisons of violence and family control, limited opportunity and access to financial security and in some countries, women are still forced to marry their rapists.”

Adding that the exhibition tackled a very confronting subject in a way that was approachable and engaging.

“While the exhibition explores challenging and disturbing material, there are some beautiful, humorous profound work that evoke vulnerability and strength but all still pack an activist punch.”