“Collective Voices, Shared Journeys”: Art that pays homage to survivors of gender violence

apna ghar art show
Artist Melody Williams stands in front of her piece “NONONONON.”

By Jenny G. Zhang

Malala Yousafzai. Benazir Bhutto. Gloria Gaynor. These women of color – activists, leaders, cultural icons – stand in sharp relief against the sky-blue background of the collage.

Pasted together, their edges overlapping, the figures pay homage to survivors of sexual violence, domestic violence, political violence, deportation, incarceration and hate crimes.

“They kept going,” said the artist, Naomi Anurag Lahiri, gazing at her framed collage on the wall. Sometimes it’s hard for her to get out of bed in the morning, she said; this piece is a reminder to push onward.

Lahiri is one of several survivors and supporters whose work is currently being exhibited in “Collective Voices, Shared Journeys,” the second annual art show by Apna Ghar, a Chicago-based women’s agency dedicated to advocating for immigrant survivors of gender violence.

The organization, which was founded by five Asian American women in the 1980s, has long used art as a tool for healing and expression. This show, explained Apna Ghar counseling services manager Sangeetha Ravichandran, is an extension of that culture and community.

The exhibition opened on Friday, March 4. Over the course of the evening, over 100 guests streamed in and out of the Montgomery Ward Lounge in Student Center East at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Near the back of the room: a table laid out with refreshments for guests to enjoy as they mingle. In the center, seated on a cushy, circular sofa: a collective, collaborative embroidery project hosted by art therapy group CEW Design Studio. Towards the front: a space cleared for performances by poets, activists and singers. Lining the four walls of the gallery: 30+ works of art, each interpreting the show’s theme of incarceration and gender justice in colorfully different ways.

Artist and educator Melody Williams, for example, approached the theme through the lens of consent, as is revealed in her piece “NONONONON.” The words “NO” and “ON,” printed in vibrant colors and plastered floor-to-ceiling in one corner of the room, represent a “yes/no” binary present in both computing and issues of consent.

“We live in an era of coerced consent,” Williams said during the reception, referencing Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow.” Without an explicit “no,” Williams explained, consent is understood to be given, even if questions of intimidation, fear and ignorance come into play.

The show’s theme of incarceration and gender justice doesn’t just have to refer to the detention of women who are charged with murder after killing their abusers in self-defense, according to Apna Ghar outreach and education manager Radhika Sharma-Gordon.

“Our clients are trapped in different ways,” she said. Poverty, immigration laws, family and lack of access to education and resources are different forms of incarceration that often affect immigrant women and women of color.

An event like “Collective Voices, Shared Journeys” helps bring visibility to the intersections of gender violence with immigration and refugee rights, race, class, sexuality, disabilities and mental health – all through the incredibly expressive power of art, said Sharma-Gordon.

“Tonight, it was creative and supportive; there was laughter, and smiles, and people just really engrossed in the artwork,” she said after the end of the opening reception last Friday. “It was a very good spirit that was created in the room tonight.”

Photo at top: Artist Melody Williams stands in front of her piece “NONONONON.” (Jenny G. Zhang/MEDILL)