Art Heals: An Intervention in Sexual Violence

spray paint of the words "sexual assault" on the side of the Lost Words live artshow exhibit

[trigger warning: discussion of sexual violence]

It’s not everyday that you get to meet incredible artists that leave an everlasting impact on your life, which is why I was so grateful to attend the Art Heals: Interventions in Addressing Sexual Violence panel during Social Justice week. I was so touched when listening to these five incredible women speak about their passion for transforming their pain into art. Not only did I gain more insight on the topic of sexual violence, but it allowed me to look inside myself and question how I use my own skills to help other people and how to shed light on this topic. These five women – Dainty Smith, Paige Foskett, Katelyn Shim, Heidi Cho and Hana Shafi are incredibly inspiring and empowering women who were asked about their art, their healing, their hopes and their fears… and what they shared was truly amazing.

Dainty Smith is an actor, writer and performer who finds that deep connections can be made through storytelling, which she describes as a “selfish practice.” In order to pursue art authentically, Smith insists that “you must start inward and trust your gut instincts in order to be vulnerable. Art is a confrontation to be yourself, find your truth and find peace. It can be exciting and terrifying.”

a close up photo of Dainty Smith

When listening to Smith you get an immediate sense of her strong appreciation for how empowering burlesque is because the decision of how much to take off or to keep on is hers. Through her performance she has learned that both her body and voice belong to her, and boldly states that “burlesque saved my life.” However, she also recognizes the other side of burlesque which she finds heartbreaking, and quickly realized that other people won’t always take away from her art what she wants them to.

“I was not prepared for other people’s perception of me as unclean or undateable,” Smith explains, “It’s a world of rejection that breaks my heart.”

Despite this, she recognizes that she can’t let those opinions prevent her from pursuing her art. When people ask Smith how she can be a performer given the fact that she’s a victim of sexual abuse, she simply replies, “My liberation only has to look like mine, not yours.”

As a survivor of sexual violence, Smith emphasizes the importance of giving yourself time to heal, and how it’s different for everyone.

“Self-love and self-care is not a Dove commercial. Sometimes it means binge-watching TV shows or eating that burger. It’s a tricky process. One day you feel like Clark Kent and the next you feel like Superman.”

Smith also emphasizes that healing is learning how to be an advocate for yourself. She discusses the importance of stepping away from her art in order to focus on herself, which doesn’t always have to be an extravagant activity. For Smith, mostly it includes watching Netflix, taking herself out on coffee dates and her guilty pleasure – reading fashion magazines.

“If there is a woman of colour on the cover I’ll buy it. I felt tender yesterday so I bought Marie Claire because Nicki Minaj was on the cover.”

She also describes how she sometimes feels that she needs a suit of armour just to leave her house, and that we all put on armour to face the day – sometimes without even realizing it.

“It’s about learning to say to yourself: “I am quite tender today. I am okay with being tough because I survived. I am okay with being tender because I am a survivor.” She credits the hashtag #ToughTenderGirls as one of her favourites.

Not only does Smith find it necessary to pride herself on the days she feels tough, but she allows herself to feel tender despite society’s expectations.

“We live in a very extroverted or ‘on culture’ – and if you’re not extroverted you disappoint people.”

Growing up in white suburbia, Smith turned to old Hollywood glamour to find women she could identify with and look up to. She lists Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe as some of her inspirations, but her biggest idol is Josephine Baker.

“Josephine Baker gave me permission to love myself but to also have an attitude. She has a sense of divaship but she’s also tender.”

Femme fatales from old film noir movies are also among Smith’s list of women who she aspires to be like because they were dangerous and bold, however she wants to rewrite the femme fatale role through her performances.

“At the end of the movie the femme fatale always dies or repents but I wanted to change that narrative. I saw them as badass.”

When asked if she sees her artwork as activism, Smith is the only one out of the five women that hesitates with the idea.

“Women’s work is delegitimized because it’s confessional. I believe my art is a defiance, and as black woman, maybe that’s all it has to be.”

Whether she considers herself an activist or not, she is very adamant about what she wants people to take away from her artwork.

“I hope people feel delivered. I’m always trying to give a sense of deliverance to the audience, so that they feel worthy, beautiful and loved. I hope people feel less lonely. The world is a lonely place and I want people to feel seen and included. As a black woman, I learned to advocate for myself because I knew nobody else would.”

Smith is currently writing a multidisciplinary play entitled ”Daughters Of Lilith”, to be shown in Spring 2017.

Paige Foskett is a writer and director with a BA in Media Production, who is largely concerned with feminism and advocacy in her work. With experience as both the director and performer, she explains that she considers herself a storyteller on multiple platforms.

paige foskett

“Live through each day intentionally,” Foskett responds when asked where she finds her inspiration, “Take what you can from the experiences and people around you, and transform those experiences into art.”

She expresses her passion for finding connections with other people, and declares “I am so moved by humans.”

Body autonomy is what Foskett is primarily concerned with, and admits that the two biggest struggles she finds is comparing herself to others and understanding her own body. Her focus on presenting art through body autonomy is shown in her film Ineffable.

“My passion is to create accessible art that people can relate to any way they want to. It’s a very broad story which can relate to a large audience.”

This short film follows Jade, a young woman in an abusive relationship. There are no words spoken in the film, instead the protagonist vocalizes her pain through dance. Foskett expresses her excitement for using art as an intervention in sexual violence.

You can be absolutely ruthless, relentless and unforgiving. Give all of yourself to it. In terms of sexual violence it’s always going to be seen as either obscene or inappropriate, but to not push boundaries is doing yourself a disservice.”

During the process of making the film, Foskett describes that the journey was just as important as the final product, and she finds that the same can be said about healing.

“Making a film was exhausting and sometimes we get so focused on the end goal, but the story stemmed from somewhere deep rooted in my heart that every part of the process felt like art.”

At 15 years old Foskett started dancing, and it was during this time that she realized who she was as an artist. A year later her best friend came out to her and to show her support, Foskett choreographed a piece to be performed at her high school in front of a large audience.

“I realized that what I do can matter, and it can reach so many people. Art will be my buddy for life.”

Katelyn Shim is a producer and multimedia content creator who served as co-executive producer and production manager on Ineffable. When pursuing her art, she describes how it opened up connections in her life and that it’s about “expressing yourself with no reserve.” Growing up a dancer, Shim now also expresses herself through writing. katelyn shim

When addressing how she has explored healing, body autonomy, and consent, Shim states, “Nothing is black and white.” In order to find inspiration in her art she describes how she “Connects with people around me and learns off different experiences.”

Self-love and self-care are extremely important to Shim which she practices through physical exercise, especially yoga. Journaling, yoga and meditating are her three favourite activities that allows her to explore healing, as she explains, “The only way you can show up for other people is to be there for yourself.”

When asked about her artwork, she describes it as a “Mode of expression but also a process. It can be cathartic, and it’s not just about the final product but also about the journey.”

One of her favourite platforms is PostSecret, a website created by Frank Warren which allows people to anonymously share their life secrets.

“It’s about expressing your truth whether [Warren] chooses to share it or not. The decision to share it in the first place is a huge part of the process.”

Although she is very passionate about her artwork, Shum acknowledges the many challenges that comes along with sharing her stories, finding that she is constantly asking herself “What would I do if I was enough?” She expresses the importance living for yourself which has helped her.

“Take the time to explore what brings you “back to being.” Make a list that brings you back to yourself.”

Shim stopped dancing in university because of her busy schedule, but describes the Ineffable pitch as the moment she felt instantly inspired to reconnect with her art.

“Paige pitched Ineffable last year and I had never worked with her before. Through it I rediscovered my passion for film and art which gave me a link not only to myself but to others.”

More information on Ineffable can be found here.

Heidi Cho is a self-taught illustrator whose artwork explores themes around queerness, mental health and healing. In regards to being confident enough to share artwork, Cho asserts that you must “Relinquish any expectation of what it means to be a ‘good artist’”, and to treat art as a “Selfish experience for yourself that won’t be judged.”

Heidi Cho

As a childhood sexual abuse survivor, Cho explains how the experience skewed her perception of what healthy relationships look like. Her art reflects how she wants to explore sexuality and alludes to the fact that her healing is different, and that healing will always look different to other people. She primarily uses her artwork to visually explore her commitment to herself.

“My art is an intervention to myself. It’s a gift I give myself that allows me to witness. People often say “your work is so sad” but I personally feel lighter from my artwork.”

Cho describes her art as a form for her to personally heal, but she also acknowledges that she is not a perfectly healed person.

“There is a constant narrative in our heads of ‘Why can’t I be the perfect person now?’ I’m trying to get to a place that makes me feel whole.”

However, Cho also recognizes that healing is a process and through that process she loves connecting with other survivors. When asked about the challenges she faces as an artist, Cho expresses how it can be an emotionally exhausting practice.

“Because we live in a capitalist urban setting you feel like you always have to be producing art, but it’s an exhausting process. Resting is part of the process. Not everything I make has to be good, and it doesn’t always have to be heavy.”

Despite experiencing sexual abuse at an early age, Cho admits she didn’t realize the effects it was having on her life until much later.

“As victims, disassociation happens early on. What spiralled my art was during a breakup when I asked myself ‘Why do I have such a difficult relationship with sex?’” Cho alludes to the idea that the past and present is inherently linked, and that it was about “coming to a place where I feel comfortable to explore it – but it’s also ok to not explore it and keep it locked away.”

Although her artwork is beautiful and bold, Cho assuredly states that she is not trying to protest in any way, although she advocates for protestors. When asked if she sees her artwork as a form of activism, she states “I believe that doing the dishes can be a form of activism.”

Cho encourages for others to take the media into their own hands because we now have the tools of how we represent ourselves, but asserts that it is just as important to represent others. 

“We need to talk about issues such as the policing of black women and missing indigenous women, as well as white women.”

She also asks for other artists to constantly ask themselves where their ideas are coming from and to give credit where credit is due.

“Art has been stolen from racialized minorities. Ask yourself ‘Where are my ideas coming from? Who am I representing?’”

More information on Cho’s artwork can be found here.

Hana Shafi, also known as Frizz Kid, is an illustrator and freelance journalist.

Hana Shafi

Shafi admits that she did not describe herself as an artist for the longest time since she considered it a high form practice. “Violence was never discussed in my upbringing,” Shafi says, “So drawing comics was a way for me to understand it in a comfortable, safe way.”

When exploring healing, Shafi defines it as a process in which she asks herself personal questions such as “What does healing mean to me?” However she finds it just as important to ask other people who have experienced trauma because not all forms of healing are the same, and they won’t always make sense to everyone. Her priority is to create art that reflects all kinds of healing, and believes that creating and viewing art is a form of intimacy.  

“When you create art, you own it. When we can heal ourselves through art you give something back.”

Shafi is asked if there was a particular moment that inspired her to start sharing her artwork.

“It’s not just one act that takes something from you,” she responds, “it’s living in a society where rape culture is perpetuated.”

Similarly to Cho, Shafi finds the process of sharing her artwork as challenging, stating that “Sometimes creating art becomes too intense.” Although she loves to share her artwork, sometimes she’ll keep it to herself or use it too unleash an emotional outburst, such as when she scribbled an angry drawing down in her notebook because of something stupid that was said to her. When describing how cathartic this can be, Shafi says something that elicits a murmur throughout the crowd:

“Art is blood-letting.”

In order to be able to share her artwork, Shafi admits she has to take time for herself. Although she has a reaffirmation series that is posted every Monday on her website, sometimes she’ll skip a week in order to take a break. Despite seeing art as a positive thing, she sometimes finds the process negative, and similarly to the other women on the panel she describes how her healing process may not always be understood by other people.

“Watching a horror movie with friends feels safe to me, which might not be to others.”

Even though Shafi always created art that expressed negative emotions, during her third and fourth year of university is when she began to directly apply it to sexual violence.

“Rage is what opened my heart,” she admits, “ It burst me open in an amazing, cathartic way.” When she looks at her artwork she feels calm even though it came from anger, and blames the university environment for her desire to create this artwork as she oftentimes felt unsafe on campus.

When asked if she considers her artwork as activism, Shafi says that when she goes online she sees that people call her artwork ‘slacktivism’ and feels constantly invalidated.

“Why is Banksy revolutionary and iconic but we are just a bunch of girls online?”

Shafi describes artists as givers, and encourages aspiring artists to “Make bad art. Let yourself make something that sucks.” Even though she wants people to take away vulnerability and safety from her artwork, she adds “You can take anger and negative emotions away from it too.”

During Social Justice Week 2016 Shafi had a live installation roadshow this week on campus called ‘Lost Words’, which exhibited her incredibly moving artwork. More information on Shafi can be found here.

wide shot of the lost words roadshow exhibit on campus with artwork and a few people inside spray paint of the words "sexual assault" on the side of the Lost Words live artshow exhibit

close up of Hana Shafi's artwork inside the Lost Words artshow exhibitclose up of Hana Shafi's artwork inside the Lost Words artshow exhibit

close up of Hana Shafi's artwork inside the Lost Words artshow exhibit

About author

Sunita Singh Hans

Sunita Singh Hans

3rd year RTA Media Production student from Northern Ireland who loves travelling, blogging, sharing stories and obsessing over TV shows.