Los Angeles–based artist Andrea Bowers describes her intertwined art and activism as acts of bearing witness. In the work that comprised the exhibition Andrea Bowers: #sweetjane, on view earlier this year at the Pomona College Museum of Art and Pitzer College Art Galleries in Claremont, California, she served as a literal witness to the notorious Steubenville, Ohio rape trial, documenting both its testimony and its protestors.1The drawings, photographs, and videos she produces bring to the fore manifold ways in which rape is symptomatic of a larger culture of oppression against women. But they are especially potent in illuminating the fact that anonymity can be a symbolic act of erasure, even when utilized to protect.
Bowers’s “Courtroom Drawings (Steubenville Rape Case, Text Messages Entered As Evidence (2013))” (2014) is one of only two public records of the transcribed text messages that served as the most damning pieces of evidence against the two teenagers convicted of rape in the trial. Comprised of dozens of colored pencil-on-paper drawings and covering three walls of the gallery, it is a difficult work to read in its entirety because of the offhandness and callousness with which the rapists recount, dispute, and finally, deny the assaults.
The young victim’s perspective only comes to us through a few halting texts in which she grapples with learning what happened to her.2 In the drawings, and throughout the trial (at least until the convictions were announced), the media refer to her as Jane Doe. Doe’s anonymity doesn’t enable her to speak freely; instead, it highlights the fine line between protection and re-victimization, as well as the broad stroke that can separate abstraction from empathy. In this case, it functions as a double act of erasure, eradicating her personal narrative and preventing her from speaking on her own behalf, even as it protects her from further threats. Publicly, she is reduced to a symbol of rape, not to mention demonized for jeopardizing the futures of her two assailants, who are portrayed sympathetically in part because they could speak for themselves.3
Complementing “Courtroom Drawings” is “#sweetjane” (2014), a video installation that includes appropriated media footage and billboard-sized photographs of protestors outside the Steubenville courthouse. They are all wearing the Guy Fawkes masks associated with the decentralized group of activists know as Anonymous. In my conversation with Bowers about the exhibition, the artist contrasts their anonymity with that of Doe’s, describing how the masks do more than signal the protestors’ affiliation, they provide a shield:
Once I started going to Steubenville and to some of these protests prior to the trial, I realized how angry people were in the town. The future of their football team was being messed with, and they didn’t want this trial to occur. These young women protesting really needed to be anonymous…[I]t was dangerous to be in Steubenville in that time.4
The Anonymous protestors have some agency unavailable to Jane Doe. By donning the Guy Fawkes masks, the mostly female activists can be physically present to accost the mindset that advocates for football over justice. But they can only do so from behind a visage that reinforces the dominant position—a white man’s—and threatens to erase theirs. The protection they seek by operating from within a collective identity also inadvertently mirrors the conditions of oppression.
To bear witness means to reject the conditions that facilitate anonymity. A recurring trope in Bower’s work is the individual juxtaposed against and rendered visible within the spectacle of large-scale political protest. In the billboard-sized photographs included in “#sweetjane,” Bowers strives to differentiate these women even as they hide their faces. Emphasizing the details that contrast the stark, creepy sameness of the white, goateed masks—the front pocket of a pink hoodie bulging with keys or cell phone and the gloved hands holding a sign with the single word, “Why?”—Bowers refuses to allow them to be interchangeable or inconsequential. The text messages are painstakingly drawn so that the assailant’s disregard is irrefutable. Likewise, these women are writ large in the space of the gallery; the full weight of their presence is registered and felt.
This article revisits an interview with Andrea Bowers that can be heard as Episode 447 on Bad at Sports. An abridged excerpt of the interview can be read at Art Practical.
- #sweetjane was on view at the Pomona College Museum of Art and the Pitzer College Art Galleries from January 21 to April 13, 2014. The title for this article is taken from lyrics to “Sweet Jane,” written in 1970 by Lou Reed for the Velvet Underground.
- There were several assaults over the course of a single night on the young woman who was unconscious through most of them. The full extent of what was done to her was revealed in the following days through tweets, selfies, and videos posted by her assailants.
- On Monday, August 11, 2014, Ma’lik Richmond, one of the convicted rapists, returned to playing football for his high school team after serving nine months of his one-year sentence in juvenile detention. While reported widely, the news garnered barely more than a paragraph from any media outlet, although most noted that Richmond is required to register as a sex offender every six months for the next 20 years.
- From “Interview with Andrea Bowers,” Art Practical.