Artist Collects Garments from Rape and Sexual Assault Victims for Art Project
By: Jenn Terrell, Creator of the Sexism is Real Project
Many were outraged last June when Brock Turner was only sentenced to six months in jail, and only ended up serving three, for rape of an unconscious college student outside a fraternity house on Stanford campus.
What many don’t realize is that most rapists don’t serve jail time at all for their crime. According to RAINN, 97% of rapists don’t spend a day in jail. There are many reasons why this number is so high. One of those is that 54% of rapes are not reported.
Regardless, Kesha Lagniappe, a multiple rape survivor herself, is infuriated at the system and how many rapists walk free even if they are reported. She has decided to create an entire art project based on the number 97 and the significance it holds.
Lagniappe has asked rape and sexual assault victims to donate the clothes or garments they were wearing when they were attacked. She plans to create a 97 foot long fiber installation by hand stitching the garments together.
She already has garments submitted by 11 rape victims. So far only women have contributed to the project and she wants to keep the focus there since 90% of rape victims are women.
“The significance of the garments is that we were wearing them during a horrible time in our lives,” Lagniappe said. “Using the garments to create awareness is a great way to make peace with the outfit while showing how ridiculous it is that most rapists never go to jail for their crimes.”
Lagniappe ended up with more than she originally requested. With each garment came a horrific story to go along with it.
“I recently received a wedding gown from a woman,” she said. “It was the groom's father at the reception drunk. He cornered her in an empty hallway by the bathroom. She is still married to her husband. He doesn't know, and she is extremely uncomfortable around any man in his family, especially his dad, but even his brothers. They are all very forceful, insensitive, sexist and patriarchal masculine figures. She said she even has had to check her husband, and he's getting better.”
While stories like this are disheartening, Lagniappe says it has helped her connect and be there for several victims of rape and sexual assault.
“And sometimes I get more stories than clothes,” she added. “Women walk up to me even at work and it's like ‘Hey! I know you! I'm following your project! It happened to me by [this man] when I was [this age] and I'm really glad you are doing this. I just didn't keep the clothes I was wearing or they would be yours for the piece.’”
Lagniappe said she found inspiration for the project nine years ago after a difficult break up with a mentally and physically abusive boyfriend.
“He even raped me in my own bed when I refused to have sex with him because I was so tired,” she said. “After the break up I scribbled a poem down in a journal and called it ‘A Memory Foam Mattress With the Wrong Kind of Memories.’ The poem was referring to the bad memories and damage of solace and peace in my own home, my safe place.”
After thinking about the mattress for some time, Lagniappe started scribbling down similar thoughts and most of them included clothes.
“The clothes seemed the most significant and the idea remained in my journal and in the back of my mind for nine years,” she said. “I feel I was not ready to make this piece or openly talk about it until now.”
Lagniappe was not only raped by a past boyfriend, she was also raped by more than one of her relatives over a period of time. After reaching out to her immediate family about it, the police were notified. After meeting with a policeman, it was decided by the policeman and one her parents that the proper way to handle the situation was to convince one of the relatives to issue an apology to Lagniappe for years of rape and sexual assault. Lagniappe was outraged.
Years later she said her project has helped her and hopes it helps others to heal after such traumatic events.
“It is important to me because it has given me an outlet to talk and express not only things that have happened to me, but assaults that happen all too often in our patriarchal rape culture,” she said. “These were things I was always told not to discuss, because it can make others uncomfortable. Not only that, but it has brought me immense healing and appeasement. I also hope it brings healing and atonement for the women who have donated clothing items and told me what happened or any woman that encounters the project.”
She also explains that there is symbolism in the garments themselves.
“Visually it is a way for me to reclaim my body and space. Clothing, to me, correlates to one's body. It is armor almost. The length and size of the installation is so large because that's a way for me to claim my space back. When installed, I hope all women can feel a sense of liberation and ownership of themselves again.”
Lagniappe said so far the biggest challenge has been learning to sew to create the fiber installation.
“My favorite part so far has definitely learning how to sew,” she said. “I am not a seamstress but I know a few things that I learned from my grandmother as a child. Painting and collage are my forte, but I knew the only way to do the piece was by sewing it together. There is something very feminine and therapeutic about hand-stitching and sewing and I just felt that was the only way it could be done to get the point across.”
Lagniappe has taught herself how to sew using various stitches by watching YouTube tutorials. The artist said the project is also an homage of going against bigotry and abuse that she feels runs rampant in society and particularly the south.
“I grew up in Forrest City, Arkansas which is in Eastern Arkansas, the Delta. Every social construct associated with the South I faced growing up and within my own home and family members; these dynamics included strict Christian faith, white supremacy, racism against my friends, partners and darker relatives, homophobia, sexism, and gender roles. It was when I went against the grain and everything I was taught to be as a white woman from the South that I really found my liberation and purpose in life.”
Lagniappe has received lots of positive feedback on the project from several victims. So far she has only received negative feedback from one man.
“He kept asking why men weren’t included because they get raped too,” she said. “It was hard making him understand the entirety of rape culture built by the patriarchy against women. It's not only rape, but the victim blaming, cat calling, the constant exuding of power even in their own space, etc. Not that I was invalidating him or men being raped or abused, because I know it happens, but I also expressed that I'm telling it from a woman's perspective because I am a woman. If he wants men being raped to be addressed, he can be that voice and catalyst.”
Lagniappe said most men she keeps close to her understand boundaries and how to respect the vision, space and work of something that isn't for them.
The installment currently hangs in Lagniappe’s living room where she works on it as pieces are donated. Lagniappe hopes to install the piece outdoors once it is complete. She imagines it draped through trees and around different women so they are all connected by the installment. She also mentioned that she would be interested in showing it in a gallery so long as it is shown connected by women.
She often photographs the piece in various symbolic locations. She recently took photos of the installment hanging from a dumpster in reference to the viral Brock Turner case mentioned above and posted a photo of it on her personal Facebook page with the caption:
“Two Swedish graduate students were cycling by the Kappa Alpha fraternity on the Stanford Campus about 1 am, on January 18, 2015, when they spotted Turner behind a dumpster on top of an unconscious woman.”
Overall, Lagniappe said working on the project has been an artist and therapeutic experience.
“It has inspired me to heal and to push myself. I had to learn how to sew and really step out of my comfort zone. Talking to the women that donated pieces to me, has taught me that I am not alone. I have felt alone in this most of my life because of my silence and to figure out I am not alone and I have support is such a relief.”