Travelling Art Gallery Gives Voice and Representation to Sexual Assault Survivors
After a pit stop at Nathan Phillips Square, the gallery will make its way to Toronto university campuses.
It’s a startling sight to behold: a shipping container tagged with the message “Sexual Assault: The Roadshow” in cheerful, sorbet-coloured spray paint.
The roving pop-up gallery is part workshop space, part exhibition site for weighty content. Inside, the subject matter is a jarring contrast to its exterior. And yet, both reinforce its purpose: to “talk back” at sexual assault through art.
“We have one lens through which we look at women who have been sexually assaulted,” says Jane Doe, one of the activists behind the Roadshow. “Trauma, passive, broken. Nameless and faceless.”
In full public display, the wider city comes into contact with these women on their own terms. Through photographs, collages, self-portraits, and paintings, they give voice to the range of emotions that capture the issue’s complexity. In Toronto, the art show made a pit stop at Nathan Phillips Square and will be parked at the campuses of OCAD University and Ryerson University for the rest of September.
The project, funded by the Ontario Arts Council, is a participatory experience, not necessarily limited to making art on the spot through the workshops and 10-minute exercises. The collection of work talks back to us; it implicates the audience, holding everyone to account for the impossible standards placed on women to prove her word against his.
It also confronts us with the unsettling truth that the fear and threat of sexual assault is pervasive, no matter the culture we identify with. Even in its glossy form—its use of beautiful fabrics, pop-culture images—the art doesn’t sugarcoat the overall message: that sexual assault is “never K.”
For many, art elevates the profile of an issue, adding substance to otherwise intractable debates.
“[Art] has the power to speak in ways that words don’t,” says Doe. “It can translate, it can message us in ways that are much deeper than language allows.”
For Samantha Goldman, an 18-year-old art student, her work was the opening she needed to talk to family and friends about her experience being sexually assaulted. “Art is a really powerful way to respond to social issues,” says Goldman.
Two of her latest pieces are exhibited in the makeshift gallery. One is a silhouette of Oya, the African goddess of death and rebirth, in a warrior pose. The collage is crafted from patterned scraps of African fabric, made during the workshop sessions. The other piece, made in collaboration with a family friend, is a partial self-portrait, depicting the words and feelings of the artist.
Goldman also helps out as a volunteer, guiding the public through the work that already papers nearly every spot in the container. She hopes others will derive comfort from having this safe space to talk through whatever they’re going through.
While there are notable instances where sexual assault survivors have put a face to the issue—and bravely responded to their attackers—much of the space for discussing the issue is on the grounds of university campuses.
The more “memorable,” high-profile cases we tend to recall are the experiences of educated women. They fit the profile of a “good girl victim,” as Doe puts it. She’s typically someone who is white, blonde, heteronormative, young, and educated.
Sometimes, she unwittingly becomes the poster “good girl,” as was the case for Doe and Mandi Gray, the PhD student from York University, who won the suit against her attacker, a fellow student. Doe’s given name is under a publication ban; she won her suit against the police for failing to warn the public about her attacker.
The Roadshow dispenses with the notion that the words of particular women have more weight, enough to guarantee an ironclad defence or immunity from vicious threats.
“Mandi, who used her own name, is getting rape threats, death threats,” says Doe. “Her politics and physical appearance [are] being attacked.”
Gray’s own project, a photo essay, features survivors with tattoos they got in response to sexual assault—a way of reclaiming their bodies. Her own tattoo is of a caged bird, perched on her arm.
By travelling to different pockets of Ontario—from Hamilton to Ohsweken, a First Nations reserve—the Roadshow expands the dialogue to include Indigenous and racialized women, says Doe. Over a three-year run, it takes up a month-long residency in communities where access to support agencies for women is difficult.
Local artists are recruited to lead workshops, which draw on lessons from other cultures. At one stop, participants made self-portraits, which they were instructed to tear into four and piece together with golden tape. That exercise was inspired by the Japanese tradition of kintsugi, or “golden joinery,” the art of restoring broken pottery.
In Toronto, Apanaki Temitayo Minerve, a textile artist, brought in African fabrics as material for the collage paintings participants created. With fabrics in hand, she wove in stories about the Orishas, Yoruban deities, as symbolic figures women could channel for inner strength.
“Through these mediums, through that culture, we’re given lessons,” says Doe, “and the ways [sexual assault] is being resisted and talked back to.”
CORRECTION: A former version of this story incorrectly stated that a collaborative art piece between Samantha Goldman and her family friend depicted a “two-faced man.” Torontoist regrets the error.