Visual acts: the power of being visible

zohra moosa
3 December 2007


Being a victim of violence is about losing power: the power to protect one's body or mind from abuse; the power to have some control over how one is physically, psychologically or emotionally treated.

Being a survivor or a resister of violence is about reclaiming a sense of power. Feeling empowered is an important part of healing after being a victim of violence. It is also a key ingredient for resisting violence, whether or not one has already been a victim. The link between empowerment and agency is a strong one as Andrea Cornwall dissects.

However, empowerment is not an entirely subjective experience. Violence is about inequalities of power that both perpetrator and victim can be aware of, and that outsiders can bear witness to. Moreover exercising coercion or control is about a struggle for power over someone that can be perpetrated by many more actors than just an individual, including the state, organizations such as religious groups, or even culture through values and norms.

Reclaiming a sense of power can therefore move significantly beyond the personal and well into the political. It can be about reclaiming the power to influence the public about what is acceptable behaviour, the power to bring perpetrators to justice, the power to provide adequate support to survivors of violence.

How can power be reclaimed? There are a number of projects around the world that are taking on the challenge of reclaiming survivors' sense of power and some of the most poignant are the most effective for a very important reason: their presence disrupts the silence around violence against women in the public eye. How? They are visual and they are visible.

In her analysis of the characteristics that have contributed to the effectiveness of various feminist activist art projects, Helen Klebesadel outlines seven essential attributes:

  • A ‘real world' orientation that speaks to lived experiences and moves beyond pure aesthetics
  • Process oriented instead of object oriented, with an interest in transforming the lives of the people involved in the art
  • Presentation in public sites
  • Production through participatory processes and collaboration
  • Involvement of the public and non-art world audiences
  • An element of performance or performance-based activity

As examples, she cites the American Guerrilla Girls, Clotheslines Project, and CODEPINK, among others such as the international Women in Black.

I'm convinced that the popularity of the Gulabi Gang, meaning the Pink Gang, in the public eye (including the BBC), feministing.com and The Hindu stems from similar roots, where the visual and the visible are harnessed to create presence and influence the public and authorities. How could a group of several hundred women dressed in pink saris fail to draw attention to itself?

What is interesting about all of these accounts is their relative lack of judgement about the methods the group uses to effect change. The BBC article is clear that the women, hailing from Uttar Pradesh in India, are vigilantes, who have attacked men with sticks and axes and stormed police stations. The group's founder, Sampat Pal Devi even admits that

sometimes we have to take the law in our hands.

I think it is likely that the Gulabi Gang are permitted the license to use force in part because the women appear to be actors in costumes. One lesson to take from this is that the lines between art, performance and activism can at times be purposefully blurred to reclaim power.

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