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Culture

Where Words Aren’t Enough

Words often don't suffice to express the horror of sexual violence. A German art exhibit wants to make this problem more accessible, and strike a chord where language can’t get through.

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Every case of sexual abuse destroys a child's soul

A pink rocking horse totters -- an idyllic symbol of childhood. A pink picket fence blocks the path, each board has the words noch immer or “still” painted on it. But something is not quite right. The rocking is far too fast and mechanical.

Small card-size calendars line the wall for visitors to pick up. Where there's usually advertising for a bank or a company on the back of the cards are the words: “Still, the five-year-old girl chokes on her father’s cock.”

The art works are part of an exhibition on sexual violence against girls and women by the German artists Renate Bühn, Maria Mathieu and Heike Pich, currently on display in Cologne.

“With our exhibit, we wanted to make this topic very clearly visible,” Pich told DW-WORLD.

The artists had worked with sexually abused women and girls for several years.

“It eventually became clear to us that the spoken word has boundaries,” Pich said. “Since all three of us were also artists, we thought this would be a form to reach people beyond words. It is a means to affect people in a different way than just knowing the figures.”

Giving women courage

The figures are disturbing. According to the Federal Criminal Police Office BKA in Wiesbaden, there were 15,430 reported cases of sexual abuse against children in Germany in 2003. But child protection organizations estimate that the number of unknown cases reaches 200,000 to 300,000 per year in Germany.

Eine Installation aus der Ausstellung Was sehen Sie, Frau Lot?

"2000=100=15=3=10=2" by Renate Bühn. Out of 2,000 perpetrators, only two end up in jail

The traveling exhibition has been underway since 2001 and is on its tenth leg here in Cologne. The artists said they want to confront the public with the topic of sexual abuse in the hope that more will be done to deal with this issue.

“But we also want to give victims of sexual abuse courage,” Bühn said.

And that they do. Frauke Mahr from the girls' lobby group Mädchenhaus Köln is one of the exhibit's co-organizers. She said visitors are very struck by the display.

“Women who themselves experienced sexual violence, no matter when, said the way this exhibit deals with the topic made them feel especially understood and appropriately portrayed," Mahr said. "I have the feeling that this is something liberating for these women.”

A theological responsibility

Cologne's Protestant Trinitatis Church is hosting the exhibit “Was sehen Sie, Frau Lot?” or “What do you see, Mrs. Lot?” The title is a reference to the Biblical figure of Lot, who had settled in Sodom and received a warning of its destruction. As he fled with his family, his wife, disobeying God’s orders, looked back at the city and was turned into a pillar of salt.

Lot and his two virgin daughters went to live in a cave in the mountains. The daughters proceed to give him wine and have incestuous relations with him, each one bearing his child.

"I had heard this story in my childhood and knew that something wasn't right about it," Mathieu said. According to the artists, the disempowerment of the mother precedes the sexual abuse of the daughters.

Pastor Christina Schlarp from Cologne’s Federation of Protestant Churches said there are many theologians who do not believe the story as it's portrayed in the Bible.

"The father more likely raped his daughters and this has been glossed over and obscured," she said.

Eine Installation aus der Ausstellung Was sehen Sie, Frau Lot?

Heike Pich's untitled work illustrates how sexual abuse shatters childhood

For this reason, the Church had a responsibility to closely examine this issue.

“There are theological roots to violence against women and girls, which we have to work out and expose in order to overcome this violence,” Schlarp said.

The church setting also served another purpose.

“We want to use public space and reach people who would normally not visit an exhibit on this issue,” Mathieu said. Past venues have included city halls, vocational schools and museums.

Leaving a deeper mark

Political support for battling sexual abuse is not lacking. One of the exhibit's patrons, Renate Augstein from the Federal Ministry for Women and Youth, said the government is very active through campaigns and education measures.

Erster ökumenischer Kirchentag in Berlin

The Church needs to expose the violence against girls and women

"There is a lot of material on this topic, so that is not the weak point," she said. "But I've often experienced that paper is gladly accepted, but rarely read," said Augstein. "For the most part, it can't leave a deeper mark."

Art, on the other hand, can do this.

"This is why an artistic debate on sexual violence is so important," she said.

Statistics and facts alone can not present a complete picture of what sexual abuse entails. The artists and organizers hope that through the artwork, people will see the effects of sexual abuse more clearly and do more to reduce its occurrence.

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