MFA, Thoughts & Exploration

Identity as a Survivor: Trauma, Memory & Therapy

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Words of encouragement in my takeaway from a Break the Silence event earlier this year.

Heading into vital time for my graduate studies in between semesters this summer, I was at a point of conflict with my practice:  how to respond to the urgency and pervasiveness of sexual assault in the United States and what material form, if any, would it take?

Although there was a definite progression in the participatory work I had made thus far both inside and outside the program, I found myself disappearing from the work. In an attempt to find the balance between audience comprehension, agency, and self reflection with my own story and relevance as a survivor, I made it the subject of my last paper entitled, Rape Culture in Participatory Work: Maintaining Identity while Communicating with a Broad Audience. To rationalize maintaining an identity in my work, I briefly analyzed critiques and ethics of participatory work, reviewed current statistics of sexual assault in the United States, reflected on quotes from Foucault and Butler on power and sexuality, and finally, to tie it back into material considerations, I looked at the work of Wangechi Mutu and Tracey Emin. The paper itself convincingly says, yes, my identity matters in the relevance and comprehension of the works and concludes with
“The question then is not how I can engage an audience through my material choices, but what materials are most appropriate, as rooted in my experience as a survivor and for audience comprehension?”

The urgency, from reading articles, dissecting polarized responses, and being a part of a local survivor community, helped me realize that enough was enough for my situation. I no longer wanted my life to be run by fear, anxiety, and depression due to being sexually assaulted. Whereas for a long time I was able to suppress these barriers through an emotional numbing, dissociation, and self-medication, everything became completely overwhelming in the last few months. Thus, I’ve made major choices to help myself heal – through medication and a commitment to at least six months of therapy every week.

As so many others seek to reclaim their mind and body from trauma and oppression, I have begun documenting objects that I’ve kept through many states and many moves in my lifetime. More often than not, these objects are stand ins for people who are no longer in my life or I have kept at a distance because of my rape. They are records of a time that I can no longer identity with, however are integral to finding my place now.

Trauma is linked to memory loss and the distortion of reality.  

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A shot of me from high school where I had many misconceptions about relationship roles, sexuality, and self, not long before I was assaulted.

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It’s difficult for me to see these photos from my childhood, where my sisters and I would be dressed up; for me, like a fantasy or sexual object.

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MCAD, Thoughts & Exploration

MFA Candidacy Evaluations & Reflection

I spent the weekend away in Chicago to kick off “Spring Break” to evaluate how my work is progressing and how it correlates with my research.  In about 5 weeks, my 1st year peers and I will be reviewed for MFA candidacy.  Are we prepared to enter year 2 and prepare for graduation/professional careers?

This mid-term review involves presenting a cohesive body of work, an artist statement, and process book to a committee.  In my mind, it’s an opportunity to hone in on what really matters in my art practice and reevaluate my methodologies, solidify pertinent influences, and place myself in the contemporary art world.  Additionally, we have a major research paper due at the end of the semester that can effectively prepare us for the review.

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Detail, Untitled (Perpetuating the Cycle), 2016

 

As I take this week to reflect, work, and read, here are a few things that have been occupying my thoughts:

+ In an attempt to find an artist working with sexual identity that made sense in the context of my work, I wrote my mid-term essay on the invisible nature of sexual violence and Tracey Emin.  Sitting down to spend some time with Emin lit a fire that was out; I was numb.  The raw nature of her imagery, interviews, and performances made me feel exposed, overwhelmed, and ashamed.

In this same time frame, I also participated in a Break the Silence event, where I volunteered and ran an art table.  In hearing other survivors tell their stories, I built up the confidence to tell my story, and for the first time since I was assaulted, I allowed myself to grieve publicly.  To hear the words, “I believe you”, helped dissolve some of layers of guilt and revealed patterns of self-deprecation.  I was able to face Emin’s drawings.

 

+ Learning more about participatory art and its criticisms made visible the wall I had built between myself and my audience through instruction and interaction in order to protect my own vulnerability.  I felt a disconnect in my visual language that prevented me from reaching my viewer.  So, I had made the decision to focus on painting this semester, specifically to think about abstraction.  The result for my first critique were 8 shaped paintings, yet the disconnect remained.

 

+ Abstraction, primarily through a mixed media approach (oil paint, pencil, chalk, etc), has been the most logical way for me to communicate in the last 5 years.  That nature, however,  was really a disguise for coping and putting pieces back together; it is not yet a language that urges people to act or possibly even react.  I know a lot of people would say that my paintings are not necessarily passive, but the spectrum of emotion in them is subdued, put out, silenced.  This is a reflection of the cultural climate in which I operate as a rape survivor.

 

+ In my first critique of this semester a couple weeks ago, my critique teacher made a point to tell me that other artists use their trauma as a way to avoid criticism of their art work.  Although this was general advice and not a targeted, personal attack, I continue reading more under the surface:

“Your vulnerability and experience makes us uncomfortable, so choose your language carefully as to not seem defensive or overly upset.”

In reality, this is something I am painfully familiar with; continually feeling uncomfortable in order to make others feel comfortable.  I don’t mean this in a conformity aspect of how we should act in a critique or institutional setting, I am referring to masking mental illness, to the discomfort of operating in a skin that feels owned by others, to suppressing a level of anger and sadness that does not go away with time, only through coping mechanisms.

 

+  So, is abstraction an effective way to communicate this discomfort and the full range of my experience?  I am no longer as convinced (at least through painting) in terms of an authentic reflection of myself.  Unfortunately, I see complacency and comfort in painting that is limiting my practice, at least right now.

 

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Detail, Untitled (Perpetuating the Cycle), 2016

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