The degradation of women has been prevalent throughout history. One of the earliest and most familiar examples was the story of Sara Baartman, a Khoi-San woman.
In 1810 Baartman was lured to Europe with the promise of a job; instead, she was displayed as a freak show attraction and in the last four years of her life, she was subjected to severe humiliation.
Two centuries later women still face the horror of being raped, mutilated, trafficked and abused. Sara Baartman could not speak up against her abusers and millions of South African women today struggle to do the same. Many women live with the emotional scars of abuses and they suffer in silence.
This women’s month visual artist and UJ lecturer, Heidi Janice Mielke, displayed her artwork ‘The Sentinels: Guardian of the Spirits of Abused Women’ in the corridors of UJ’s main building at APK.
By definition, a sentinel is a guard or a protector. The symbolism in the art is for society to stand and keep watch over victims of violence. These sentinels show how courageous and powerful women can be.
The art series is aimed at initiating a dialogue on crimes against women and challenging the social status of women in South Africa.
“I am not a policewoman neither a nurse,” Mielke said. “I am a woman so for me the only way I could spark a debate was with this series, ‘the sentinels’.”
Mielke paired images of her naked body with newspaper clippings from stories about women who have been victimized by men. “I created an alter-ego by using my body because I felt helpless in our country. As women we cannot do or say something to stop this crime,” the artist said.
This series pays tribute to all the South African woman whose pain and suffering led to a national outcry. Mielke’s art features the stories of Duduzile Zozo, Karabo Mokoena, Anene Booysen and Franziska Blochliger to name a few.
Mielke believes that the artwork displayed at the A and B Ring sections of the main building in APK could only make a meaningful statement during women’s month. The artist feels that if the art were to be displayed permanently it would cultivate ignorance as students would see it on a daily basis and get used to it.
It seems her art has had the shock factor that Mielke hoped for, as we discovered after asking one student how they felt. “It makes me uncomfortable only because we are not accustomed to seeing naked pictures of women [on] campus but it gets the message across,” said Kudzai Denhere-Moyo, a student at UJ.
Mielke says that the decision to use her own body was an attempt as an act of solidarity.
“Reading [about] these cases of how women are helpless gave me the inspiration. I used myself because I did not want to re-victimise the victims or use the image of someone else. I wanted to create a space to tell the victims that they are not forgotten,” she said
Mielke’s artwork is a way of inspiring women who are victims to speak out. Mielke says her stiff body symbolises the dead victims in their coffins. Just because they are dead, it does not mean they are forgotten. This is why she included the gruesome details of how some of them were murdered.
UJ continues to celebrate women this month by hosting seminars on the topics of gender-based violence and women empowerment.