Art project tells 'uncensored' stories of sexual violence survivors

A collaborative art project to be put on display next year is aiming to let people who have experienced sexual violence tell their stories in their own creative ways.

Advocacy group is collecting mixed media submissions for (Un)Silenced to exhibit them next year

Cross-stitch from an anonymous contributor to the project. (Advocates for a Student Culture of Consent)

A collaborative art project to be put on display next year is aiming to let people who have experienced sexual violence tell their stories in their own creative ways. 

The project, (Un)Silenced, is an initiative of Advocates for a Student Culture of Consent, a group of mostly Wilfrid Laurier University graduates who run public education campaigns, do research on sexual violence and lobby to change public policies. 

Taylor Berzins, an organizer of the mixed media art, participatory project, said the group is hoping to enable survivors of sexual violence to speak for themselves, reflect on their experiences, express their pain and celebrate their strengths.

The project is also open to survivors of what the group calls gendered violence, which includes gender discrimination, intimate partner violence and transphobia. 

"Survivors need a space to tell their stories that is uncensored and unedited. And we are hoping to do this through art," Berzins told CBC K-W's The Morning Edition on Friday.

Taylor Berzins is an organizer with Advocates for a Student Culture of Consent, which is collecting submissions for a participatory mixed media art project called (Un)silenced. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

Exhibit early next year

The group, which has been collecting submissions since August, plans to exhibit them at art galleries in Brantford and Kitchener-Waterloo likely early next year. The deadline for submissions is November 30.

So far, poetry, photos, cross-stitch and a digital interactive game have been submitted. A game entitled I'm you but weaker, is described as "an interactive digital story about gendered violence and the courts system." 

"People are using their energies in really wonderful ways to talk about this," she said. "It's a practice in healing." 

Berzins said the group has found through its activism that survivors will often silence themselves.

"They choose or are forced to be silent just for the sake of safety or for the sake of job security, mental or spiritual well-being, or even just in order to navigate their social or romantic lives. This is something that isn't new," she said. 

"We really just kind of want to unpack this."

Images of words from Sam Yoon from Not My Laurier: Golden Hawks Combatting Gender Violence, a student-run campaign at Wilfrid Laurier University. (Sam Yoon )

'Survivors have complex identities'

Berzins said the group also wants to show through the project that survivors are not static characters or do not fit media stereotypes perpetuated by news stories, movies and television series.

"Survivors have complex identities in society," she said.

On its website, the group says: "Most of us don't match the archetypal images of survivors they portray in pop-culture, on the news or in Law and Order SVU. The survivors reflected to us are often scrubbed of their layers.

"These images do not reflect our bodies, our races, our sexual orientations, our religions, and our genders, let alone our needs, personalities, and strength. We are constantly fed stories of the perfect survivor, a role we're far too complex to ever play." 

This is a quote hung on the wall by the group at a collaborative art workshop it ran in September for (Un)Silenced. (Karly Rath/Advocates for a Student Culture of Consent)

The #MeToo hashtag campaign, in which survivors of sexual violence have been encouraged to share their stories on social media to show the magnitude of the problem, is reinforcing what the group is hoping to do, Berzins said.

Anyone in Canada can submit artwork, which can be submitted digitally to the group's website, Consent is Golden, or physically dropped off to the offices of Laurier Students' Public Interest Research Group in Brantford and Waterloo.