Using art to create awareness on violence against women

Silhouettes of spray-painted dolls
Silhouettes of spray-painted dolls 

Jemima Robinson has been living in Kenya for a little more than a year, long enough to understand that rape, be it reported or unreported, is a serious problem here.

It’s so serious that she felt compelled to talk about it, not in words but visually, through a three-dimensional installation entitled ‘327 Unreported’ which is currently up at Kuona Trust through December 20th.

‘The point of this show is yes, to raise awareness about the problem [of gender violence], but it’s also meant to get people talking about rape, to break the silence so that women especially can feel more able to report cases of sexual abuse,” says the award-winning set designer who is also a trained sociologist.

Feeling that the visual arts are not being used enough to address social issues in Kenya, Robinson - who has been working at Kuona Trust for the past year - collaborated with a fellow Briton, Claire O’Callaghan to devise and install an ingenious, eye-catching and enlightening multimedia exhibition that addresses a problem that not only plagues Kenya, and particularly Kenyan women and girls, but is the bane of females all over the world.

“Claire and I have researched the issue and frankly haven’t found any cases of male rape in Kenya, only of women, girls and babies,” said Jemima.

What actually triggered the two women to decide they had to do something about an issue that both feel passionately about—was the articles they’ve been reading in The Daily Nation by Njeri Rugene on the case of the 16-year-girl known as Liz who was gang raped by six guys, tossed into a pit latrine and left to die.

Three of the six men were nabbed by villagers who saved Liz’s life, but when they took them to the police, the rapists were merely charged with assault and made to cut grass for a few hours. Liz, meanwhile, is now confined to a wheelchair with an unspeakable physical condition that may be beyond repair.

Thanks to Rugene’s writing, Liz’s case has become a worldwide campaign not only to assist this young woman but also to compel governments to devise and implement policies that protect the rights of women and girls.

The evolution of 327 Unreported has had several phases to it. One involved Jemima buying more than 100 plastic mitumba dolls from Toi Market in Nairobi and spray painting their naked torsos jet black.

The black dolls are clearly meant to symbolise those unreported rape victims that deserve to be recognised, consoled and protected from any future violations.

Many of those dolls are dangling [in different positions] in one corner of the gallery, with special lighting serving to generate shadowy effects that echo and re-echo Jemima’s message—that the problem of rape is very real but women should no longer be treated like sexual objects and play things that can be used, abused and tossed aside like toilet paper or cheap plastic dolls.

But something exciting happened as the artist spray painted the dolls which she’d laid on sheets of newspaper. After spraying, she saw the dolls had left silhouettes on the paper that had an eerie almost x-ray-like effect.

“It’s almost as if the [apparent] x-rays are examining the dolls to understand what is really going on,” she said.

In fact, as you walk into the installation, almost all the gallery walls are covered with these black and white silhouettes that also have a way of speaking for the stark reality of rape, and for the terrible injustice of sexual crimes against women and girls.

Coincidentally, Jemima’s exhibition has been going on during the worldwide, campaign of 16 days to End Violence against Women which officially ended on December 10th - Human Rights Day.

Symbolised with the colour orange, each wall covered in the black and white silhouettes has one small orange square in the middle of each checker board-like paper panel.

Jemima will be leaving Kenya soon, but she intends to take her installation with her and exhibit it again in order for more women – and men - to hear about the campaign for Liz and the inspiration she has roused all over the world.