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House of the Unsilenced: In art, healing and acceptance

Jossa Lukman
Jossa Lukman

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Thu, September 20, 2018 | 09:29 am
House of the Unsilenced: In art, healing and acceptance

Damning: Farul Piliang’s Jangan Sebut Saja Namaku dengan ‘Bunga’ (Don’t Refer to Me as ‘Flower’) questions the media's attitude toward survivors. (The Jakarta Post/Jossa Lukman)

The omnipresence of sexual harassment and assault against women is a testament of a toxic society where women are constantly at risk and blamed for the transgressions of perpetrators.

Along the way, many have chosen to reclaim their voices and rights, with movements such as #MeToo and One Billion Rising bringing the topic of violence and sexual harassment against women into mainstream conversation.

While the road to the complete eradication of discrimination and violence against women is a long and arduous journey, an Indonesian art exhibition called the House of the Unsilenced is determined to make the steps survivors take easier.

The project brings together artists, writers and survivors of sexual assault to create art about the life of a survivor and the meaning of speaking up.

Eliza Vitri Handayani, the initiator and director of the House of the Unsilencedexhibition, said it was designed as a safe space for survivors to tell their stories, adding that it had a strong support system.

“If there is no support in their neighborhoods, here survivors can find people who believe and support them,” Eliza said in a statement, adding that survivors who found it difficult to tell their stories directly or through social media could learn other mediums to explore them.

Speaking up against sexual harassment is oftentimes a harrowing experience.

In June, dangdut singer Via Vallen’s #MeToo moment came after she spoke out about an inappropriate message she received online. Her comments were trolled by internet users who said she was an attention seeker as well as other mean-spirited epithets.

An online survey by support group Lentera Sintas Indonesia and feminist website Magdalene.co — as part of their #MulaiBicara (#SpeakUp) campaign that was launched in 2016 — found that of the 25,214 respondents, 37.9 percent experienced some form of sexual violence and that 93 percent had not reported it to authorities.

Therapeutic: As well as exhibitions, House of the Unsilenced also held workshops and events covering various topics. Therapeutic: As well as exhibitions, House of the Unsilenced also held workshops and events covering various topics. (Courtesy of House of the Unsilenced/-)

The House of the Unsilenced exhibition at the Cemara 6 Gallery — which ran from Aug. 15 to Sept. 2 — involved a slew of artists who highlighted the issues surrounding sexual harassment and assault through various mediums of art.

Farul Piliang’s Jangan Sebut Saja Namaku dengan ‘Bunga’ (Don’t Refer to Me as ‘Flower’), for example, juxtaposes crocheted flowers with printed headlines referring to sexual assault victims as Bunga, which denotes a figure that is “dainty and enticing”. This is a common practice in Indonesian media.

Meanwhile, Dyantini Adeline’s She hearssee here implores viewers to listen to survivors’ accounts and experiences through a speaker mounted at the height of survivors, while gazing deep into themselves via a mirror, perhaps suggesting that the act of listening is so much more than just listening, due to the fact that survivors find it hard to talk about their experiences. 

 With that in mind, one of the main draws of House of the Unsilenced is that the artworks displayed were created in collaboration with survivors, as a way to involve them in the process of healing through art.

Curator Ika Vantiani, who is an artist herself, told participating artists that there were small bits of information about the survivors that matters deeply to them, reminding them that a survivor was much more than what happened.

“I also reminded the artists about the context of their artwork; the message it wants to convey. However, I also gave them a chance to explore, because some artists worked in a medium that they haven’t used before, and some worked with collaborators who are not cisgender or heterosexual,” Ika said.

Feminist artist collective Bisik Bisik Kembang Goyang created an audiovisual installation entitled Menjemput Saudari (Meeting Sister), where two women — who are transgender and cisgender — read from a script discussing the challenges of being a woman and the definition of sisterhood.

Reflection: Dyantini Adeline’s She hears, see here implores people to listen to survivors’ accounts and experiences. Reflection: Dyantini Adeline’s She hears, see here implores people to listen to survivors’ accounts and experiences. (The Jakarta Post/Jossa Lukman)

Bisik Bisik Kembang Goyang, which is made up of Kania Mamonto, Ellena Ekarahendy, and Yolandri Simanjuntak, said in a statement that their inspiration came after talking to the collaborators, realizing that the oft-talked about concept of sisterhood could be skewed against cisgender women and leaving out their transgender counterparts.

“Sisterhood can be a shared experience, but we think that every woman has her own authentic history and struggles in life that could not be identical to one another. Sisterhood is more like a collective awareness of the oppression we face and the willingness to support each other in the face of gender-based oppression.”

In collaborating with a hijab-wearing cisgender woman and a transgender woman, Bisik Bisik Kembang Goyang reminds the public that women still face misogyny regardless of their status.

“We think it’s silly if we talk about equality but leave transgender women out of the struggle.”

As well as artworks by participating artists, House of the Unsilenced also showcased the survivors’ own artworks — which were created in a series of workshops that was held from July 21 to Aug. 5 — ranging from fiction writing, decoupage and 3D collages to self-care body movements.

During the exhibition period, a number of discussions and events were also held at the gallery, which included a discussion on Islamic perspectives regarding sexual violence with women’s rights activist Musdah Mulia, a workshop on bystander intervention with Hollaback! Jakarta and the launching of rapper Yacko’s new single titled “FYBV” that included a performance from the survivors.

With a wide array of events highlighting various issues on sexual violence, House of the Unsilenced represents a shift in attitude where the topic at hand becomes part of the public conversation. 

Even when Eliza acknowledged that they have yet to secure funding to do another event on the same scale, she is adamant that House of the Unsilenced’s future lies with smaller-scale events, after a much-needed break for the organizers.

Even so, the impact that the initiative had could be felt by artists and survivors alike.

Important message: Salima Hakim's Hurt, Rise, Forgive took inspiration from the 'worry doll' of Guatemalan culture. Important message: Salima Hakim's Hurt, Rise, Forgive took inspiration from the 'worry doll' of Guatemalan culture. (The Jakarta Post/Jossa Lukman)

Rani Pramesti, who premiered the short movie version of her art installation-turned-graphic novel Chinese Whispers on Aug. 18, said healing was a complex process for survivors, as they needed to be ready before they could talk about their experiences.

“If they aren’t ready, it’s within their rights to stay silent. For me, it’s taken the last 20 years to grow into someone who is ready to share this story through Chinese Whispers. But for other people, maybe it took their whole lives, maybe it takes several lifetimes; maybe other people don’t have the kind of support that I’ve had access to.”

It was precisely this kind of support system that was needed for survivors of sexual violence, according to Luluk Khusnia who collaborated with Bisik Bisik Kembang Goyang for Menjemput Saudari.

“After becoming a collaborator, I felt relieved and happy. For the umpteenth time I gained a space where I can share my story with those who went through the same thing. Most importantly, I became more convinced that I am not alone, and that there are others who went through worse things than me.” Luluk said, adding that she wished society and the media would not vilify and stigmatize survivors.

Fellow collaborator Khanza Vina chimed in, saying that she also felt relieved that many people cared about her.

“[Initiatives like House of the Unsilenced] is needed because a lot of art involving survivors tend to make us merely an object, whereas House of the Unsilenced enables us to become the subject, from start to finish.”

“Keep on creating spaces that are rarely or never thought out by many. Help survivors find their voices through inclusive art spaces that are friendly to marginalized groups.” 

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