Local student artist Ana Pearse uses photography, sculptures, and installations to speak up about sexual harassment, assault, and abuse.
Pearse, a fifth-year photography major at Oregon State University, recently had a couple of her projects featured in a senior exhibition installation at Fairbanks Hall. Due to COVID guidelines, the exhibition can be viewed virtually.
The first project included in the exhibition, titled “#ustoo,” is split into three categories: Places, Weapons, and What Were You Wearing? Using photography, Pearse explores the real experiences of survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse by documenting various places the crimes occurred, the weapons and self-defense mechanisms the women use in their daily lives, and what survivors were wearing when the assault happened.
The places documented in the project vary from a bedroom to a freshman dorm room; weapons from car keys to brass knuckles; and clothing from sweatpants and a tank top to denim shorts and a long sleeve. Pearse has been working on the project for a couple years and is continuing to add to it.
“‘#ustoo’ documents the normalization and prevalence of the sexual harassment, assault, and abuse of women in today’s society,” Pearse explained.
Pearse interviews survivors and uses their stories anonymously. Not only did Pearse want to humanize the experiences of these women, but she also wanted to address topics like rape culture and victim-blaming.
“It was mainly to document this everyday-ness of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse, especially in regard to women because it is such a normalized thing,” Pearse said.
219 Cotton Swabs
The second project featured in the exhibition is a sculptural installation called “219 Cotton Swabs.” The artwork is based on a report Pearse read about 219 untested rape kits being destroyed by police departments across Minnesota.
When rape kits are destroyed, a retest can’t be done, and the destruction of a rape kit often means a conviction can’t occur and that police can’t link the crimes of serial rapists. The cotton swabs are about 6 inches tall and were sewn to a large, white piece of fabric. Pearse used fabric to represent how clothing is also often used as evidence in rape kits.
“I made 219 little clay cotton swabs to represent the cotton swabs that are actually used in sexual assault forensic exams to speak upon the fact that each of these kits that were destroyed were a person and they were each treated like their story didn’t matter,” Pearse explained.
Pearse has also worked on other projects throughout her time at OSU.
In 2020, she completed a project called “A Woman’s Body,” which displays the disordered eating and diet culture which often affect women. The project features photos of women and their insecurities, with handwritten statements from each subject about the pressure they feel from society to look a certain way.
Pearse has completed a project exploring the Violence Against Women Act, which was signed into law in 1994 and expired in Feb. 2019. The bill hasn’t been reinstated because it seeks to prevent past stalkers and abusers from obtaining guns. She created a banner with the bill number and a powerful statement, “Protect women, not guns.”
Currently, Pearse is working on a photography project which explores places that people avoid due to fear of being sexually harassed, assaulted, or trafficked.
Sexual harassment, assault, and abuse are not talked about enough in the media, Pearse believes, and this is why she has dedicated her art to such topics. She was inspired by speaking with women in her life about their own experiences with sexual assault and found that it was often not a question of if they had experienced it, but when.
Giving a Voice to Survivors
This is alarmingly common in the United States, where according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, an American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds. The majority of those who experience sexual violence in the U.S. are under 30, and one out of every six American women has experienced an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
Pearse said she not only wants to educate people with her artwork but help them understand how ingrained sexual assault culture is in our society while also giving a voice to survivors.
“I think that’s the main reason why I want to focus on these things in my work is to not only raise awareness, but give a voice to those people who have never felt like they were able to talk about their issues without backlash,” she said.
Pearse is graduating soon and will be taking two gap years before pursuing a master’s degree in contemporary art history and photography. She plans to continue working on projects that center around women and sexual violence in the meantime.
When looking at her work, Pearse encourages audiences to have an open mind and be receptive to learning about these issues.
“That’s one thing that I always hope after people see my work,” Pearse said, “is that they’re more interested in becoming more aware of the issue and hopefully they do more research into the issue if they don’t know about it, or just stand up for people and believe survivors’ stories.”
To learn more about Pearse and view her projects, visit her website.
By Cara Nixon