Laia Abril

On Rape: And Institutional Failure

Book review by Jilke Golbach

On Rape: And Institutional Failure, Laia Abril’s latest instalment in her ongoing History of Misogyny, uses text and image to offer a carefully orchestrated, rigorously executed journey of photographic investigation into the omnipresent threat of rape, and violence against women in broader terms, writes Jilke Golbach.


Disbelief. It leaks from the pages of Laia Abril’s book On Rape: And Institutional Failure, published by Dewi Lewis, lingering in the air like a horrid smell. Disbelief, not because the countless stories of rape recorded here are unfamiliar (hardly so) or the facts fail to be loud enough, but because they lay bare, page after page, the nauseating extent to which practices, materialities and cultures of rape pervade societies whilst rape victims continue to be discredited and disputed.

An involuntary question, close to denial, keeps popping into my head as I process the most archaic, most barbaric forms of sexual abuse and silencing made visible here: surely, not still? To which the answer is: yes, still. And all the time, everywhere.

The day I write this, accounts of rape emerge from war-torn Ukraine, the London metropolitan police and Iran where, horrifyingly, virgins “must” be raped – in the name of religion – before being executed for protesting in the streets. If Abril’s project makes one thing clear, it is that rape, and violence against women in broader terms, is an omnipresent threat, not confined to borders or circumstances, and one which is to a great extent internalised by 51% of the global population. A frightening UN statistic asserts that as many as ‘one in three women will suffer domestic or sexual violence in their lifetime’.

Covered in bloodred cloth and printed on ink-black paper, this latest chapter of Abril’s ongoing History of Misogyny is a carefully orchestrated, rigorously executed journey of photographic investigation. It was sparked by the Manada, or Wolfpack, story in Spain, Abril’s country of birth: a widely publicised case of the gang rape of an 18-year-old woman in 2016 that mirrors many of the issues Abril uncovers: extreme brutality against women, video-recordings of rape, toxic masculinity, victim-blaming, questions of evidence and consent and a lack of justice for survivors – but also glimmers of hope in the form of feminist protests, the reform of sexual assault laws and ultimately increased sentencing for perpetrators.

‘Why do we still have a society that rapes?’ asks Abril in a conversation with Joanna Bourke, author of Disgrace: Global Reflections on Sexual Violence (2022); a crucial, momentous question that drives the project. Through image and text, Abril seeks answers, all the while unravelling a web of myths and misconceptions, tracing the ancient and historic roots of present-day narratives about women, women’s bodies and what can be done to them. There is the persistent myth of the ‘broken hymen’, the ‘two-finger test’ to assert ‘vaginal tightness’, the fable that rape eroticises women and the excuse that ‘boys will be boys’.

Rape does not only happen to women and girls, but they do constitute the vast majority of victims. The crux of On Rape, following Abortion (2016) and preceding Mass Hysteria, resides in its powerful subtitle: institutional failure. Integrating materials ranging from biblical maps to WhatsApp groups, the work demonstrates that rape is systemic; symptomatic of patriarchal cultures in which male bodies can be weaponised and female bodies subordinated. Rape finds fertile ground in unequal societies and their long male-dominated institutions, where gender violence intersects with class, race and sexual orientation. ‘For centuries, men have made the rules’, notes Bourke, and our laws (as well as criminal and medical protocols) thus fail to protect women. Rape, domestic abuse, murder and forms of institutional misogyny are all leaves from the same book of gender violence.

Nowhere does this become more obvious than in Abril’s testimonies of survivors of rapes which took place in institutional settings (school, the army, a convent), presented alongside black-and-white photographs of the victims’ items of clothing. Modest on the page but displayed life-size in gallery contexts, as the recent Photoworks / V&A Parasol Foundation Women in Photography Project exhibition at London’s Copeland Gallery demonstrated, these forensic-feeling images leave the viewer in no doubt about the confrontation with a real human body.

Rape constitutes bodily harm, but its most grievous effects are the result of psychological trauma; trauma that might cause a lifetime of suffering or may be perpetuated over time, even becoming transgenerational by causing pregnancy or taking place within marriage. In the words of Lluïsa Garcia-Esteve, a doctor of psychiatry specialised in women’s mental health, the trauma of sexual violence constitutes ‘a crack, a rupture in the biography’.

This rupture, Abril shows, has long been pitted as a kind of robbery, as stolen virtue, lost purity; rooted in patriarchal conceptions of women as property. In many societies, rape victims are punished or even killed for bringing ‘disgrace’ to their communities. In certain places, marry-your-rapist laws continue to be legally practised. And yet, only a few years ago, two women in India had their hair shaved off for having the guts to resist a sexual assault by a group of men.

Guilt and shame are powerfully intertwined with sexual abuse and often coerce women into silence. Victim-blaming and victim-shaming are amongst the main reasons why most rapes do not get reported, let alone convicted. On Rape documents a dizzying array of excuses that seek to discredit or delegitimise those who speak out against rape, many of which are so ridiculously mad they’d be laughable if it was not for such a deadly serious subject: ‘If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down’… ‘If you wouldn’t have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you’. She had to be corrected for being a lesbian. She was wearing a lace thong. She had a few drinks. She had her eyes closed.

Silencing women is integral to rape culture. In The Mother of All Questions (2017), Rebecca Solnit writes how it maintains that ‘women’s testimony is worthless, untrustworthy… that the victim has no rights, no value, is not an equal’. And thus, ‘[h]aving a voice is crucial. It’s not all there is to human rights, but it’s central to them, and so you can consider the history of women’s rights and lack of rights as a history of silence and breaking silence.’

Abril follows in a lineage of women artists chipping away at the silence over sexual violence, alongside Zanele Muholi, Ana Mendieta, Tracey Emin, Kara Walker and Margaret Harrison. This work – to make public, to make visible, to make literal, to make undeniable – is an act of resistance, a refusal to cower in the face of oppression and control. On Rape’s remarkable power (and empowerment) resides in accumulation: by laying down the facts, counting the numbers, assembling the pieces, Abril has built a fortress of voices, and it leaves no space for disbelief.

All images courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis © Laia Abril


Jilke Golbach is Curator of Photographs at the Museum of London.

Images:

1-‘Ala Kachuu’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

2-‘Military Rape’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

3-‘Mulier Taceat in Ecclesia’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

4-‘Merkin’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

5-‘Shrinky Recipe’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

6-‘School Rape’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

7-‘Penis Truth’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

8-‘Rapist Brain’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#10 Mariama Attah

Mariama Attah is a photography curator and editor with a particular interest in the power of photography to re-present visual culture. She is Curator of Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool and was previously Assistant Editor of Foam Magazine. Prior to this, Attah was Curator of Photoworks, where she was responsible for developing and curating programmes and events including Brighton Photo Biennial and commissioning and editing Photoworks Annual. She completed her BA Photography at Wolverhampton University and gained an MA in Museum Studies from University of Leicester. Attah has worked with a number of national and international artists and previous other roles include Exhibitions and Events Manager at Iniva and Assistant Officer, Visual Arts at Arts Council England.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

Storytelling is the element that drew me back to the exhibition form. I love shaping a narrative and space that people can physically experience. Alongside that, I’m interested in working with artists to help them outline a context beyond the frame of the artwork. I see the curatorial process as one where all the references, links, research and ideas that I gather and am inspired by are projected from inside my head to the outside world – they can come alive and be further shaped and enlivened by audiences.

What does it mean to be a curator in an age of image and information excess?

The early role of the curator was that of a guardian of collections and to act as a barrier to access. This slowly adapted into curators acting as channels to serve audiences but still maintained an aspect of authoritarianism on value and taste. Today, the curator is more of a point of introduction and reference. They can guide people towards themes, ideas, practitioners, etc. but they aren’t a single voice or route in determining what is relevant or what should be ignored. That isn’t possible or desirable.

I’m also curious about the idea of an excess of imagery and information. Are we in excess, and is that a new occurrence? How many images are too many? I don’t necessarily believe there is too much information or imagery, instead I think there is an excess of feeling obligated to engage with everything around us. Our worlds have always been filled with imagery and information. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to choose what we look at and how we engage with it.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

I think more than anything, curiosity, and a drive to share your thoughts and ideas are the most invaluable skills a curator can have. Being curious about your surroundings; about history, visual representation and communication, and wanting other people to engage with that will take you far.

What was your route into curating?

I didn’t know what a curator was until the last few weeks of my photography degree when we were organising our end of year degree show. I decided then that I was more interested in working with photographers than being a photographer. I also realised that I didn’t have the personality or desire to make a living from taking photographs. From there, I was very lucky to get a job curating at a museum while I did a MA in Museum Studies, though it took a few more years before my first role working purely with photography. This isn’t the role that I originally saw for myself but this is absolutely where I want to be.

What is the most memorable exhibition that you’ve visited?

John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea, which premiered at the 56th Venice Biennale, as part of Okwui Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures exhibition in 2015, is the most vivid and meaningful exhibition I have encountered. The body of work combines found archival footage from the BBC’s Natural History Unit with contemporary images shown on a three channel video installation, referencing Moby Dick and Whale Nation. Vertigo Sea uses the ocean as a metaphor for understanding migration, colonialism, ecological ruin, the movement of people, goods, and people as goods, and the long history of humans endeavouring to prevail over nature. The ocean is presented as a site of transport, industry, beauty, control and disinterested rule. It is indifferent to whether you’re fleeing or sightseeing or being moved against your will, and Akomfrah captures this force in an utterly compelling way.

What constitutes curatorial responsibility in the context within which you work?

My curatorial responsibility is to use my position to advocate for and work with artists, communities and groups of people in helping to spread a shared message. Collaboration and representation are key to me.

What is the one myth that you would like to dispel around being a curator? 

Curators are not gatekeepers or all seeing eyes. We can’t make or break a career and we haven’t seen every exhibition, installation or publication. I’m just as eager to learn or be shown something new as anyone else.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

I would tell any aspiring curators to visit as many exhibitions as possible to gain an idea of what does and doesn’t interest you about the physical exhibition space. Pay attention to the details that guide people through the space, the design decisions and details that are used in presenting and displaying artworks, the pauses that are built in to prompt visitors to start forming their own opinions and how and where additional information and materials are presented to support this.

Curating isn’t only about the artists you work with, it’s also about the communities and audiences. I would advise aspiring curators to think about who they want to curate for and how they can include the voices of these groups in exhibition making.

I also think that there is an easy affinity between photography and writing and having worked as an editor makes me a more confident curator. Take any opportunity to read and write on subjects you’re moved by and don’t shy away from feedback. Being able to form your ideas on paper will help other people to better understand your vision.

Alongside this, I also think that curators should have a basic understanding of both the private and public art worlds, no matter which sphere you work in, in order to be able to support the careers of the artists you are working with.

Start curating, reading, writing, visiting, learning, and then repeat until the end.♦

Further interviews in the Curator Conversations series can be read here.


Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.

Images:

1-Mariama Attah

2-Installation view of Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015: Matthew Finn, Joanna Piotrowska, Tereza Zelenkova, Jerwood Space London, 2015.

Jason Larkin

Waiting

Fourth Wall/Photoworks

Waiting for something in our lives is perhaps one of the most universally understood occurrences. Everyday, we wait in some way or another for something – a phone call, an email, for our loved ones to arrive, for the rain to stop. The world does not revolve around any individual’s needs or schedule. We must all adjust our lives to its system – naturally occurring or man-made – and most often that means, waiting.

Waiting by itself can be little more than inconvenience but mix in politics of a region or city and desires for societal change and one can read a powerful metaphor in something as seemingly innocuous as waiting for a city bus. Jason Larkin’s new book Waiting from Fourthwall Books and Photoworks does just that.

Larkin, a British photographer who lived in South Africa, photographed people as they waited alone at bus stops around Johannesburg, specifically drawn to those who sought to shade themselves from the unrelenting sunlight. We are not privy to who the people are, where they are going, nor why. The only information given is the duration of each wait, which acts as the caption to each photograph – 20 minutes, 2 minutes, 6 hours and 45 minutes, 15 minutes – the longest, 9 hours.

With the figures cast in heavy shadow, the natural desire in us as viewers to identify with the subject through it’s face, forces us to look deeper into that shadow on dark skin to resolve the individual; often leaving only their body language, and clothing to provide important clues to personality or social status. One man’s clothing suggests the profession of day labourer, while another’s pressed white collar and backpack suggests a student.

Within just eighteen plates, Waiting opens a wealth of possible readings into contemporary life in South Africa, while also behaving as a small continuation of David Goldblatt’s work The Transported of KwaNdebele. Those finer details, clues and meanings emerge only when we, as viewers, employ similarly that which each subject was asked to while waiting – patience.

—Jeffrey Ladd

All images courtesy of the artist and Flowers Gallery. © Jason Larkin