Silent Witness Project
June 2003, Silent Witness Project was presented at the National Women's Studies Association (NWSA) 24th Annual Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana. Session title: Art as Activism in Women's Studies. Presenting "Silent Witness Project" completed at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse.
EXHIBITED: May 2003, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, 1725 State Street, La Crosse, WI, USA. Six life-size women figures were on display March 31-April 4, 2003 at the UW-L Cartwright Center. Life size silhouette figures of women were cut from the plywood and painted, silent witness stories were attached to the figures. This project involved collaboration between the artist Olea Nova and the UW-L students involved in the initiative.
Olea Nova's task was to come up with the concept for each figure and to draw each figure on a plywood. "I was brought emotionally into the project while working at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse for the Self-Sufficiency Program in the Women's Studies Department, where I was able to hear first-hand stories of abuse against women. Also, when interpreting for the Open World Program delegation of Russian women at the Women's Shelter in Winona, MN in 2002 I was able to gain insight into how different social organizations work to prevent abuse."
Students were researching the stories. There was one condition, women couldn't be easily recognized in the story -- their names and incident places were changed. When searching for stories students noticed that it takes a lot of internal work for women to share their sad stories and after going over the fear of telling it to one person woman was able to tell her story to many people. In the process of searching for stories students found out that victims are faced with the problem that not many people believe them.
The story and figure, when combined, carried a strong emotional message to the viewer. During the exhibit, Olea Nova conducted a survey to determine the impact of this initiative on the viewer. Responses were very positive, below are some of them:
- How can we tell women it's not their fault and how can we teach them to be stronger?
- Brining this issues to campus makes the problem visible and if people are aware that it exists then we can work on preventing violence against women.
- This is an impactful display. It catches the eye of people who usually could not think about those issues.
- Having babies connected to the stories really brought the issue to a more personal level
- It's vitally important to give voice to what is day to day reality for half the population. It gives women an opportunity to see kindred spirits and to take the shame and self-reproach away from violence. Violence against women is portrayed as atypical, lurid, entertainment (the stalker flicks). By speaking out, it adds to the texture of woman's experiences/ lives.
Fifty states and major cities have participated in the Silent Witness National Initiative since its inception in 1990; and more than 40 schools around the country have participated in the Silent Witness College Program in the past several years.
The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the Women's Studies Department brought this initiative to the University of La Crosse: the goal was to bring awareness about the past and to prevent future sexual assault on campus. This was also a chance for the victims to speak out against the violence.
My friend and I were sitting in the middle of a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people. We spent the last few days reflecting on our lives, our decisions, and our futures. We shared secrets and learned about each other more intimately.
I was amazed when I was hit by a bombshell. My best friend of over ten years told me that her older brother would sneak into the bedroom she and her sister shared. In the middle of the night he would have sex with the girls. Usually he took advantage of her sister, but my friend was not safe from his perverse behavior.
I could not do anything. I was shocked and did not know what to do. I could not comfort her and I could not abandon her as she opened herself up to me. I only prayed that her suffering had stopped and she could survive the pain.
"The Silent Witness National Initiative and Silent Witness College Program," The Tapestry Magazine, May/2003, p.30: