A way back home: Art as recovery for rape victims in Chicago

What Were You Wearing photography exhibit
The photo series "Well, What Were You Wearing?" is Awakenings' first photography exhibit, and has already garnered attention from the community. (Ritu Prasad/MEDILL)

by Ritu Prasad

At first, the photographs seem unremarkable—a pair of well-worn shoes, a flannel shirt, gray sweatpants.

Floating on a black background, hung on a clean white wall, these 12 photographs show what 12 rape victims wore at the time of their assault.

The series, titled “Well, What Were You Wearing?” by Katherine Cambareri, offers a simple yet poignant look into the realities of rape.

Cambareri Wall
A line of dark photos on a bare wall: the images are moving because of how ordinary they are. Many are items anyone could have worn, regardless of gender. (Ritu Prasad/MEDILL)

“I was worried that when you first see the images you don’t know what they are and what they represent just by looking at them,” Cambareri said. “But I really like that aspect of it now, that you don’t know what it’s about because you can’t tell anything just by looking at the clothes.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, an average of 293,066 sexual assault cases occur each year—that’s an assault nearly every two minutes. In 2014, only 33.6 percent of incidents were reported to police.

Chicago makes the top five list for all types of violent crime, including rape: in 2014, there were 1,343 reported cases, and from January to June 2015, there were 622. As troubling as these statistics are, the actual numbers are likely much higher— for fear of being blamed for the crime themselves, most sexual assault victims never report their experiences.

“Victim blaming is such a big issue in society,” Cambareri said. “A lot of survivors of sexual assault do not necessarily want to tell their stories because they’re afraid of what people are going to say, so it was important to me to give them a voice.”

Many of the survivors who donated clothing to the project thanked her afterward, Cambareri added, saying they were grateful to “use their negative energy in a positive way…and do something anonymously but still feel like they were helping other people.”

Cambareri Close-Up
Cambareri posted on social media about her idea for the photo series and received every item photographed as a donation from anonymous survivors. (Ritu Prasad/MEDILL)

Cambareri’s photographs arrived at the Awakenings Foundation in Ravenswood last month and will be displayed through May 31. Awakenings was established in 2010 by Jean Cozier to create a permanent space for the artwork of sexual assault survivors.

Laura Kinter, marketing and communications coordinator, said this was Awakenings’ first photography exhibit.

“It is so much more powerful when you’re looking at it here,” Kinter said of the photographs. “You can see a picture online and it can affect you, but if you see the show…that represents 12 people [who] went through this horrible thing and their clothing is just right in front of your face.”

In addition to the attention the series received online, Kinter said many have been “galvanized” after the 2016 election.

“Rape is now trendy, unfortunately,” Kinter said, though she noted rape should never be politicized. “It’s good that it’s getting media attention and sexual assault is being validated in a way it’s never been before… We had an opening reception for [Cambareri’s] exhibit and we had people coming in off the street that just saw the post online. I was able to engage with complete strangers, women bringing their boyfriends to the gallery and talking about art and healing. That’s really powerful.”

Art at Awakenings
A lantern decreeing ‘my body, my choice’ stands before the many paintings and sculptures made by other survivors at the Awakenings Foundation gallery space. (Ritu Prasad/MEDILL)

Art therapy, defined in the 1940s as the therapeutic use of art in healing, is a common method of working through traumatic experiences. The American Art Therapy Association currently represents over 5,000 therapists across the country. The American Journal of Public Health published a study in 2010 that looked at visual, musical, and written art forms in hospitals in the United States and United Kingdom. The study found that in all these forms “there are clear indications that artistic engagement has significantly positive effects on health.”

Barbara Fish, Ph.D., has worked with art throughout her career as a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, an author and art therapist.

“I think art making and finding meaning in creativity is a human strength,” Fish said. “There’s a lot of new research with pattern sensory involvement calming the traumatized brain. I use imagination and creativity to weather and hang in there with my clients when it’s difficult…They have such hard experiences and difficult lives. Therapy gives [them] a chance to start to learn how to be in a relationship and trust someone else.”

At Rape Victim Advocates, art therapy sessions can include crafting, painting, drawing, and poetry to work through the trauma of sexual assault. Last month, art therapist Jordan Ferranto organized a poetry workshop with Maggie Queeney, library coordinator at the Poetry Foundation.

“I think that words are so powerful,” Ferranto said. “Words are something that we’re really used to relating to and we’re used to using words to describe how we feel… What we do in therapy, a lot of that is based on words too…I think that poetry helps and assists in that process.”

Ferranto has led art and poetry workshops before, and said the results are often “magical.”

“Art making for a lot of people bypasses a lot of our natural defenses… It’s the indirect quality to the art making that I think is the most effective because it tricks people into talking about real things because it’s a non-threatening means of processing,” Ferranto said. “I think when it comes to processing trauma specifically, using art-making is really effective because art speaks the same language as the traumatic memories.”

This poem, along with others by survivors and poets, is one Ferranto has used in her workshops before. After reading the poems, Ferranto said, survivors usually craft or paint their reactions. (Ritu Prasad/MEDILL)

For Queeney, a writer and educator, poetry holds great personal weight.

“From a survivor’s point of view, poetry (at least for me) was a way back into the world after trauma,” Queeney said in an emailed statement. “A fundamental effect of poetry, to make the familiar unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar familiar, is also an effect of trauma. Poetry can speak the language of trauma, and can show a way back to a world outside of trauma.”

Art, in all its forms, thrives on the elements that make us human. Art is at once universal and subjective, deeply personal and inherently external. In the hands of survivors, in their words and brushstrokes and photographs on the walls, art is a way to be seen, be heard and be healed.

“That’s who writers and artists are: those who can imagine the unimaginable, a future that we would want to live in,” Queeney continued. “Art therapists’ job is to show us how to take care of our hearts and minds and bodies in a world that is hostile and threatens so many hearts and minds and bodies, until we can get to that future.”

The photo series “Well, What Were You Wearing?” is Awakenings’ first photography exhibit, and has already garnered attention from the community. (Ritu Prasad/MEDILL)
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