A horrific gang-rape in a moving bus on Dec 16, 2011 caught the world’s attention and shook the conscience of the Indian nation. New Delhi witnessed massive street protests and for the first time it seemed that rape was recognized as not just the problem of an unfortunate individual but the responsibility of society itself.
Art for Change had been responding to violence against women for several years and decided to launch the first international Reflection Artist Residency by addressing the deeper roots to the malaise but also, a year after the tragedy, exploring what reconciliation and healing could look like.
The first international residency was launched by listening to a series of deeply disturbing audio recordings collected for the occasion by the ‘Let Her Live’ campaign. These were women telling their stories of everyday experiences of men in public places, ranging from verbal sexual abuse to physical molestation. The women ranged from school children to college students and office workers and additionally shared their perspectives on the root of the problem and their solutions.
Seven Indian and two American painters got to work and were joined by four others working on an art performance track. The result was an exhibition of paintings and sculptures at Lokayata Art Gallery in central New Delhi and a series of art performances at Jantar Mantar, the famous street set apart by the government for public protest. The morning of the final exhibition one of the artist covered himself with bindis, the dot worn by Indian women on the forehead, and in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi’s mobilization efforts took a ‘pad-yatra’ walking from the art gallery to Jantar Mantar. On the way, aided by other artists, he handed out postcards asking people he met to write down “one way I will treat the women in my life with dignity and respect,” along with their address. Handing the post card back they picked a bindi off of his body and stamped the postcard as a seal of commitment. Later he mailed the post cards back to them as reminders.
Other works in the exhibition included a painting telling the artist’s own experience being held back at home due to patriarchal gender roles—a kite tied down by a chair, a diptych of a boy and a girl looking at each other, with sacred temple flowers and their gender differences downplayed, and a megaphone constructed of a woman’s plastic household items which one had to lean into to hear the recordings of the women’s stories heard at the start of the residency. That piece was called ‘Whisper.’