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Art Exhibit On Sexual Assault Answers Question Often Asked Of Survivors

Inspired by a poem, an art exhibit on sexual assault titled “ What Were You Wearing?” re-creates outfits survivors had on when they were assaulted, alongside personal stories.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with Jen Brockman, one of the creators of the installation and director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center at the University of Kansas.

“Most times, this question is not asked from a place of malice. It’s asked from a place of fear, by those who love and care about us,” Brockman says. “That if they can figure out, what was the item of clothes that somehow left us vulnerable, that all they have to do is avoid that item and they will never be in this place that we are sitting in now.

“So it comes from that place of fear, but the results of it for survivors can be devastating.”

Interview Highlights

On how the exhibit was created

“We actually met with survivors and interviewed them, and asked for their permission to re-create the outfits that they were wearing during their assault. Initially, we gathered about 18 stories from survivors, and then we take those and we re-create the outfits with the story. So these are not the actual clothes. And now, over the years, the installation has grown to over 52 stories that have been donated by survivors. There is a program in India called ‘Blank Noise,’ and that activist actually does collect the clothing of the survivor.”

On what it’s done for participants

“The interesting thing is it’s survivors of all gender identities: folks who identify as men, women, trans, nongender binary, gender fluid — all of those faces are represented within the project, because sexual violence impacts folks of all gender identities. The space that we hear that [the installation has provided] is a sense of almost a catalyst for healing, the idea that they can put this out — a space that they were so vulnerable [in], and that was held over them, that somehow their clothing was to blame — and to be able to see that represented, have people go through and say, ‘I have that same outfit. I wore that last week. That’s so normal,’ this is really creating a nice space for survivors to feel validated and to feel honored.”

On whether the exhibit is also about reclaiming clothing

“It definitely is. We have a current story that was donated by a Kansas student, talking about the color blue. Every time that they were assaulted, they were wearing a blue T-shirt, and they talk about how that was their favorite color and they refused to stop wearing it, they refused to give that power to the person who harmed them.”

On if there’s been more interest in the installation amid the #MeToo movement

“I think that we are. So, the very first project went up in 2014, and really hadn’t had a lot of coverage. … We put it up in September 2017 [at the University of Kansas], it was on the heels of the Cosby trial in the middle of the [Harvey] Weinstein [story], it was about a week before the #MeToo hashtag. And since September, we’ve received 237 requests from six continents to host this installation.”

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(Courtesy Jennifer Sprague)
(Courtesy Jennifer Sprague)

(Courtesy Jennifer Sprague)
(Courtesy Jennifer Sprague)

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