Laia Abril: Confronting Sexual Ignorance

Laia Abril: Confronting Sexual Ignorance

‘On Rape: and institutional failure’ at the C/O Berlin, exposes societal apathy to sexual violence, echoing ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’.”

Laia Abril’s first solo exhibition in Germany, “On Rape: and institutional failure” at the C/O Berlin, exposes the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” attitude that reveals a timeless, societal carelessness towards sexual brutality.

myths and prejudices of rape culture

The C/O Berlin’s current exhibition by Catalan artist Laia Abril needs you to open your eyes. Abril thrusts you directly into a topic that is often downplayed, disregarded, and silenced by societal guilt. To say you should feel uncomfortable by what you learn doesn’t encapsulate the vast scope of Abril’s task. She teaches us that we cannot ever feel comfortable with the topic. Instead, we must be comfortable and morally driven to address its causes and effects to uproot its epidemic spread.

The exhibition forms the second part of a trilogy that Abril has been working on since 2016, called “A History of Misogyny”. “On Abortion” premiered in France and has been exhibited on twelve different occasions around the world. The appeal of the trilogy is international because the scope of the project encompasses the universality of gender-based stereotypes that have become encoded in human behaviour. “On Rape”, is made up from a blend of photography and text that provide cohesive evidence of the myths and prejudices about rape culture.

you were asking for it…

Abril’s extensive research, meticulously laid out in four large rooms, travels across continents and through time. All the while she has a resolute notion of where we are today. Each (arte)fact resonates entirely with the present and leaves the viewers standing in the here and now feeling shocked and embarrassed. Shocked at the extent of institutional injustices and embarrassed that we have ignored how deeply the topic affects all of us.

As such, Abril’s task is immediate: societies around the world must deny the institutional acceptance of rape as normal. Abril keenly emphasises that this epidemic transgresses geographical borders and languages. In fact, the viral spread of amoral treatments of rape are rooted in patriarchal governance and systemic power structures all over the world. She undermines the possible misconception that rape is only an issue in so-called “third world” countries, exploring how the Western world demonises victims of male sexual abuse and domination.

Several quotations from American statesman punctuate the walls, each one rejecting the concept of rape: “you were asking for it, look at what you were wearing” summarises the tone-deaf nature of such comments. Abril lays bare the brazen attitudes of men in positions of power to highlight that political “leaders” not only reinforce but often legislate crimes against women.

gender-based stereotypes

However, she also re-enforces that the historical roots of misogynism are embedded within the language we use. We often do not realise how implicit meanings deeply affect our understanding of what is being signified. She highlights that there was no word for “Vagina” until the 18th century – before then, the term was “scabbard” or “sheath”.

The seemingly harmless definition is a violent metaphor imbued with connotations of masculine power and virility, alongside an outdated female stereotype that denotes female sexuality belongs to men. Language, as Abril explains, does matter. Often the hidden meanings that lie behind superficially harmless words and phrases reflect that words have power in and of themselves, and therefore we should reflect on how words implicitly cater for gender-based stereotypes.

victims of cultures

The temporal juxtaposition of her pieces emphasize that rape has always been misunderstood. Abril gives evidence of rules and laws from Ancient Greece and parallels their attitudes towards Rape, scarily resemble the closed-eyes approach of modern societies. The conclusion: there has been no progress in the treatment and handling of rape. Before it happens, we mislabel it, when it happens, we ignore it, and when we try to punish it, we penalise the wrong suspects.

Understanding begins by shining a light on the status quo. Abril offers the status quo; facts, quotations and testimonials plainly lay bare what the world is like. In one room she tells the stories of seven different women from all over the world. They have different backgrounds, languages, and positions of power within society- their unifying similarity is that they have all been victims of cultures that normalize sexual brutality. Abril carefully and considerately humanizes case studies to give an idea of the bigger picture.

an epidemic that never had a cure

These stories explore Women and girls humiliated by different “Justice” systems. Largely their experiences conclude with a feeling of humiliation. A 13-year-old girl told she cannot have been raped if it was by her husband. Such a reality that seems so far away yet is omnipresent and in fact law in several countries. By exposing the victims’ feelings of embarrassment and being gaslighted, she turns the focus onto everyone. She emphasises on the “how dare” we make victims feel ashamed, when we perpetuate semantic and behavioural atrocities that normalise sexual violence?

Therefore, the defining conclusion of the exhibition is a question: what can we do now? Abril presents facts, laws, and art that lays bare the human. The message is that rape is not simply a personal problem. Nor is it simply a crime perpetrated by individuals, but that the societal ignorance of its causes and effects are damaging and inexcusable.

By equipping the audience with knowledge about the status quo, she makes us both culpable and responsible for finding a solution to an epidemic that seemingly has never had a cure. The exhibition of Laia Abril “On Rape: and institutional failure” is still running at the C/O Berlin.

Header Image: Laia Abril. On Rape – And Institutional Failure, installation view at C/O Berlin, 2024 © C/O Berlin Foundation, David von Becker.

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