The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S.

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The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S.
Curated by: Monika Fabijanska

John Jay College of Criminal Justice
860 Eleventh Avenue (btw 58th & 59th Street)
10019 New York
September 4th, 2018 - November 2nd, 2018
Opening: September 12th, 2018 5:30 PM - 8:30 PM

Mon-Fri 1-5 or by appointment


The Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY presents a groundbreaking exhibition The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S. It will be on view at 860 Eleventh Avenue (between 58th & 59th Street, ground floor), New York, NY 10019, from September 4 to November 2, 2018, Mon-Fri 10-6. The opening reception will be held on Wednesday, September 12, from 5:30-8:30 PM. The exhibition, curated by Monika Fabijanska,will be accompanied by a catalog and public programming, including a symposium on October 3, 5-9 PM in the Moot Court, John Jay College.

The Un-Heroic Actis a concentrated survey of works by a diverse roster of artists representing three generations– and including Jenny Holzer, Suzanne Lacy, Ana Mendieta, Senga Nengudi, Yoko Ono, and Kara Walker– which aims to fill a gap in the history of art, where the subject of rape has been represented by countless historical depictions by male artists, called ‘heroic acts’ by Susan Brownmiller. What makes women’s works radically different is the focus not on the action or drama, but on the lasting psychological devastation of the victim: her suffering, silence, shame, and loneliness. Recent works also address regaining control over the victim’s sexuality and psyche and reclaiming the cultural narrative. Often strikingly beautiful, these worksare rarely shown or their true meaning is obscured.

Fabijanska’s research shows that rape constitutes one of central themes in women’s art, and the aim of the exhibition is to analyze its rich iconography in all mediums: drawing, painting, sculpture and installation, photography, video, film, new media, performance, and social practice. Since she originated the project in 2015, the curator has identified more than 250 works about rape – just by the most acclaimedartists, from Käthe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo to Louise Bourgeois, Niki de Saint Phalle, Shirin Neshat, to Tracey Emin.

The exhibition title refers to Susan Brownmiller’sphrase ‘heroic act,’[1]which characterizes the male narrative of rape as a  dramatic struggle culminating with romantic submission. The use of the term ‘rape’ in the title of the exhibition reflects the selection of only those works that directly concern rape rather than the broader problemof sexual harassment. It alsoconfronts society’s reluctance to use the word that in four painful letters directly describes the utmost suffering of millions of women andbias toward euphemisms such as ‘sexual abuse.’ Only recently, thanks to the Me Too movement the use of the term has become more frequent, calling attention to the shamingof victims and lack of public debate.

Recognizing thevastness of material, the exhibition narrows the selection of works to the rape of women.With a diverse roster of US artists, it presents subjects specific to American culture, not the artists’ countries of origin, and explores such issues that inspired artists to treat the subject of rape as:fairy tales and art history, rape as a war crime, rape in the military, slavery, rape epidemic on Indian reservations, women trafficking, college rape culture, domestic violence, criminal trials, the role of social media, etc. The Un-Heroic Act examines remarkably varied visual languages artists employed – from figuration to abstraction to text –depending on their purpose, from shocking the audience, evoking empathy, to healing.

The Un-Heroic Actis not so much an exhibition about rapeas about the iconography of rape. The curatorial selection takes into account several elements at the same time: 1/ three generations of artists; 2/ ethnic diversity (artists of American Indian, African American, and Asian origins, and Latinas); 3/ all visual mediums, from drawing to social practice; 4/ themes that inspired artists to treat the subject (from fairy tales and art history to rape as a war crime); and finally5/ varied visual languages artists chose to tackle such sensitive subject.

The exhibition is organized by the Shiva Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. Generous funding for the exhibition is provided by the Affirmation Arts Fund and Sarah Peter. Public Programming Artists’ Fees are made possible by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Museum Educational Trust. The catalog is made possible by Barbara Lee Family Foundation. Additional support was provided by Sigmund A. Rolatand Beth RudinDeWoody.The Un-Heroic Act is a sponsored project of the New York Foundation for the Arts.

ARTISTS IN THE EXHIBITION: Yoko Ono, Ana Mendieta, Senga Nengudi, Suzanne Lacy, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Carolee Thea, Guerrilla Girls, Jenny Holzer, Kathleen Gilje, Angela Fraleigh, Natalie Frank, Jennifer Karady, Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Andrea Bowers, Ada Trillo, Kara Walker, Roya Amigh, Naima Ramos-Chapman, Bang Geul Han, and Guerrilla Girls Broadband.


Monika Fabijanska is an art historian and independent curator based in NYC,who specializesin women's art and feminist art. She originated the idea and provided curatorial consulting and institutional support for The Museum of Modern Art acquisition and retrospective exhibition of the feminist sculptor Alina Szapocznikow (2012); she consulted on WACK! Art in the Feminist Revolution with curator Connie Butler (MoCA LA, 2007); and Global Feminisms with Maura Reilly(Brooklyn Museum, 2007). She produced and co-organized Architectures of Gender: Contemporary Women’s Art in Poland (SculptureCenter, NYC, 2003) with Aneta Szylak.


The Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY is a 4,000 sq. ft. art facility opened in 2013 on the ground floor of JJC’s building near Lincoln Center. It established a profile, noted in the coverage by The New York Times, as a venue devoted to socially engaged art. Shiva Gallery provides an unrestricted forum for artists and curators to explore issues that challenge our precepts of social justice and human rights and the engaged role that the arts play in this process. The whole JJC campus is fully ADA compliant.

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Please contact the gallery at, 212.237.1439 for inquiries, images and interview requests. You may also direct questions to the curator,; detailed updates at


[1]Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will. Men, Women and Rape, Fawcett Books, New York, 1975

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