Laia Abril Grapples with Rape Culture

Misogyny has blighted our societies for a long time. One artist’s longterm project ‘A History of Misogyny’ has only just begun. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, it could not be more timely.

© Laia Abril, from ‘A History of Misogyny, Chapter Two: On Rape Culture’

Laia Abril’s A History of Misogyny is a multi-sensory historical dialogue about the precariousness of women’s rights and freedoms. Based upon deep research and her own profound understanding of the lived experiences of women, the project melds irrefutable evidence with direct images and personal stories. Abril recently received the Tim Hetherington Trust Visionary Award, for her project A History of Misogyny, Chapter Two: On Rape Culture.

A History of Misogyny was launched in 2016 with Chapter One: On Abortion at Les Rencontres d’Arles photography festival for which Abril created an exhibition featuring a map of consequences of the lack of access to abortion. A book was produced too. Abril recontextualizes common information to stir audiences’ emotions and give meaning to the statistics.

Objects, scientific images, photo novels, archives, reconstructions, vernacular images, audio and video installations are all components of Abril’s artistic toolbox. She uses all media and means necessary to recreate and retrace women’s stories. In Chapter Two Abril takes on our “outrageous culture of rape” and, with the Visionary Award, she continues Tim Hetherington’s legacy and belief that storytellers are important agents of change.

Vantage asked Laia Abril and Hetherington Trust executive director Stephen Mayes to comment on what this occasion signals.

Vantage: Laia, when you conceived A History of Misogyny how did you decide on the chapters?

Laia Abril (LA): Beginning in 2015, I wanted to put together years of research with a new intention of visualizing the different systems of control, the society has towards women. I pictured seven chapters.

I wasn’t decided on the focus of each chapter and I knew seven might have been too many. On Abortion wasn’t even one of the original chapters. Probably not all issues will take the form of chapters, but I will find a way to tell these stories, as parallel series. My process is organic: the way I visualize, create, and research is linked to my process. I’m learning from society and the audiences. The work is constantly adapting for what I believe makes sense in each moment.

Laia Abril’s Instagram post on the occasion of the verdict in the trial of five men accused of gang raping an 18-year-old in Pamplona, Spain. The court found the men guilty of “sexual abuse,” but cleared them of the more serious charge of rape.

On Rape Culture was born due to a mix of circumstances. Rape was already very much latent in Chapter One, but the decision to make it into its own chapter came from the hundreds of stories I heard from close friends and anonymous women, “realizing” they might actually had been abused or raped in the past, due to #MeToo movement forcing us to think about what is consent and what we had “normalized” as a society. These reflections, the anger coming from current miscarriages of justice, the urge to understand why this keeps happening and why it started to happen in the first place, how as a society we have normalized sexual violence… all that made me focus on the consequences of that systematization.

Left: fish bladder condom. The earliest prophylactics were typically made from catfish and sturgeon bladders, and used until the 19th century. Cleaned, split and dried lamb intestines were also popular. Since neither material is very elastic, such early condoms had to be secured to the penis with a ribbon. They were also expensive. After each use, the condoms were washed, carefully dried, and rubbed with oil and bran to prevent cracking. Right: soap and enema syringes. Thick-walled cylinders with plungers have been in use as intestinal cleaners since the 15th century. Since the 1920s, these have been adapted as abortion instruments, used to flush the uterus with soapy or astringent liquid. Because they have other uses, such syringes satisfy the most important requirement for every clandestine abortion tool: They raise no suspicions. However, this tool’s hygienic and medical inadequacies, as well as the dangerous substances often used as a flushing liquid, have cost many women their lives. © Laia Abril, from ‘A History of Misogyny, Chapter One: On Abortion’.

V: Can you describe your method of working on this project?

LA: The rape schedule is a concept that entails all the things that women need to consider and do in order to not get raped. In a society that teaches “don’t get raped” instead of “don’t rape”, the cultural beliefs about sexual assault lead to victim-blaming attitudes and perceptions. For a long time, people have been surrounded with stories, images, language, and other everyday inputs perpetuating women as second-class citizens, and validating the objectification of the female body as a property.

Legislation is still problematic because of the arduous process in gaining respect and validation as a survivor. By scrutinizing, conceptualizing and visualizing rape myths across victims’ testimonies, the project aims to call out the normalization of sexual harassment in the worldwide society. I’m looking at rape culture by exploring how concepts of consent, power, and law, relate to the constructions of masculinity and femininity over time.

LA: I collaborate with researchers, stringers and experts. I document the cases, collect testimonies, objects and utensils, data, materials, vernacular and historical images. I write, photograph, design, and conceptualize an installation that makes the viewer enter into a range of emotions, to understand causes and consequences, and learn about laws and flood of the capitalistic patriarchy were all came from.

V: As you research and talk to women who share your stories, how do you cope with emotional weight of these stories?

LA: Honestly, this is the biggest problem I’ve been facing lately. At this point, my struggle is bigger than I had expected. It’s been hard to digest. I often compare myself to a filter of terrible stories, so I create something people can digest. And I reflect on it.

Editor’s note: It’s helpful to understand Abril’s commitment to, and anxieties about, work. We include the following excerpt from Abril’s letter to the Hetherington Visionary Award jury as an example of how we all must follow through and trust in our original ideas.

— April 26th, 2018, Barcelona
This morning I woke up having my project On Rape Culture, shortlisted for the Visionary Award. I’m not going to lie to you: it’s been hard to find the strength to continue my project, A History of Misogyny, after working on the first chapter for more than two years, documenting, analyzing and conceptualizing the repercussions of not having access to reliable abortion procedures in the world. For those who might know a bit about my work, I’m an extremely passionate and hard worker — more than 7 projects in 7 years, including 5 books, might be a prove of that. But after delivering the first chapter On Abortion and digesting all the terrible news we had to face in the past year, I have been wondering if my work is ever going to make a difference.
Just before proposing a project for this grant I had a revelation: the second chapter — On Rape Culture — it felt too relevant to not face it. I’ve been researching since then — which is the base of my methodology. Every day, every story, every injustice, is getting more and more to my nerves. What makes [this award] significant for me [would be] the support. The strength. The ratification of something that I already know but I’m struggling to remember lately, which is I have the responsibility to create this body of work.
On Rape Culture isn’t just another project on rape. I want to understand. I want people to understand. To face the consequences of banalizing sexual violence. The collective consequences of diminishing the outrageous epidemic of rape. In order to (understand), I believe that looking back, connecting and empathizing, is the solution.
It’s being hard to understand how I’m going to be able to digest all that and create something bearable, that doesn’t just frustrate us, but helps us move forward. And I will get there, it is part of my process. I always do.
Left: Magdalena, portrait, right: Marta, portrait. © Laia Abril, from ‘A History of Misogyny, Chapter One: On Abortion’.

V: Stephen, can you share with us why has the Trust and jury chose Laia’s project as a winner? Why do you think it’s important to support her work now, both in terms of subject matter and in her methodology?

Stephen Mayes: Tim Hetherington experienced life very powerfully — he never really considered himself an observer because he embraced every situation so fully that he became part of it. If the situation was joyous he was the funniest person in the room, or if it was quiet he would delve deep in meditation and if it was rough he would feel the pain of everyone around him. And from this came a deep frustration: how to share his rich experiences with others? Postcards didn’t cut it and having studied English (and Classics) at Oxford University he found the limitations of language, which led him to pick up a camera and from that to develop multimedia and video.

Tim’s purpose was never defined by the tools he used (he wasn’t “a writer” or “a photographer”), the tools were a symptom of his need to bring his knowledge to others using any techniques he could develop. Knowledge can be a terrible burden but ignorance is even more destructive and Tim was on a perpetual mission to channel his knowledge, always in the hope that life would improve for the people he worked with and for the audiences he addressed.

Human incubator. On November 27, 2014, an Irish woman in her twenties was admitted to hospital with headaches and nausea. Two days later, the mother of two suffered a fall and was later found unresponsive. On December 3, she was declared clinically brain dead. She was 15 weeks pregnant at the time, and was placed on life support against her family’s wishes. On December 26, after hearing that the foetus had little chance of survival, the Irish high court finally ruled that her life support machine could be turned off. Under the 1983 8th amendment of the Irish constitution, an unborn child has the same rights as its mother. © Laia Abril, from ‘A History of Misogyny, Chapter One: On Abortion’.

The Visionary Award attempts to continue this process by offering support and resources to artists and journalists working at the furthest edge of the media and by so doing inspire others to make their own experiments and to reward audiences for looking deeper into the world beyond our immediate experience. So many of the nominated artists fulfilled all of this and more, making the selection process as painful as it was exciting — every project that made it a step forward resulted in others being left behind. So the guidance to the jury is simple: we’re not a rich Trust and we asked the jurors to place our limited resources where it would make the greatest difference. The process of reviewing the nominations is not an exploration of quality (after a brief elimination round all the remaining work is excellent), nor even of the artist’s commitment (there are no dilettantes in the nominations!). Instead the discussion turned to what work will not be possible without the Trust’s support. And when completed, what work is most likely to have the greatest real world impact on people’s lives.

We realize that these are impossible questions, but Laia’s project A History of Misogyny, Chapter Two: Rape Culture clearly meets all the criteria. Laia herself brings an extraordinary combination of passion and intellectual rigor to her work; it’s clear from Chapter One: On Abortion that she can surmount insurmountable problems; she has the expressive power to make a visceral and convincing argument on an issue that thrives on ignorance, fear and mistrust. Laia will make a powerful communication that might just spark a discussion with many who might otherwise be resistant to change. Using different words every member of the jury expressed confidence in Laia’s longsighted vision that reaches beyond conventional channels on a subject that has always been vitally important, but with current public interest running high it’s great to bring a different voice to the discussion.

V: Laia, what do you hope your work will achieve?

LA: I have always put the audience in the first place, almost in every project. I think this time, in order to make it work, I need to think first on what I want to do myself. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with understanding the cruelty of a system based on fear and anger.

It could be that, for this chapter, we need less data, less information and more emotions, and do not stop ourselves at the anger stage, that we try to go deeper into the range of situations, and that we may find some light and clarity within such a dark topic.

Laia Abril is a multidisciplinary artist working with photography, text, video and sound. Her work focuses on telling intimate, uneasy and hidden stories related to sexuality, eating disorders and gender equality. Abril produces her projects across platforms as installations, books, web docs, and films. She is the author of several books: Thinspiration (self-published, 2012), Tediousphilia (Musée de l’Elysée, 2014), The Epilogue (Dewi Lewis, 2014), Lobismuller (RM, 2016) and On Abortion (Dewi Lewis, 2017). Follow Laia on Instagram and Twitter.

Stephen Mayes is the Executive Director of the Tim Hetherington Trust. Stephen has written, lectured and broadcast extensively on the ethics and realities of photographic practice.

The Visionary Award is designed to foster innovative approaches to storytelling and seeks out visual artists and journalists whose thinking and process reaches beyond the limitations of conventional media practice to create engaging and dynamic communications using any appropriate technology to create and distribute stories that inspire audiences and bring a fresh understanding of the chosen subject. In addition to the £20,000 cash grant it provides mentorship to help expand the scope of the project beyond initial expectations. Explore all the shortlisted work here and get in touch with the Trust if you are interested in any of the projects.