Content warning: sexual assault, sexual violence
The Monument Quilt is a traveling and fluid work of art by survivors of sexual assault and sexual violence, many of whom would not consider themselves artists. As the project grows, so does the quilt. Red squares of fabric, some featuring long paragraphs or small drawings, others with simply a single word written on them, are mailed in from all across the country and stitched together to form a massive and constantly expanding work of art. This project will culminate in a display of 6,000 fabric squares that will occupy over one mile of the National Mall in Washington, DC. Each square was made by someone who is a survivor of sexual violence or abuse. Through the quilt, they transcend their different languages, places of origin, genders, and forms of expression. The project seeks to share stories of assault, and is part of a growing movement of artists who openly express their survivor status through their work. In doing so, these artists attempt to change the narrative of how we see survivors and help others come to terms with their own experiences.
The process of creating this art often functions as a method of individual healing. A Tufts student and survivor of sexual assault, who asked to remain anonymous, discussed how creating art helped her understand what she was experiencing. “I felt like I didn’t have the language to talk about myself and what happened, what I needed from myself, and other people, so I more so turned to art,” she said. As an artist who works with metal, using techniques such as resin image transfer that require a large amount of focus, she used that outlet to channel her energy into creating. “You need to be 1,000 percent focused on what you’re doing so it kind of was like a way for me to get away from my feelings…but then I pushed myself to incorporate [them],” she said. She created works of art that addressed her assault, often in a way that only she would understand. For example, she made herself a necklace that she always wore which she described as a “Covert way of showing my survivor status to the world.”
Sometimes, these deeply personal works of art have a wide-ranging impact. Rupi Kaur’s self-illustrated book of poems “Milk and Honey” has amassed a large following and touched many people who can relate to the way she openly talks about love, pain surrounding sexual assault, and healing. Kaur’s honest and poignant poems challenge the way we see survivors and create an outlet in which she can express her own experiences and convey her emotions to others. Kaur’s poems also discuss reclaiming desire after sexual assault and are transparent about her healing process. The illustrations that accompany her poems are often simple and abstract, but are an expression of emotions that cannot be fully conveyed through words.
Other works aim to raise awareness and start conversations about sexual assault, especially on college campuses. The documentary “The Hunting Ground” exposed universities for insufficient action to protect survivors and even for sometimes protecting rapists. In another well-known piece that sparked controversy in 2014, Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz carried around the mattress she was assaulted on to protest the way the university handled her sexual assault in a performance piece called “Carry That Weight.” Sulkowicz told the Columbia Daily Spectator, “The act of carrying something that is normally found in our bedroom out into the light is supposed to mirror the way I’ve talked to the media.” Projects such as the photo-series “It Happened”—which graphically depicted different forms of sexual assault and was shared on Facebook and Tumblr—aim to tell a wide range of stories and challenge our assumptions about sexual assault. It was started by a photographer and college student, Yana Mazurkevich, in response to Brock Turner’s release from jail after serving only three months for three counts of felony sexual assault. She told Buzzfeed, “The inspiration behind the series was an accumulation of personal experiences and experiences that my friends have been through.”
Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP), a student group at Tufts, has brought these conversations to campus and seeks to examine how we can create spaces on campus that are safer for everyone. ASAP has put on events such as “It Happens Here,” in which Tufts students share poems, essays, and personal accounts of sexual assault on campus and off. This performance seeks to provide healing and solidarity for survivors while simultaneously shedding a light on the ways that rape culture exists at Tufts.
There is not one template for how art helps survivors of sexual violence. Every survivor has a different experience, and finds comfort in a different form of artistic expression. “Art has a really cool way of expressing emotions that you can’t quite put words too, or putting words to things you were feeling but couldn’t quite express,” said a Tufts student and survivor who wished to remain anonymous. Artists are able to capture emotion through music or visual arts that is difficult to articulate but important to share. The same student said, “The production of art is a powerful way to explore feelings without having to give the backstory to anyone else or without requiring validation from anybody else.” She also discussed the importance for her of understanding that she was not alone in her survivor status and her experience was valid. Music and poetry allowed her to relate to others who had struggled through similar emotions.
These works of art, both public and private, are part of a process that is vital to establishing solidarity and understanding between survivors. Poets, visual artists, and musicians all have the ability to bring people together, and their work is often tied into activism and healing. While creating or appreciating art is not the only way to heal, or even a perfect way for everyone, the process is important for many survivors and crucial for changing the way sexual assault is represented. As one square on the Monument Quilt reads, “I am finding my voice again and you can too.”