Some Reflections on Survivor Art…

I wrote an email to my Course Tutor last weekend about the updates to my blog and the work I had started for my degree and she got back to me stating that my story brought to mind three artists who she recommended that I look up; Tracey Emin, Richard Billingham and Artemisia Gentileschi. All of these artists have experienced either rape or abuse in their childhood. I have both rape as adult and sexual abuse as a child,so there were a number of pieces which really resonated with me. I have picked out one of each of these which had the most profound effect. By Tracey Emin I have picked the drawing “I want you so much” drawn in 1995; Richard Billingham’s picture from his book of candid family photographs, ‘Ray’s A Laugh’, taken between 1990 and 1996. Finally I have looked a the Baroque period female artist Artemisia Gentileschi, in particular her painting ‘Judith slaying Holofernes” painted between 1616 and 1620.

The first picture “I want you so much” by Tracey Emin, to me spoke of the rape I experienced. She has drawn prolifically around this period of over-sexualised women and raw pictures depicting female genitalia using words as well to express some disturbing almost childlike writings, in a very childlike script. This picture though, really reminded me of my own rape. Being face down and feeling the pressure of a dark, menacing presence on my back, crushing the life and freedom out of me:

tracey emin
Tracey Emin- “I Want You So Much” 2015

The way she has blacked out the face of the woman to me felt like the dehumanising effect of being treated like a piece of meat and the fact that the figure on top of her has taken the form of some kind of monster with a beak. I would not necessarily have chosen a bird type depiction of the perpetrator of my rape, though I guess it could also be a horned beast, indeed there is no explanation that I can find about this picture to suggest that it was directly about her rape aged 13, but I strongly believe that we are informed in our artwork that is most emotive by our experiences throughout our lives and can’t help but feel that the blacking out of the face, the fact that she has used lots of heavy dark ink add weight and menace to this picture that gave me a stab in the chest when I saw it.

I love how she has portrayed so much with so few lines and so little detail, it really speaks of the power of such a critical event on the victim, the blackness to me indicates shame and dehumanisation as I previously mentioned and the need to not be identified by something that so very much identifies us.

The second picture I have chosen by Richard Billingham taken between 1990 and 1996, from his autobiographical photo book/album named “Ray’s a Laugh” depicting his abusive parents, his grossly overweight and abusive mother and his classically alcoholic and abusive father. I picked this one:

richard billingham
Richard Billingham from his book “Ray’s a Laugh” taken between 1990 and 1996, of his Father, Ray.

I chose this picture because after my own experiences of childhood sexual abuse and adulthood rape turned to alcohol and drugs to cope. This picture to me speaks of the despair and hopelessness that I felt during my late teens and early twenties whilst experiencing full blown addiction. He looks so pathetic and lost which reminded me of the pursuit of escapism through substances only to find oneself hopelessly lost. I don’t know Ray’s own history, whether he too was abused which informed his own behaviour towards his children, without talking to him it would be impossible to know. Interestingly, I could relate this despair and hopelessness to being a victim as well as an addict as in effect with either of these situations one is consumed an controlled by something outside of oneself.

The seediness and vileness of the surroundings, the vomit on the outside of the toilet bowl, captivate me, as something that the individual would swear blind was under his or her control, but clearly it isn’t the case, for Ray or for me.

I think that Billingham has cleverly reduced his abuser to become something pathetic and harmless, something that I am guessing was somewhat cathartic for him along  with all of the other pictures, proving beyond doubt that his family failed in so many ways.

The third picture that I chose by Artemisia Gentileschi, “Judith Slaying Holofernes” is a depiction of an old testament biblical story of Judith overcoming her more powerful superior, who had raped her, with the help of her maid, beheading him in bed. It has been depicted many times throughout history but to be drawn and painted by Gentileschi, somehow seems more significant:

judith
Artemisia Gentileschi- “Judith slaying Holofernes” panted between 1616 and 1620 during the Baroque period.

For one this painting seems almost photographic in its delivery. I read whilst researching this painting that she had been raped by her father’s painting pupil, though what happened to me was not the same, it still revolved around my art and I am certain that there must have been some catharsis in her painting this picture in that she got to inflict the rage and pain that she felt towards her father’s friend and pupil in painting two women overcoming a man who had raped one of them. Maybe the young, fresh faced girl, the maid who is holding the man down yet being strangled by him represents the innocence that/who was stolen from Artemisia?

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica Artemisia was forced under torture to give evidence at the rapist’s trial before her father’s death, and I’m sure that this would have left her with some serious unexpressed rage. Though maybe I am projecting my own feelings, how else do we view the work of others but with our own eyes and experiences? Maybe this painting was a way of expressing some of the rage she felt towards her own perpetrator in safe way and is in some way an intuitive and repressed ‘autobiographical’ piece based on what she would have liked to have done rather than the actual outcome?

It also begs the question, is all art made by survivors then intrinsically ‘survivor art’ by the very nature of the artist being a survivor? Or can we shake off that title and make something NOT influenced by those experiences? My thoughts are that we cannot as we are more than a sum of our parts but also equal to a sum of our parts, we cannot remove that survivor self any more that we can deny the female or male, young or old self. We cannot not be something that we are.

As I said all of these pieces really resonated me and I would love to think that I would some day have the courage to express my feelings about what happened to me as a child and as a adult in such a way, using art as a way to play out my feelings and use it as a catharsis of my own, resolving some of the years of madness that plagued me after such events. Time will tell I guess.

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Author: StarryShapes

I am an Artist and Clinical Hypnotherapist, qualified to Advanced Level, AdvDipHyp, AdPr, DipHyp, CMH CPNLP, currently training in CBT to further my learning and skills. I love to learn and read about the subjects that I enjoy so much. I am also about to embark on the Drawing Degree that I have waited a lifetime to begin! Onwards and Upwards! I love to Write, Draw and Write Poetry.

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