Words hung on women who have experienced violence are not always the words that should be. The women of The Women’s Art Initiative want you to know that.
Their collective has been nurtured through small beginnings seven years ago to an art-generating space that lets women speak their truths.
Don’t call them victims, because they say they are not.
They are a powerful group who have become known for their impactful exhibitions and this year’s is about challenging the myths that surround violence.
Founder Karen Seccombe says the exhibition is not there to evoke sympathy or pity. “We get plenty of that and it isn’t often helpful.”
She says when the violence stops, the shame, blame and misunderstanding doesn’t always. And the women of the group want society to think about their responses, to stop using words like “victim” and to start to see the women for who they are.
“What we need is for people to leave this exhibition understanding the impact and truths around some of these myths, and to feel empowered to confront and question behaviours, negative social responses, and ways of thinking that perpetuate and legitimate the acceptance of power and control over women and children.”
Their work says a lot.
The group meets once a week in its own space and the way the women interact with the collective is up to them. There are art supplies, light streaming in through the windows, a jug that is boiled often and a silent offering of possibility and openness.
One of the woman is working away at handwriting on to a moulded torso. It’s a karakia asking to be set free from all the negativity, “and the prison you’ve embodied yourself in”.
“People can interpret it how they want to, but I have done this for myself.”
The works will be inhabiting Te Manawa for the first time, dotted around in odd spots for people to happen upon. And the work isn’t always easy. But these women, with their stories, don’t want to apologise for that. Seccombe says they have not edited their experiences because they make others uncomfortable.
“To do so would be to sanitise and minimise what has happened and it would disrespect all that we have done to resist, to survive, to maintain normality, whatever that is, to protect and nurture, to function, recover, and fight for other women like us.”
These women are an authoritive voice on this subject and “it has cost us greatly”. They intend, simply, to create the way they want to. They don’t set out to create beauty.
A large piece being worked on by another woman is, however, beautiful. A large dark circle, a central figure in even darker tones and it’s creator in front of it all who says she will soon add a burst of colour.
“I am challenging the myth that family violence leaves women broken and damaged and I wanted to show how that darkness can lead to ultimate growth and potential and we can recreate from the dark.”
Give back the mana, she says, “to the women and the children and see women as that whare tangata, that place of bringing life into this world, of nurture, part of earth, all those fundamental things.”
She says when society can do that, when people can start to honour and value women, then family violence will lessen. That’s what this woman is fighting for and, as a collective, this is what thier exhibition is about. It is a pushing back.
“Don’t think: ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ Don’t think: ‘It can’t be that bad’. Honour her and listen.”
And the women of this group ask one more thing. They say go and see the exhibition and be challenged, and when you leave they want you to take that challenge with you.
“For us, for other women like us, for those you know and love, for your daughters, your sisters, yourself. For any woman or child anywhere, we all deserve dignity, respect, and safety. Let’s stand up together for transformational social change.”
Ko Wai Ahau? The Women’s Art Initiative’s sixth end-of-year exhibition opened on November 9 at Palmerston North’s Te Manawa Museum of Art, Science and Technology.