How art reversed silence on wartime rapes

Art has an extraordinary power to heal and reconcile.


21 April 2021

Art activism can reveal truths about wartime rape, which both challenges interpretations of the past and strengthens community recognition for the cause and solidarity with survivors. 

Di Lellio et al. examines the powerful impact of the Mendoj Për Ty art installment – translated in English as Thinking of You. Created by Kosovar artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa, the installation was dedicated to survivors of sexual violence during the 1998-1999 armed conflict.

During the Kosovo war, rape was used as a systematic weapon against women, with perpetrators mainly from the Serbian army, police, and paramilitaries. As few people reported crimes, the exact number of victims is unknown. But a 1999 survey by the US-based Centers for Disease Control estimates 20,000 women were raped. 

In the paper by Di Lellio et al., they found that many survivors who initially spoke out about the violence, stopped doing so. This was because Kosovo society came to view rape as a stain on the honor of both individual families and the nation. 

The judicial mechanisms also failed to protect the survivors or make the perpetrators guilty. This has led rape survivors to form and find support among private women’s rights groups, without the risk of public judgement. 

Alketa Xhafa Mripa’s art installation finally brought the issue of gender-based violence to the forefront of societal discussion, for the first time after 17 years of war.

It featured 5,000 dresses donated by women across the world and strung up across a football stadium, which symbolised the male-dominated playground. 

The gesture allowed the victims to symbolically ‘testify’. It united women from all walks of life: artists, intellectuals, activists, survivors, politicians, and police officers for example. For the first time, Kosovar women experienced solidarity, rather than silence and shame, for the violence they suffered. 

It allowed society to stand in  solidarity with the victims of sexual violence. They could symbolically touch and see the survivors in their disembodied clothes, and thus connect emotionally with them. 

The installation presented an alternative version of victims. Rather than being seen as dirty, they were clean and with “no stain”, like laundered linen. This made it possible to start repairing the broken bonds within a society that had silenced and ignored survivors.

The art installation generated media buzz which spread its message far and wide. This meant that the story of sexual violence during the conflict became public discourse, and survivors with historic trauma could seek justice. 

Consequently, following the mass mobilisation from ‘Thinking of You’, in late 2017, a law was implemented, which offered a pension to victims of wartime rape. Di Lellio et al state this installation is  ‘a new way to create the broad solidarity and recognition that survivors of wartime sexual violence need and demand’.

As I write this, it is World Creativity and Innovation Day, which is a day to raise the awareness of the role of creativity and innovation in all aspects of human development. I personally believe that art can play a key role in supporting gender equality and raising awareness for all forms of gender-based violence past and present.

The most important message for me from ‘Thinking of You’, was the impossible response of “I didn’t know”, this affirmative response denied not only the past, but also the respect due to every woman.

Read Anna Di Lellio, Feride Rushiti, and Kadire Tahiraj (2019) full paper here.