At a time when there has been an intense, nationwide look at sexual assault, particularly on college and university campuses, Hannah Brancato ’07, ’11 (Fiber BFA, Community Arts MFA) and Rebecca Nagle ’08 (Fiber BFA) are directly confronting the issue. Co-founders of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, the pair is seeking to not only support survivors of sexual violence, but also to change culture and policies surrounding the violent act. Their efforts have been felt nationwide-going viral during a provocative social media campaign and literally blanketing city streets and green spaces across the country through the large-scale, collaborate fiber piece, The Monument Quilt.
Winners of the 2016 Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, a prestigious honor that includes a $25,000 fellowship for artists living and working in the Greater Baltimore region and the opportunity to exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the pair recites staggering numbers when discussing their reasons for getting involved. For example, as Nagle pointed out, “one in three women, one in six men, and over half of all transgender people will experience sexual violence as children.” She added, “Rape is not a special interest issue that affects a few people, rape is a social justice problem that affects everyone.”
Brancato and Nagle’s first joined to confront the issue after a series of events that included the finish of Brancato’s work with House of Ruth, an intimate partner violence center and Nagle’s completion of a script for a satirical play about her experience as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Around the same time, conflict arose within Baltimore arts community when a comedian made a joke about rape. Their response turned into Force: On the Culture of Rape, which exhibited at Baltimore’s Current Gallery and prompted local artists to have a more public dialogue about rape and the way it was treated in their own community.
The pair soon expanded their collaboration by creating FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, an artist collective and activist effort which today is comprised of a 30-member, national team. FORCE quickly began raising awareness around issues of sexual violence and consent, gaining national attention in 2012 from their Pink Loves Consent project, a spoof of a Victoria’s Secret campaign. Pink Loves Consent-which included a website promoting a line of consent-themed underwear, a live Twitter chat during the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, and a panty drop where underwear emblazoned with “no means no” and “ask first” where placed in stores across the country-went viral, spreading rapidly across social media and garnering a slew of press coverage.
The success of that campaign prompted Brancato and Nagle to think on an even larger scale. In 2013, they began working with thousands of survivors to help tell their stories through art, a venture which culminated in the national art project, The Monument Quilt.
Exhibiting across the country and encompassing more than 1,000 collected quilt squares inscribed with the words of survivors, The Monument Quilt acts as a vehicle for creating public space where survivors of sexual violence can heal. This past April, the Monument Quilt was spread across two blocks in the Station North Arts & Entertainment District-the center of Baltimore City and in the heart of MICA’s graduate community-during a month-long awareness campaign called Not Alone Baltimore. As streets were closed, personal stories from survivors blanketed the thoroughfare so that hundreds of quilt squares from contributors throughout the nation spelled out “NOT ALONE.”
Brancato and Nagle contend that by creating public space for survivors, the project challenges and reshapes public understanding of how United States policy and culture contribute to the widespread occurrence of sexual violence. The pair credits psychiatrist Judith Herman as their inspiration for the Monument Quilt. In her book, Trauma and Recovery, Herman says, “The most common trauma of women remains confined to the sphere of private life, without formal recognition or restitution from the community. There is no public monument for rape survivors.”
“Quilts are used as a vehicle to send a message,” said Annet Couwenberg, a faculty member in MICA’s Fiber Department. “It creates a place of the communal healer and creates a place where people use art to talk about difficult issues.”
Nagle added, “It builds a new culture where survivors are publicly supported, not shamed. Public shame isolates survivors. Isolated, we cannot come together, we cannot organize, and we cannot create change.”
Since 2013, the Monument Quilt has displayed at 22 cities nationwide. In late 2016, the quilt will tour the West coast, finishing with a display along the border with Mexico, and in October 2017, the Monument Quilt will spread across the National Mall in Washington, DC, along with a simultaneous display in Mexico City.
The pair have also received a $30,000 PNC Transformative Art Prize from the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. In addition, FORCE will continue to gather survivors together to work on public projects thanks to a fellowship from the Open Society Institute.