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Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970.

Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970

By Vivien Green Fryd Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019

Abook dedicated to the representation of rape in contemporary visual art features a fitting cover design for the dust jacket: red-stained, coarse paper provides a tactile sensation that lends a physical aspect to the reader's encounter. There was almost no literature on this subject until Vivien Green Fryd's book, which appeared in early 2019. Professor Fryd's research began in 2002--long before the #MeToo movement--and for many years she struggled with the lack of interest among publishers for this groundbreaking book (xiii).

The richly illustrated volume has seven chapters, arranged chronologically, and presenting selected multi-year or collaborative projects, works of art, exhibitions, and workshops. Chapter 1 details seven complex public projects on rape created in the 1970s in California by Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz along with their many collaborators. (1) In Chapter 2 the author discusses multidisciplinary work created as part of the Incest Awareness Project (1977-81), established by Nancy Angelo with Labowitz (under the umbrella of Lacy and Labowitz's Ariadne: A Social Art Network), by mostly lesbian artists working collaboratively in the Los Angeles Woman's Building (funded by Judy Chicago, Arlene Raven and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville). Chapter 3 analyzes Faith Ringgold's Slave Rape Series of paintings on unstretched canvas surrounded by large textile borders, as well as two later quilts, all made between 1972 and 1986. Beginning with No. 1: Fear Will Make You Weak (1972; Fig. 1), they are devoted to the subject of rape of African American women during the slave trade, on Southern plantations, and in black families today, resulting from and contributing to transgenerational trauma (106-08).

Chapter 4 covers three exhibitions either partially or fully dedicated to rape: A Decade of Women's Performance Art, in New Orleans (1980); Rape, at the Ohio State University (1985); and The Subject of Rape, curated by the fellows of the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1993). Chapter 5 explores the student workshops led by Judy Chicago and her husband, Donald Woodman, in 2001 at Western Kentucky University and in 2006 at Vanderbilt University. In Chapter 6 the author surveys art works made between 1994 and 2014 by Kara Walker, who has been weaving the story of rape into her black-paper silhouettes, drawings, animated movies, and monumental sculpture showing African Americans as both victims and victimizers. Chapter 7 is largely a summary of the foregoing analyses.

Against Our Will is written from a particular position--that of the survivor. Fryd employs the theory of trauma and shows that it is necessary for understanding art on rape. Her introduction includes a discussion of contributions to this theory by psychologists, neuroscientists, and cultural and art historians (19-24). She traces representations of trauma to explain how art was, or was not, able to heal the victim, help the victim grow as a survivor, and make the viewer a witness to a kind of violence that often had none. Fryd's entire study focuses on the obsessive reenactments of the traumatic experience of rape conveyed in art through the compulsive repetition of images and themes, as well as expressions of rupture and gaps in memory characteristic of PTSD. Within the broader subject of rape, she delineates the specific trauma of incest, where the memory of the event is often repressed.

The author explores art in the context of the women's liberation movement in the 1970s. She broadly considers the evolution over the past fifty years (but pre #MeToo) of medical and legal definitions of rape and incest, and of society's understanding of rape, in books, media, TV documentaries, and movies. Her extensive endnotes and bibliography will serve as valuable resources. Fryd discusses the West Coast feminist artists in the 1970s as being at the forefront of social change and exhaustively describes their works. Considering that many were ephemeral and/or time-based (performance, video, and social practice), Against Our Will provides valuable documentation of works that are not widely known or easily accessible. The book is heavily focused on cultural changes and on the value of art for the healing process, and this reader wished the author had placed more emphasis on how Lacy and Labowitz's projects on rape in the 1970s were revolutionary and influential in that they established a new medium for contemporary art (including art about rape)--social practice. The book situates them only in the context of performance art.

The book's great merit lies in its thorough documentation (in Chapters 1 and 2) of the pioneering work of the myriad West Coast feminist artists, who are (except perhaps for Judy Chicago) still relatively unknown to a broader audience. Fryd's deep analysis and excellent interpretation of the complex, challenging, often controversial oeuvres of Faith Ringgold and Kara Walker exploring transgenerational trauma (Chapters 3 and 6) are superb examples of art criticism.

Chapters 4 and 5, covering 1980 through 2006, switch format by reviewing individual artworks from three exhibitions and two student workshops, rather than continuing with in-depth analysis of oeuvres of selected major artists representative of the 1980s and 1990s. In Chapter 4, titled "Recirculating the Anti-rape and Antiincest Cycle in Exhibitions, 1980-1993," works by Lynn Hershman Leeson (b. 1941) and Nancy Spero (1926-2009) are briefly discussed as part of a description of a group exhibition. Although the author claims that artists after 1980 "did not compulsively reiterate the topic of violence against women consistently" (25), nor did they "create a large body of work on this subject" (150), there were many major artists active in this period whose work on rape is characterized by repetitive returns to the subject over the years. Besides Hershman Leeson and Nancy Spero, others include, for example, Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Nan Goldin (b. 1953), Jenny Holzer (b. 1950), Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), and Kiki Smith (b. 1954). The change of approach in Chapters 4 and 5 makes it difficult to appreciate the importance of works by major artists in these decades and supports opinions (including Fryd's) that art on rape after 1980 was rare.

In fact, rape constitutes one of the central themes in women's art decade after decade; and while one cannot expect any single text to cover its full history, the title of the book and of its chapters, as well as the chronological order and samplings of works from the 1970s through 2015, may leave the reader with the impression that Against Our Will is a comprehensive account of women's art on rape.

The works made after the 1970s, up until 2015, are chosen to reflect specific artistic strategies developed by Chicago, Lacy, and artists associated with them. Meanwhile, there have been numerous works on rape created after 1980 that were innovative and valuable in their own right--created by almost every acclaimed woman artist, including Native Americans, Latinx, and Asian Americans. Most of them worked autonomously, and some were influenced not just by the West Coast feminists but also by Ana Mendieta (1948-85, who is sparingly discussed in this context). There are important differences between works created in the 1970s and in the twenty-first century, when artists focus not just on regaining control over the victim's sexuality and psyche, but also on reclaiming cultural narratives.

The final chapter, despite its title, "Mapping and Chronicling the Antirape and Anti-incest Cycle into the Twenty-First Century," is a summary of the book and adds descriptions of two contemporary projects: Suzanne Lacy's Three Weeks in January (2012) and Emma Sulkowicz's Carry That Weight (2014-15). These are important but hardly representative of the number and variety of works on rape created since 2000 by artists who have repeatedly addressed the subject of rape, including Andrea Bowers (b. 1965), Teresa Margolles (b. 1963) or Shirin Neshat (b. 1957).

Despite some inconsistencies, Against Our Will is eminently worthy of serious reading by art historians, sexual trauma therapists, and anyone interested in the history of women's struggle to combat rape culture. The depth of research and validity of arguments regarding works developed in the 1970s and by black artists are formidable, as is the thesis that repetition is a strategy of artists working with the subject of rape. For the first author to explore the uncharted territory of art on rape, where all research is new, Fryd's accomplishment is laudable.

Reviewed by Monika Fabijanska

Monika Fabijanska is an art historian and independent art curator. Her critically acclaimed exhibition and catalogue, The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Women's Contemporary Art in the U.S. (2018, at Shiva Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY) was reviewed by The New York Times, Hyperallergic, Artforum, and Art in America, among others.


(1.) See, for reference, Angelique Szymanek, "Performing a Public for Rape," The Collaborative Performances of Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz-Starus," WAJ 39, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2018), 32-42.
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Author:Fabijanska, Monika
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Date:Mar 22, 2020
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