Art! A way of taking back control after DV

Aboriginal dancers perform a corroboree Source: Beyond Empathy


Aboriginal dancers perform a corroboree Source: Beyond Empathy
Aboriginal dancers perform a corroboree. Source: Beyond Empathy

Some believe Australia has achieved gender equality. But we ask, if this is so, why are we still seeing acts of brutal violence against women?

Researcher and educator from the University of Wollongong Dr Michael Flood is an expert in gender issues and domestic violence. He said although formal gender discrimination is now illegal; it is the informal aspects of gender inequality which are the key drivers of domestic violence in Australia.

“High levels of domestic violence by men against women are to do with unequal gender roles and relations. It also includes sexist and violent norms and values, again to do with gender,” he said.

Dr Flood said sexually objectifying representations of women in advertising, music videos and other popular culture are feeding into some men’s tolerance for and participation in sexual violence.

“One key influence on the normalisation of violence is the media and popular culture, but the media and popular culture can play positive or negative roles,” he said.

In reducing and preventing violence against women, Dr Flood said governments and advocacy groups cannot rely on social marketing campaigns alone to spread awareness of domestic violence.

To be effective, he said campaigns must be allied with activities of community development which can include things like community arts programs.

“I think that art and other forms of grassroots cultural production, whether it’s knitting, painting or sculpturing and so on, they can be very valuable therapeutically for individuals or groups who have experienced violence,” he said.

“They can also be useful politically, in art those tapestries and other kinds of materials produced by survivors and their advocates can be useful in raising community awareness, or useful in giving policy makers a very powerful, graphic awareness of the extent of violence against women.”

One organisation, Beyond Empathy has already harnessed the potential for art to create positive change and transform lives.

In 2004 Beyond Empathy began working in communities in remote New South Wales where multiple disadvantages including social, economic, individual and community could be found.

The organisation exists to transform individuals and communities using art as a tool to improve health, education, employment and social inclusion as well as build new pathways for its participants.

Today, Beyond Empathy operates in both regional and remote communities across Australia and has recently started a new project titled ‘HOMEtruths’ which focuses on family and domestic violence.

Executive Director at Beyond Empathy Kim McConville said it was a natural progression for the organisation to start focusing on domestic violence within their community work.

“I often describe the work in community a bit like those children’s toys where you bang one thing down and another pops up, it’s a bit like that in community and the issues you deal with,” she said.

HOMEtruths will be a two-stage project, starting off with a fundraising campaign over the next twelve months in order to build community support for the work.

The second stage, which starts in late 2016 will see the community of Moree host workshops where a group of women will work with professional artists to create artistic work, which will then culminate in a public exhibition.

Ms McConville said alternative programs like HOMEtruths are necessary in small communities like Moree where she believes traditional domestic violence services have failed these women.

“The anonymity of being able to go to a domestic violence service doesn’t exist [in Moree] because everyone knows your business,” she said.

Traditional services have failed women in Aboriginal communities. Source: Raphaela Rosella
Kim McConville believes traditional DV services have failed women in aboriginal communities. Source: Raphaela Rosella

“The way [traditional domestic violence services] would be used in any other community doesn’t really apply in aboriginal communities because women can’t speak up and they can’t go see someone because they might be seeing the perpetrators mother, brother, sister or cousin.”

Development Manager at Beyond Empathy Ivana Jirasek said HOMEtruths offered survivors a new approach in coping with domestic violence which mainstream services cannot deliver.

“As much as you work one on one with women, you actually bring them into a group situation… because then they are seeing other women who suffer and by sharing their stories they can dissolve that isolation that they might otherwise feel,” she said.

“It’s having those choices that allows you to move out of the trap that you’ve found yourself in, and art is almost a distraction, but it’s a very creative distraction, and it provides that space.”

One woman whose pathway transformed after working with Beyond Empathy is visual story-teller, Raphaela Rosella.

In 2006 as a high school student, Ms Rosella participated in a Beyond Empathy workshop about drugs and alcohol. During the workshop she shared some of her photography and from there was placed in the organisation’s leadership program.

At the time, Ms Rosella was in a violent relationship and said working with Beyond Empathy gave her the space she needed away from DV.

“They would take me away to different communities to work on projects so that let me see that there was a life beyond my community and its hardships,” she said.

“Eventually it gave me the strength to leave the relationship.”

Today Ms Rosella is an award-winning photographer, a community artist with Beyond Empathy and will be one of the professional artists involved in the HOMEtruths project.

Her work on HOMEtruths will entwine with her own long-term project she has already begun working on which focuses on the normalisation of violence and cyclic nature of social disadvantage.

She said her earlier work was about exploring young motherhood and family, but the words of a nine-year-old boy shifted her focus.

“I was working with a family and a young boy I had been working with for many years. We were playing outside and he said, ‘when I get a woman, I’m going to fucking bash her’,” she said.

‘when I get a woman, I’m going to fucking bash her’

“So it really prompted me to broaden the issues I was looking at… now I’m more looking at just this normalisation of violence… how certain environments can normalise this kind of behaviour towards women.”

Ms Rosella says work on the project is a slow process because she not only takes photographs but also collects things like love-letters sent from prison to contrast with police statements and evidence documenting the abuse.

Raphela 2-min
A love letter written in jail by a DV perpetrator to his partner. Source: Raphaela Rosella

“The work that I do, I’m not trying to sensationalise the issue, I’m more looking at the broader context, so an audience can see the complexity of the issue so they understand its not as easy, like when people say, ‘why don’t you leave?’,” she said.

“The stories that I’m trying to tell are trying to show that it’s not as easy as packing up and leaving.”

Although Ms Rosella does not see the project being completed anytime soon due to the complex and sensitive nature of the work.

“It’s not something I want to rush, but in the end I see it being an installation where it moves beyond the stereotype of victimhood… with audio recordings, different elements, more of a multidimensional project.”

For other artists such as Christopher Hardwick, art has the power to heal a life once shattered by domestic violence.

“I’m a person who makes art so that I can make sense out of my life,” he said.

Throughout his life, Christopher has dealt with the trauma of domestic violence. While Christopher was still in the womb his mother was severely beaten by his father. But it was not until 2004, when his youngest daughter was almost murdered by her partner that he decided to use art as a tool to process the trauma.

“I’m a person who makes art so that I can make sense out of my life”

“When you make art, you revisit the trauma, you revisit that place and each time you revisit it, it becomes easier to live with,” he said.

Before becoming an artist, Christopher grew up in a violent family environment which left him feeling like he was not smart enough for higher education.

“I moved to Sydney in 1966 and spent nearly 40 years as a hairdresser,” he said.

“In the meantime I had been through a relationship, a divorce, another relationship, so there’s a lot of this instability.

“I had 17 years as a chronic poker machine addict, three suicide attempts, so I sort of knew the whole time that something was desperately wrong but not wanting to revisit it.”

After discovering his daughter had been in a DV relationship, he welcomed her and her three kids into his home. He then decided to study Fine Art at the Queensland College of Art.

It was at university where he found his voice and began making art which spread a message about domestic violence.

“I thought it was because of my daughter and her experience that I needed to deal with these domestic violence and child abuse issues and it was only when I came to a point where I understood it was really about my life and my experiences,” he said.

One of his favourite pieces of artwork is a ‘domestic violence quilt’ made out of 81 patches of colourful furnishing fabric from reverse garbage. The quilt was finished in April of 2014, but coincidentally by the following January statistics revealed 81 women in Australia had died from domestic violence that year.

Christopher's 'Domestic Violence Quilt'  Source: Melanie Whiting
Christopher’s ‘Domestic Violence Quilt’ Source: Melanie Whiting

Christopher said the quilt not only represents his family’s experiences, but the experiences of the country and the epidemic it now faces.

“The quilt is actually part of finding the answer to that epidemic because it’s an ongoing voice, it’s not something that’s a headline of a newspaper, it’s actually here, it exists and it will always be a testimony and a witness to domestic violence,” he said.

Christopher is currently applying for his PHD but will continue to raise awareness through his artwork. He said his work in the Brisbane community has lead to increased conversation and awareness about domestic violence.

According to Dr Flood, the media and popular culture are influencing the normalisation of violence, but they can also play a positive role.

Just as pop culture outlets such film and television can spread messages of violence, organisations and artists like the ones mentioned have taken back the control in art and culture, using this medium to spread awareness and make a difference.

So can art end domestic violence? Maybe not, but at the very least it can raise awareness, transform lives and be a source of therapy for survivors.

See below for more of Christopher Hardwick’s DV art work


If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence in any capacity you should reach out for support.

In an emergency dial 000

DV ConnectDVconnect : 1800 811 811

Mensline: 1800 600 636

Sexual Assault line 1800 010 120