Art educator Lauren Stetz uses data visualisation to address women's safety

USA-based Lauren Stetz speaks with STIR about the collaborative effort that went into building the Violence Against Women Art Map, working with artists across the globe.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Sep 26, 2022

At the intersection of data visualisation, artistic expression and feminist activism lies Dr. Lauren Stetz’s project –Violence Against Women Art Map. This project was conceived in 2018, as a result of Stetz’s thesis research for her doctorate in Art Education at The Pennsylvania State University. In 2019, she began to bring her idea to life - working with artists from across the world to give visual expression to the many types of violence against women that they each witnessed in their own communities. The VAW Art Map allows the viewer to identify the many ways in which women are subject to abuse globally, both physical and emotional, through the visual and performing arts. As a result, this project functions as a research tool to understand cultural tendencies as well as a social art discovery experience. VAW Art Map also provides educational material for school and college level students to explore relationships, violence, culture and healing modalities through art.

A screenshot of the VAW Art Map | VAW Art Map | Lauren Stetz | STIRworld
A screenshot of the VAW Art Map Image: Courtesy of Lauren Stetz

The VAW Art Map project was conceptualised at the height of the #MeToo movement, providing momentum for Stetz’s efforts. She shares with us saying, “I was especially fascinated by how the movement was interpreted around the world. Women in every country personalised the movement which was very powerful. Although women across the world can relate to #MeToo, we have very different cultural and political situations.” VAW Art Map currently showcases the work of 24 artists of 12 nationalities, working with 15 different media. This includes mediums such as tattoo work, puppetry, comics, glass, as well as more conventional forms of art like sculpture, painting, and embroidery. The artists are selected from across the gender spectrum, including women, non-binary folk and men as well, building representation across the board. “We have three male artists as well, Patrick Seruwu (Uganda/ South Africa), Daniel Nelson (United States), Ram Devineni of Priya’s Shakti (India/United States). In countries where there are very oppressive situations, a male artist can really open doors through their discussion of violence against women. They can also think of ways to address the topic for a male audience,” Stetz tells STIR. The project is also not limited to only well-established artists and even includes one mother-daughter partnership. 

Screengrab from the VAW Art Map | VAW Art Map | Lauren Stetz | STIRworld
Screengrab from the VAW Art Map Image: Courtesy of Lauren Stetz

The diversity in the group welcomes equally diverse narratives, helping the viewer see a more rounded perspective on the issue. Stetz says, “I look at how art can tell the stories that may not be easily explained through words”. This is a particularly helpful approach with a subject as sensitive and nuanced as violence against women. The art on view is divided into themes, each one addressing one aspect of abuse. During Stetz’s research process she interviewed each artist twice, and asked them all a series of standardised questions. From this she derived 10 broad themes. She says, “I had to limit it to the top 10 themes that came up in order to keep it user friendly for the viewers, and not an overwhelming experience.” Some of these themes are shame, religion and societal expectations. The map also allows website visitors to view themes individually or in combination with each other, allowing for some understanding of causal patterns and trends. Of course, 24 artists alone cannot make for a comprehensive research base which is why Stetz is hoping to continue expanding on this database going forward. While the concept of the project is fascinating, it does leave something to be desired in the art viewing experience, especially due to the limited content where performances or video art are concerned. Stetz explains this is primarily due to copyright reasons, and the protection of artist privacy because of the sensitive nature of the works. To make up for it, the website provides hyperlinks to view the artwork in its entirety, through the artists’ website. 

A portrait of Lauren Stetz | VAW Art Map | Lauren Stetz | STIRworld
Lauren Stetz Image: Courtesy of Lauren Stetz

Discussing this project with Stetz was an enlightening experience, but it also brought to light the many ways in which the process can also be challenging. Even to hear about it was quite overwhelming, and resonated deeply within me as a woman. Stetz shares saying, “A lot of the artists are survivors of violence against women. Everyone was in a different place of their process and at different levels of their healing process. I had to be very careful about this and occasionally needed to collaboratively develop ground rules for how to work together.”

Her Creatrix, 2019, Mixed Media Painting, Agata Surma | VAW Art Map | Lauren Stetz | STIRworld
Her Creatrix, 2019, mixed media painting, Agata Surma Image: Courtesy of Agata Surma

Since completing her doctorate, Stetz has been presenting her project at different conferences which focus on data visualisation, art education, digitally engaged learning, and domestic violence. She is also continuing to develop education materials around the issue of violence against women for people to access via the VAW Art Map website, making them more accessible by publishing in a range of languages. Stetz concludes by saying, “What is really powerful is that art becomes a way you can communicate across cultures. People often don’t want to talk about these things, and by creating art we can give voice to a space where there is none”.

A still from And So I Stayed, 2021, Documentary Film, Natalie Pattillo and Daniel Nelson, Grit Pictures, LCC | VAW Art Map | Lauren Stetz | STIRworld
A still from And So I Stayed, 2021, Documentary Film, Natalie Pattillo and Daniel Nelson, Grit Pictures, LCC Image: Courtesy of Lauren Stetz
A Talk with Lauren Stetz, behind the art scene by Mehreen Hashmi Video: Courtesy of Lauren Stetz

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