By sharing our stories, we make our mark – we create change.
The older she gets, the more she knows what men can do. The Victorian artist and feminist Amanda Firenze doesn’t back away from talking about what we don’t want to hear. Paper Women aims to showcase hundreds of women’s experiences of sexual and emotional abuse in an artwork forming a chain of women.
The project is a ‘coming soon’ art exhibition next year and will be held online and feature at women’s events such as Reclaim the Night. The concept began last December and launched as an online project in January. It relies on anonymous stories of sexual and emotional abuse submitted by women internationally.
Some online submissions have included poetry and journal entries. These submitted pieces of personal writing will be displayed inside a paper woman, each with their own story.
“The scope of what women collectively deal with in our communities, our countries and our world is not fully understood or recognised. With that, it is never going to change,” says Amanda from her Portalington studio on Wadawurrung Country.
“I believe that writing down our stories, or recording our experiences, is the first step women can take towards making their mark, getting back some of their power and changing our world,” says Amanda.
In many ways, Amanda started the project for the women in her life who have shared their stories. Paper Women is her way of taking her fury and frustration of what women have experienced and turning it into action. Amanda having experienced abuse herself, also wrote how she knows she’s one of the lucky ones because she has never been raped.
“The stories and experiences are teaching me so much – they are contextualising my own experiences and making me realise that none of us are really lucky. We shouldn’t see lack of abuse as a measure of luck,” she said.
In Australia, one in six women have experienced physical or sexual violence, and one in four experience emotional abuse. It’s a statistic that Amanda says doesn’t tell the whole story when you combine it with women’s tendency not to speak up.
“I think the scale of men’s abuse of women is much greater than that anyone yet realises,” says Amanda.
Kimi, Amanda’s cousin, heard about the new art project and wanted to offer her voice.
“I think even by today’s standards; there is not enough awareness [..] I feel that whilst I was growing up, I was conditioned by my peers and certain authority figures in my life to accept an outdated belief system where shame is placed on the woman for attracting the abuse and scandal as if there must be something obvious the woman is doing wrong,” says Kimi.
Karenlee, a non-anonymous contributor to the project, had previously written pieces for Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art and responded to a callout on an Australian writers’ group page. She was intrigued by the visual aspect of Paper Women.
“I remember staring for a long time at the linked women and thinking about the beautiful empowerment represented there. I knew that the anonymity would be a deciding factor for many women who might weigh up possible involvement, and I quietly shared some details with a few friends who I thought might appreciate the opportunity to contribute,” says Karenlee.
With a background in science, Amanda has a habit to look for patterns and noticed how many women talk about being lucky because it could have been worse for them. They talk about how they were lucky it was only emotional abuse and not domestic violence. Or how they were only hit and never raped. Or how they were raped but not killed, so they are better off than others, as Kimi describes.
“This was an opportunity to sit with myself and explore just how deeply impacted I have been by my sexual trauma experiences, and for the first time to take their measure. I think most women tend to minimise their experiences. On reflection, reading back over my words made me sad that I should consider myself ‘lucky’. By the time I finished writing it all down, I felt emboldened by it. I began to talk to close friends about my experiences and ended up with a support network I didn’t even know was there,” says Kimi.
For Karenlee, Amanda’s project gives women the opportunity to give a ‘voice’ to their experiences with no fear of judgement or reprisal.
“Many women – myself included – will play down abuse they have experienced because it is not ‘as bad’ as what other women have experienced and so the anonymity provides that shield as well,” she says.
Paper Women is already causing change. Many of the women who submitted anonymous stories have contacted Amanda to tell her how much writing down their stories has helped them. One woman used the word “cathartic”, some have become new friends, and others have publicly revealed their stories for the first time.
“I want women to know they matter. I want women to know that they are not alone. I want them to get back the power that was stolen from them when they were abused. I want them to experience the power that is generated when women collectively stand together,” says Amanda.
The exhibition for Paper Women is scheduled for March next year at The Dome (Geelong Library & Heritage Centre). Amanda hopes that other regional libraries, councils and neighbourhood centres will exhibit the artwork in some shape or form. She also plans to make Paper Women into an artist’s book, with the intention that these will form part of a public collection.