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Ravishing Beauty: The Aesthetics of Rape in Grace Ndiritu's video Desert Storm
By Caroline Bagenal

Desert Storm (2004) is a disturbing and powerful video by the young British artist Grace Ndiritu. In this haunting reminder of war’s female casualties, Ndiritu addresses war and rape as a tool of war, performing, filming, and editing the piece herself. The aesthetic choices made by Ndiritu in Desert Storm bear examination in relation to other artworks depicting rape and war.

In the opening sequence of Desert Storm we see Ndiritu lying on the world map, her naked body partially covered in sheer white fabric, and her arms above her head. Ndiritu’s body fills the camera frame. She is seen from above, an extreme close-up framing her writhing torso, her arms and legs at times off screen. Along the bottom of the screen scrolls a list of recently war-torn countries in which rape has been a weapon: Sudan, East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kashmir, Tibet, Eritrea, Kosovo, Chiapas, Algeria, Congo, Sri Lanka, Guinea Bissau, Indonesia.

The video is extremely intimate, brutal, and uncomfortable. There is almost no space between the viewer and Ndiritu --- it is as if we are standing directly over her. Her head is covered but parts of her bare arms and legs are visible. Her movements are erotic and ambiguous. The viewer is forced into simultaneous roles of perpetrator and voyeur, thus implicating us all in this hideous crime. A soundtrack of Saharan music adds to the video’s intensity.

Through the use of various devices such as a fixed camera, still images, and an emphasis on formal beauty, Ndiritu situates this and other work within the history of painting. Desert Storm is visually stunning. The fabric rippling over Ndiritu’s lithe body is undeniably beautiful if considered in isolation from the video’s context. In Desert Storm, Ndiritu references centuries of art to create a video of seductive and provocative beauty. Though this video addresses recent wars, its subject matter is timeless and brings to mind images of rape central to the European cannon of art history. From ancient Greece to the present, artists have addressed the subject of war and violence against women.

Although Ndiritu uses music as a soundtrack for her video, she emphatically rejects the high production values of music videos. Ndiritu calls her work ” hand crafted video”, connecting it to handcrafted art, and does all the production herself, from lighting and editing, to acting and styling. She uses a static camera to make the video images appear more like paintings. She stresses the formal elements of the image: space, composition, color, texture, pattern and design. Several of her videos directly reference painting, such as the four screen video piece Still Life (2005 – 2007) in which she poses as an odalisque in compositions reminiscent of paintings by Matisse. In these videos she is draped in vibrant patterned fabrics from Africa (Ndiritu’s parents are from Kenya, so African wax fabric is familiar to her rather than exotic, as it was for Matisse). Like Desert Storm, Still Life is uncomfortably beautiful. Unlike Matisse’s paintings in which the model is relaxed and languorous, Ndiritu is wide-awake and alert. In one video she demonstrates the stifling restriction of staying still; in another she is seductive, stroking and revealing her body. In numerous ways, Ndiritu activates the female within the frame of Western art. She inverts the male gaze by looking directly at the viewer. She transforms the passive model of Matisse’s paintings into a twitching, breathing, individual woman. She returns to the female model her own sexuality.

In Desert Storm, however, the sexuality of the performer is more complex. The video’s sexually ambiguous gestures make it difficult to watch. At times Ndiritu grasps her neck and at others she caresses her body. Is Ndiritu performing an erotic and suggestive dance, or is she being assaulted? Is this pleasure or pain? What are the extremes to which women have to go to survive in wartime? Though Ndiritu leaves these questions unanswered, she makes us consider them. She forces us to contemplate situations that are terrifying and unbearable to imagine. In the opening image, her legs are spread and her crotch exposed. The combination of beauty and horror, violence and eroticism, carries undertones of pornography. Adding to the horror of the image is her ghostly face, barely visible through the fabric covering her head. The filmy fabric is tantalizing and contains multiple references to seduction, the veil, bandages, and shrouds. Although we cannot see her features clearly, her eyes, mouth and teeth are just visible, making the image much more personal. At the end of the video, she pulls the cloth away from her eyes and she stares back at the viewer. As her eyes fix the viewer, Ndiritu inverts centuries of art history and reverses the power between looking and being watched.

Abduction, rape, and war have been themes in art throughout history. For example, there are striking similarities between Desert Storm and classical Greek art that established the Western ideal of beauty for thousands of years. The ripples of drapery on Ndiritu’s torso that reveal and conceal her body directly reference the flowing drapery of the chiton worn by Greek women. On the western pediment of The Temple of Zeus at Olympia, a woman in a loose chiton is being assaulted by a drunken centaur. The centaur grasps the woman’s breast as he attempts to drag her away. Our eyes follow the long folds of cloth, which accentuate her breasts and navel barely visible beneath the drapery. Even more explicit are the large number of Greek vase paintings depicting the pursuit and abduction of women by men. These paintings were very prevalent between 500 and 430 BCE and are often extremely graphic. They do not show the act of rape, but rather the violent hunting of women by men and the terror of the captured female.

Desert Storm has striking formal and aesthetic similarities to Titian’s The Rape of Europa (1562). Titian depicts Europa with outstretched arms and legs, her torso visible under white rippling fabric that is slipping off her body. Her twisting torso is very reminiscent of Ndiritu’s in Desert Storm. She appears both active and helpless and, like Desert Storm, the painting suggests both desire and resistance. Titian chose to romanticize the rape of Europa, and it must be stressed that the context for this work was not war but rather the conquests of the gods, and was intended for the enjoyment of male patrons. Although the contexts in which Titian and Ndiritu place their depictions of rape are very different, their aesthetics are remarkable similar.

Ambivalent and erotic depictions of rape are common throughout art history, and were especially prevalent during the Romantic era. Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) is one of several paintings by the artist that depict incidents from specific wars and were inspired by actual atrocities in the Greek War of Independence fought against the Ottoman Empire. Like numerous artists before and after him, Delacroix depicts sexually alluring females in paintings of attempted rape and violence. The Death of Sardanapalus is an orgy of suffering. The defeated ruler watches from his bed as his female slaves and mistresses are tortured and slaughtered around him. Writhing nude or partially draped female bodies are displayed in a scene that glorifies erotic imagery and violence. With sensuous brushwork and radiant colors, Delacroix bathes violence in an incandescent light. The scene unfolds in some distant place as if in a dream, but the distance also depersonalizes the violence depicted.

In stark contrast to the fantasies of Titian, Delacroix, and a host of others, Goya’s series of engravings titled Disasters of War (1810 – 1820), reveal the effects of war on individuals, including women. Unlike Delacroix, Goya’s message is unambiguous. There is nothing suggestive in his depiction of sexual assault. Rape is shown on a par with torture and mutilation. Goya lived through the French invasion of Spain, and his direct depiction of atrocity and rape makes his etchings exceptional in the history of art for their uncompromising visual record of war’s horrors.

Another artist whose personal experiences inspired representations that refuse to aestheticize or romanticize rape and violence is the seventeenth-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi. The artist was raped by her painting teacher, giving her paintings of this theme an intensity and emotion seemingly informed by her own experience. In Gentileschi’s painting Susanna and the Elders (1610), Susanna has been trapped by two lecherous old men near the well where she has gone to bathe. A popular subject for baroque painters, Susanna and the Elders must have had a special meaning for Gentileschi; she returned to it throughout her life, painting five different versions of the theme that present a young woman’s distress and sexual vulnerability from the woman’s point of view. Susanna is shown actively resisting her oppressors by struggling to turn away from them. Like Ndiritu, Gentileschi brings the figure of her female protagonist into our space and fills the foreground with her anguished body. Both Gentileschi and Ndiritu use close-ups to break the separation between the woman’s body and the viewer.

In addition to placing her piece firmly within the context of art history, Ndrittu also engages with the language of performance art. By using her own body in her work, Ndiritu references the endurance art of the 1960s and 70s, particularly that of Marina Abramovic and Ana Mendieta, whom Ndiritu has cited as influences.

Mendieta created a performance piece in 1973 in response to the violent rape and murder of a female student at the University of Iowa, where Mendieta had studied. A photograph of the performance, Untitled (Rape Scene) (1973), shows Mendieta nude from the waist down, bent over a table with her underwear and pants around her ankles. Her upper body is clothed and her hands are tied, her naked backside and legs are smeared with blood. The image is shockingly graphic. There is nothing beautiful about this portrayal of rape; it is ugly and brutal. Mendieta presents a powerful and uncompromising statement.

Nidiritu’s video My Blood Self: Darfur (2006-07), made after Desert Storm, is aesthetically closer to Mendieta’s work. Darfur focuses on a female leg resting on red earth. Blood slowly trickles down the leg, which does not move. Here the ambiguity is very powerful. Is this woman wounded or menstruating, giving birth or dying? Numerous possibilities are suggested as we are forced to focus upon this single limb.

Performance art is important to women artists in redefining female sexuality and representation, and moving from the body as the passive object of painting to active self-definition. Moreover, body art raises questions about narcissism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and the constant reversals of active and passive positions. These ambiguities are evident in Ndiritu’s Desert Storm and contribute to its complexity, linking it to a tradition of performance art most notably represented by Abramovic, in which women artists act out their fears as a means to overcome them.

From her earliest works, Abramovic has dealt with the human capacity for cruelty. In Rhythm O (1974) she placed seventy-two objects on a table--- including a rose, knives and a gun—and invited the audience to use these on her in any way they chose. She has addressed war and violence by cutting, whipping, and pushing her body to the extreme limits of endurance. In Lips of Thomas (1975) she cut a five-pointed star into her stomach on three different occasions. In Balkan Baroque (1997) she connected the abuse of her childhood with the atrocities, torture, and ethnic cleansing of the Balkan War.

Abramovic has said that she stages her fears as a way to transcend them. There are both similarities and differences in Ndiritu and Abramovic’s approach to war and violence. Both artists invoke shamanism to explain the symbolic meaning of their work. Both use their bodies to act out disturbing scenes. Yet Niditu’s approach is very different from Abramovic’s intensly autobiographical performances. Desert Storm is not a self-portrait. Unlike Abramovic, Ndiritu does not reveal herself; she shifts and changes throughout the video, exposing only parts of herself while keeping others hidden.

Ndiritu leaves Desert Storm open to interpretation, holding up a mirror and forcing the viewer to confront an insidious crime too often hidden. Using the imagery art history, Ndiritu provokes an examination of the history and aesthetics of ambivalent and eroticized images of rape embedded in Western culture. Despite her meticulous handcrafting of the piece, Desert Storm is less about Ndiritu than about what the viewer projects onto her body.

Caroline Bagenal is an artist and writer. She is an associate professor at Montserrat College of Art, Beverly, Massachusetts. Her website is www.carolinebagenal.com

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