Long Reads

Why this Scottish exhibition about sexual assault is so vitally important

Sexual assault has long been shrouded in secrecy and shame – but a group of artists are part of a powerful exhibition responding to it creatively

The aftermath of sexual assault which affects one in five women in the UK – can be a fraught period of denial, loss and self-blame.

And the long-term effects can be severe, with recent research finding that survivors are three times more likely to experience clinical depression, and two times more likely to have anxiety, than women who haven’t been sexually assaulted.

There are rarely opportunities for survivors to channel their experiences creatively while also breaking the silence and taboo that so often surrounds the issue. For this reason, Rape Crisis Scotland have curated an all-female art exhibition, called Reson@te, to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, coming up on 25 November.

Reson@te takes its name from the co-curators hoping to “capture something that references both the impact that sexual violence can have and the power of art and creativity to communicate that impact in different ways”.

A curation of creative responses to sexual assault is long overdue

In the exhibition, 12 Scottish artists showcase works spanning self-image, sexual harassment and loss of identity. This includes filmmaker Lucie Rachel’s film Touch Me, Don’t Touch Me, which highlights the challenges of renegotiating sexuality in the aftermath of sexual violence, alongside Dundee-based visual artist Sekai Machache’s Musoro, which sheds light on the little-known legacy of grief. Meanwhile, Glasgow-based illustrator Sam McPherson’s I’m not your f***ing sweetheart mate spotlights the way public spaces can be sites where sexual harassment is rife.

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The pieces will be showcased at the Image Collective Gallery at Ocean Terminal in Edinburgh. Organisers reveal that the location has been instrumental in welcoming visitors from all walks of life, who might not have previously have confronted the issue: “[there’s been] a lot of footfall from a broad cross-section of the public visiting, particularly as it’s just before Christmas”.

Though new figures from the Scottish Government have uncovered record levels of sexual crime in Scotland, survivors of sexual violence throughout the UK can be consistently let down by the criminal justice system. The number of people charged with rape is currently at its lowest level in a decade, while survivors have likened prosecuting sexual assault to experiencing “rape all over again”. It’s clear that Reson@te couldn’t have come at a more poignant time.

Below, six of the artists on show in the exhibition speak to Stylist about their experiences, the process of their artwork and why such a large-scale curation of creative responses to sexual assault is long overdue. Scroll down to learn more about them.

Compassion by Chandelle Waugh, 20, sculpture student at the Glasgow School of Art

Compassion is a representation of a baby blanket. I created it at a time when the rape clause (a change to child benefits, where mothers only receive benefit payments for two children, unless their third was conceived through rape or within an abusive relationship) came into effect last April. I felt the government was not only using rape as a ‘special circumstance’, but also humiliating women whilst it forced them to prove they were raped. 

This piece is made from latex, a contradiction between safe sex and rape. I used this material to create a disturbing and grotesque look to my piece and to create a sense of emotion between the concept and the viewer. I hope the exhibition will be a place to open up conversation surrounding sexual abuse and the effect this has on women and men in their everyday lives.

Know by Nicole Gault, 28, artist and graduate of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design

I focused on creating a piece for how to deal with the aftermath of sexual assault. Know is a take on a comfort blanket, which I’ve illustrated, collaged together and then stitched onto a blanket. With this piece, I wanted to create something that gave some power back to a woman and also challenged the misconception that a woman was ‘asking for it’ because of what she wears. 

[It’s important for me that visitors] know that you’re not alone, you’re not damaged and you’ll be able to be intimate again with another person without fear. The play on the word ‘know’ was integral to the creation of the piece, [referencing] the bigger campaigns of ‘no means no’, for example. It is almost like a cathartic chant that reassures [survivors] that it wasn’t their fault.

I’ve gone into Reson@te sharing a part of myself and have left knowing that multiple people have related to it, that I’ve helped someone in their thought process or even inspired someone to share their story. 

I’d like to think that those who have experienced sexual assault might take comfort and empowerment from my work. But most importantly, I’d love for people to become more educated on the matter, look at the stats and be part of change. Hopefully, it’s only the beginning of more exhibitions like this.

Untitled by Clare Hutchison, 23, photographer     

I feel my art really portrays how I felt during art school. I didn’t really know how to speak about my experience of sexual assault or how to deal it. I felt a bit lost and it acted as a form of art therapy. People don’t talk enough about the pain of its aftermath: feeling worthless and the inner conflict. The headlessness stems from being dehumanised and stripped of who you are. When you’ve been assaulted, that person isn’t seeing you as a person, they’re seeing you as nothing more than an object for them to play with.

After I started talking about my work, a lot of people who’ve had their own experience with rape and sexual assault approached me and felt empowered to share their story with me. This was very moving as I felt like they could confide in me. I think it’s important to keep talking about our experiences and for survivors to stand together. My work has enabled me to open up and start a dialogue with friends and family about what happened to me. I struggled for a long time before I felt comfortable talking to anyone about my trauma.

I hope Reson@te makes survivors realise that they’re not alone. I love that it takes place in a big shopping centre: it attracts a crowd that might not usually go into a gallery. People that might be getting their dinner or going to the gym are being exposed to this. It gets people to really think about our work.

Untitled by Jasmine Holt, 24, illustrator and maker

These protest signs were born out of outrage. I wanted to make sure that people could actually touch and interact with [my artwork]. It gives visitors a chance to pick one up - which they may never have done. I also hope that the bold and bright colours might catch the attention of unsuspecting passers-by and make them question the way they think about sexual violence. All of the text was first drawn onto the cardboard, then hand-painted, sometimes several times to make it really pop.

A big problem that we have with the conversation about sexual violence is that there often isn’t enough of one. This is a complex issue: survivors often feel at fault after an incident and our criminal justice system is now so [bleak] that speaking out is a traumatising experience of its own. This creates a silence and I hope my art will help give survivors a voice.

Rights of Women by Leonie Macmillan, 50, ceramic artist

I hope my art might be helpful in communicating the sensitive and painful experience of sexual violence. Rights of Women is about the HIV crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa. I recently joined an evening degree course in geography and was extremely shocked to discover the extent of the crisis. Social scientists’ evidence shows the crisis is made worse by the lack of women’s rights. Over half a million people died of AIDS in 2017. 

My artwork uses ceramics to convey the objectification of women with torn torsos. The political messages are achieved by fusing photographs to the ceramic. Robert Burns wrote a poem in 1878 called The rights of Woman and I’ve put fragments of the title into my work. 

I’m proud to be part of the exhibition: it’s very brave, honest and incredibly dignified. I hope it’ll achieve a better understanding of what women and men experience from sexual violence and allow people not to be afraid to seek help. I also hope it makes clear that, globally, we need better to laws to create a non-sexist legal system.

Touch Me, Don’t Touch Me by Lucie Rachel, 26, Visual Artist 

The short film is an exploration of one of the many issues of PTSD after sexual violence; the space between wanting physical contact, and simultaneous aversion to being touched. Reclamation of sexuality and renegotiation of intimacy after rape is an aspect of recovery that tends to be neglected in public conversation surrounding sexual violence.

I’ve always been inspired by dance and communicating through movement so I was keen to explore this idea using the body as it’s an intrinsic part of the issues being discussed. The whole process was extremely fast - there were no rehearsals and I met my dancers on the day of the shoot and we improvised.

The mainstream media is [preoccupied] with stats and lawsuits, focusing on the act and the perpetrator, often forgetting the role of the survivor after speaking out. Reson@te doesn’t just raise awareness of sexual assault by telling stories about survivors, it gives the reigns back to people who’ve been affected, by offering a platform for our own narratives. I hope that it may offer comfort or solidarity for viewers who may have their own trauma and offer a different insight into understanding sexual violence for those who haven’t.

Reson@te runs until 28 November at the Image Collective Gallery at Ocean Terminal, Edinburgh

The Rape Crisis Scotland Helpline number is 08088 01 03 02 and it is open every night from 6pm till midnight. 

Images: Courtesy of the artists and Reson@te, plus Unsplash


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