There are signs that warn you, before entering the gallery that houses FORCE’s Monument Quilt installation, that there’s work in this space that addresses sexual violence. But I knew that already—I knew that FORCE, as a group, is a Sondheim finalist; I have seen pieces of the Monument Quilt before (most recently in April, on North Avenue); I’d seen the activist group’s work go viral on the Internet a couple of times, including once in 2012 when they pretended to be Victoria’s Secret and promoted “consent is sexy” underwear. And I’d read and helped fact-check stories this paper has written about their work and the Monument Quilt. All of this, I had thought, should’ve been enough to steel me up.
But then I walked into the 2016 Sondheim finalist show for the first time, where FORCE’s installation spans a whole, huge wall—about 24 feet tall, almost touching the ceiling, and about 44 feet wide—glowing visceral red, with phrases like “you are not alone” and “I contain multitudes” and “you did not deserve it” jumping out in painted and appliqued lettering. And I cried. Hard. It just flowed.
One quilt square, high up near the ceiling, helps explain why I felt so overwhelmed: painted on gingham and red fabric are the words “Rape is not a special interest issue that affects a few people. Rape is a social justice issue that affects everyone.” And so, it seems, many of the squares—which were made by survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence and their allies all across the United States—chosen for this specific installation aim to show the intersections of oppression and violence. A four-by-four-foot square pays tribute to four trans women of color (Mya Hall, Tyra Trent, Chanel, and Lola) who were killed. Some squares are devoted to indigenous and native people (“Native women are sacred,” one square reads alongside a figure in a traditional robe, surrounded by flowers) and many pieces refuse the narrative that LGBT identities are “caused by trauma” (“I am queer because I fucking love pussy,” one square says). Squares with embroidered butterflies, hands, hearts, and smiley faces contain stories with phrases of empowerment like “Yo tengo derecho a romper el silencio” (“I have the right to break the silence”). On either edge of the installation, spilling down onto the ground, are first-hand accounts of rape in prison—one from a gay man who describes vividly the multiple instances of rape and abuse other inmates inflicted upon him; the other from a woman who was assaulted by guards in two different prison facilities in Kentucky. It’s so much.
So, the installation is a few different kinds of overwhelming. There’s the gut punch of all of these deep red shades—a visceral connection to the body and to violence—and, out of necessity, the display is confrontational. Then there’s the sheer quantity, and what that means: Each square represents someone’s own unique story of sexual assault and/or domestic violence. And this is only a small section of the entire Quilt; a future Monument Quilt installation, planned for 2018, will cover the National Mall in D.C. That is a lot of violence. But this work isn’t trying to shake you by the shoulders and get you to reconcile this or blame you; it tries instead to be encouraging, supportive, and uplifting. For some, the Quilt can provide comfort: the softness of the fabrics, the florals, the few squares of silence or abstract patterning, which are like breathing space. It might be too much, depending on where you’re at, and FORCE recognizes this, too; embedded within the installation are several reminders to breathe, to “read as many or as few stories as you need to,” and that “You can stay for a long time or a short time.”
In the three videos installed on that same wall—from Monument Quilt displays and workshops in Baltimore, Chicago, Des Moines, among other cities, where some of these pieces were made—survivors talk about their own experiences with sexual assault and abuse and seem to agree, more broadly, that the Quilt creates a safe space “to heal.” Others explain why it’s vital that this healing happens in public, rather than in private. A woman named Hibo Jama says we need to get rid of the stigma of trauma, adding that “it’s not on the woman” to deal with it. Sharmili Majumdar says she thinks part of the problem is that “we don’t want to talk about” sexual assault because it leads to more questions, it makes us look inward and consider our own actions.
Sometimes it does feel like culture is shifting, that, more and more, people believe and publicly support survivors, thanks in part to outspoken activists and artists like FORCE. There may always be doubters and detractors, but with more public platforms and public support, survivors and allies can keep pushing those voices out. I can’t help thinking about Emma Sulkowicz and the mattress she carried (on which she says a fellow student raped her) as a performance piece for her final year at Columbia, or the difficult but eloquent letter written by the woman who Stanford student Brock Turner raped (which she read to him at his sentencing). It is revolutionary to take your trauma and to make something powerful, beautiful, devastating, heart-rending, or angry out of it. And those reactions are, in part, what can stir change.
In one of the videos, a woman says that the Monument Quilt offers an opportunity for survivors “not to share their pain, but to share their healing,” to show the “beauty and courage within.” What beauty and courage look like to survivors certainly varies, but here it can be contained in such simple phrases, stitched with thread, as “you are not alone.”
The Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist show is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through July 31. City Paper will be posting reviews of all of the finalists leading up to the award announcement on July 9. For more information on the Sondheim awards, click here.