ALICORN – Magazine for Contemporary Art and Culture
“WOMEN IN THE DARK”
ART PROJECT “WRITE YOUR STORY” BY FEMINIST ARTIST FRANZISKA GREBER
By Li Xinmo
Franziska Greber is a Swiss artist and psychotherapist. For the past three decades, she has been devoting herself to studies and projects related to domestic violence, gender equality and legal issues. In 2015 she put her focus on art installations and in 2016 she embarked on an influential arts project named “Women in the Dark”. This project was launched in Zimbabwe, Mauritius and other countries and then extended to China and India, and was also part of the Second EVAW Art Exhibition (International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) in Beijing, and won wide acclaim.
The feminist movement appeared in Europe as early as 1791, when the female French Revolutionary leader Olympe de Gouges published the Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen”. She wrote in the first article of this declaration, “Women are born free and remain equal to men in rights”. This declaration was made in response to the fact that the rights of man, either in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in France or in the United States Declaration of Independence, were exclusively limited to the rights of men and not the rights of women. Two years after its publication, however, the author of this declaration was sent to the guillotine by her male allies and was executed.
It was in such circumstances that the feminist movement began to take shape. Initially, the rights of women emerged as a marginal movement but they evolved into one of the main forces behind human rights reforms in general. The first wave in this movement was a period of activity during the late 19th century, with an emphasis on gender equality. Activists in this first wave promoted rights to life for both men and women, campaigned for equality in citizenship, education, and suffrage, argued that there was no difference between genders in terms of intelligence and ability and opposed polygamy and the privileges of nobility. These activists sought to provide women with educational, political and professional opportunities that were equal to those of men. The second wave appeared in the 1960s and the 1970s, emphasizing the lack of inherent differences between the sexes and contending that gender roles were subject to social conditioning. In the wake of the second wave, a great number of systematic studies on gender biases emerged, which in turn spread knowledge and increased public awareness. In the early 1990s, the third wave began as a further step in the campaign for gender equality. Through the three waves of the feminist movement, knowledge of the movement and the fight for women’s rights spread throughout the whole of Europe. Increasing public awareness of gender equality eventually led to legal and institutional reforms. The feminist movement in Europe, particularly in Northern Europe, produced the most successful results anywhere in the world. Women enjoyed more and more access to and freedom in political and economic spheres, in science, culture, and other areas, and made distinguished contributions. Even so, however, misogyny, rooted in conservative Europe was not completely eliminated. Feminists, therefore, were often suspected and questioned, particularly by female contemporaries who, while enjoying rights that had been secured by feminist pioneers, also mocked the feminist movement. Gradually, conservative European societies silenced the movement, and removed it from the spotlight, which made sustained progress impossible.
Under such circumstances, becoming a feminist and a feminist artist seemed, without doubt, an unusual choice to many people – but not to Franziska Greber. Her long commitment to psychotherapy and also as the Co-Head of the Intervention Centre against Domestic Violence at the Directorate of Justice and Home Affairs in the Canton of Zurich acquainted her with female victims of domestic violence. It was important for her to hear these victims’ silence, which came from a sense of inferiority or from social pressure. She realized that the feminist movement had unfinished business, even though she was in a country as developed as Switzerland.
On visiting Zimbabwe, she learned about domestic and other forms of violence against women and gender inequality in the local area. After heartrending interviews with local women, she initiated a project that endowed these women with an opportunity to share their secrets in order to raise public awareness. This project was a turning point in Franziska’s career, because she decided to intervene in a different and more active way and with a wider scope by shifting from being a psychotherapist to being an artist. She launched the art project “Women in the Dark” in Zimbabwe, Seychelles and Mauritius, inviting local women to write down their stories, experiences and wishes on white shirts with a red permanent marker. This project aimed to portray the relationship between violence and women. Violence is not an issue limited to particular societies, but commonly exists in all human societies, and is often associated with patriarchy. Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold primary authority and suppress women, often with violent acts. It has been found that countries or societies embracing patriarchy often suffer from serious gender bias and inequality, and in turn from more occurrences of violence against women. Domestic violence is one example of violence against women; it takes place behind closed doors and within intimate relationships, and is therefore inevitably hidden from other people.
While highly developed countries have legal protections and social organizations that rescue and intervene to effectively curb domestic violence, in less developed countries or poor regions like Africa, India, and many Asian countries, violence against women, particularly domestic violence, remains an unsolved and serious issue. For this reason, Franziska soon extended her project from Africa to other countries. As with the African project, she made these local women’s voices heard by writing on white shirts.
She chose white shirts as an art medium because clothes are laden with social, historical and cultural implications. Clothes may also reflect gender biases. Female clothing and male clothing are inherently different. The latter often boasts a simple silhouette and great flexibility, while the former is always characterized by decoration and elaboration, which are traditionally associated with female identities. Patterns, laces and braces, among other things, are used to impose rigid gender stereotypes on women. The seductive, elegant and delicate designs of female clothing repeatedly strengthen female stereotypes. By wearing these gendered clothes, women have stereotypical roles imposed on them by chauvinistic society. As soon as these clothes are placed on female bodies, what disappears is not only self-image but also self-awareness. Franziska saw the symbolic meaning carried by clothing and therefore chose female shirts as an art medium. In addition, the shirt is next to the skin and therefore is a perfect symbol of an intimate relationship with the female body. In her creation, the shirt represents female beings and embodies their existence and destiny. Red marks on the white, like blood, bring to mind violence, torture, and other painful images. These silent words on the white shirt tell stories of these women and the voice is loud enough to stir the world and rouse minds. For example, one woman wrote on the shirt, ‘Women, you have the right to be educated and to be healthy’. Another wrote, ‘Women must possess their own lands and houses’. Some wrote about changing their husbands; some recorded violent behavior in detail; and some spoke of hopes for returning to school. These words from individual women show the real challenge and hardship they encounter. Women in poorer areas tend to be more exploited, because they do not own property, do not receive education and have to rely on marriages and their husbands, which are the major reasons for the existence of gender inequality and domestic violence.
Franziska utilizes shirts with words written in red as building blocks in many of her creations. In her Mauritius Atelier, she attached shirts to several hanging strips, imitating the daily chore of doing the laundry. She intended to transform a common scene in everyone’s daily lives into a fresh image by giving it new content and meaning. The deviation in a daily event from how it is usually understood provokes further and deeper thinking. The red words on the shirts transform them from items to be worn to metaphors of personal experiences. The collection of shirts describes the destiny of women using an assembly of factual stories experienced by these women. One does not have to read the words or stories to feel the shock and impact of the visual display. The intention behind this concept was to portray female mental states clouded by daily inequality and violence. In another creation, blank shirts were piled up on a table, and under the table was another pile of shirts covered with red words. This conveys a clear message, that real experiences and sufferings can only be hidden under the table. What is on the table is merely fake images assumed by social norms. The table surface serves as a boundary, above which is an illusory world and beneath which truth is hidden. In “UNTOLD STORIES – GLOBAL PAIN”, Franziska used 500 white shirts to make a huge globe. This globe represents women across the world and each of them is an important part of the whole. On the side of the globe is a hole, from which a red thread extends, and this is connected to another pile of shirts covered with red words. This design uses women’s shirts as a metaphor for female bodies, and the globe as a metaphor for the Earth we live in. Although the Earth nurtures us all, it is not exempt from human exploitation and plunder. The pile of clothes covered with red words and personal experiences was used to imitate intestines gutted from the interior and the white shirts that wrapped up the Earth represented the silent majority of women. This majority has been given a certain designated place not due to personal choice but to arrangements made by the dominant power. In contrast, those women who spoke up for the truth came from the interior and were connected to the silent majority through a blood vessel, represented by the red thread. This vessel was intended to establish the link between the vocal and the silent women.
Franziska came to China and witnessed a different type of challenge faced by Chinese women. Due to cultural prohibitions, Chinese women are reluctant to express themselves and tend to conceal their thoughts and feelings. In Chinese philosophy, women expressing themselves are considered disgraceful. This philosophy is deeply rooted even in modern China. The lack of support from society and the lack of freedom of speech mean that the stories of these women remain unnoticed and unreported. Their silence is an obstacle that stands in the way of women seeking to gain greater equality. For this reason, Franziska participated in an annual exhibition in Beijing on violence against women and displayed her works in the project “Women in the Dark”. These works were also exhibited in schools; so many young Chinese students are now enrolled in the project.
In India, women will write their experiences on dupattas (shawls/veils). A dupatta is an important female garment for Indian women that evolved in a highly male-dominant culture, and is a symbol of concealment and suppression. The dupatta is used to regulate and limit the freedom of women and to deprive them of their rights. What brought Franziska Greber to India was the notorious gender inequality there. Both religion and ancient custom preach male dominance and female inferiority, and the oppression of Indian women is really beyond description, as shown by the 2012 Delhi gang rape case. In November 2017, Franziska will have an Exhibition in Kolkata.
Franziska’s “Women in the Dark” is evolving into a multi-national global project. It sets out to connect women across the world and allow those who are suffering from violence to be heard. While the women involved in the project are battling for freedom and justice with pens, Franziska is battling for raised awareness and global attention on gender inequality and violence in her art.
March 1st 2017