International art sends message of strength

By Amanda Murphy

The exhibition, “Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women and Art,” describes many aspects of what it means to be a woman in modern day America. The exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., displays a variety of artwork from 29 contemporary artists from 25 countries.

On March 8, Columbia sponsored a discussion with four of the featured artists—, three women and one man—about their art, gender issues and the relation between the two.

From installation artists to photographers, the artists at the panel discussion—Patricia Evans, Susan Plum, Jane Quick-to-See Smith and Hank Willis Thomas—represent a range of media while addressing violence against women and the rights of safety, security

and justice.

“Art has the ability to make good on the democratic process by supporting equitable participation, engaging a population that represents the full breadth of our society,” said Jane Saks, founding executive director of the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media. “It can be transformative, creating systemic change on many scales and can be one of the most radical ways to engage in democracy.”

Evans is a Chicago-based documentary photographer who was beaten and sexually assaulted more than 20 years ago while running on the lakefront on a Saturday afternoon. Her work shown in the exhibition is an accumulation of police photographs of her face and photographs of the site where it occurred.

“[The photography project] was an effort to survive and find a way forward with my life and work,” Evans said.

The work in the exhibit by installation and performance artist Plum is inspired by similar tribulations of women. Plum spent most of her life in Mexico, and some of her work in the exhibition was inspired by women she met who have lost their daughters and other female relatives to kidnapping and sexual assault.

Sexual violence is not the only topic dealt with. Thomas is a conceptual photo artist who alters vintage and modern advertising to reveal the flaws portrayed in black society. The piece on display is a dress company’s advertisement from the 1970s. When all of the text is removed, a very different social message is apparent, Thomas said.

The artists also gave their input on the exhibition’s name, some of them agreeing it represents it well and others disagreeing with the controversial title.

“It’s a fairly evocative title for an issue that is not always out in the open, in public and not on a visible path,” Evans said.

The panelists discussed the reasons their work was chosen to be in the exhibition. Smith, who creates art dealing with the suppression of American Indians, spoke of how honored she feels to be part of this traveling exhibition carrying such a powerful and important message.

“I think [the message] of the collective of the show should make people leave with a higher awareness of women,” Smith said.

The artists spoke of how one of the most unique attributes of the exhibition is the cultural diversity on display. The artists agreed the broad spectrum of gender issues helps create creating a stronger, more apparent message.

“One of the most interesting things is that it’s going to different cultures and countries,” Plum said. “It will be interesting to see how [the exhibition] grows and expands this awareness.”