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Christmas trees in Schenley Plaza.
‘Christmas Day at Pitt’ gathers community for free meals, clothes and gifts
By Spencer Levering, Senior Staff Writer • December 8, 2023

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Christmas trees in Schenley Plaza.
‘Christmas Day at Pitt’ gathers community for free meals, clothes and gifts
By Spencer Levering, Senior Staff Writer • December 8, 2023

‘It breaks down that isolation’: Teal Gallery displays art from student survivors of sexual assault

Tanya Babbar | Staff Writer
Artwork at the Teal Gallery on Thursday.

When a student-led gallery of art and writing from survivors of sexual assault opened its doors on Thursday evening, the clothes that survivors wore when they were assaulted hung on clotheslines across the windows. By the end of the evening, gallery visitors filled a new section of rope with white T-shirts where they wrote their own experiences or messages of support to survivors.

The Teal Gallery, named for the color of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, displayed art and writing from student survivors of sexual assault at Frick Fine Arts last Thursday evening. Pitt students Riya Sharma, Katie Emmert and Jade Chatman organized the gallery through the Student Government Board’s Support, Advocacy and Prevention Committee and received support from Pitt’s Office of Sexual Violence Prevention and Education. After putting out an interest form through SAP, the gallery’s organizers received a range of pieces, including poetry, painting, letters and collages. Some of the pieces were anonymous.

Tables with educators from PAAR, Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, and Pitt’s Counseling Center were also available at the opening gallery to provide support and resources for attendees. 

In providing a safe space for survivors to share their experiences, Sharma, a junior neuroscience major, aimed to raise awareness about sexual assault and show art’s power for healing. 

“I wanted it [the gallery] to be something where survivors felt like they could express their emotions and have it put in a safe space and respected,” Sharma said. “For students seeing it, I want the goal to just be more awareness. I want people who you know are dealing with or know someone dealing with it to know that there are people that care and are here for them.”

Giovana Bogo, a Penn State student who attended the gallery in support of a family member who submitted work, said she admired survivors’ courage in sharing their personal stories through art.

“It’s sad that so many people experienced this, but also it makes me proud that people are willing to speak out and be able to voice that they are survivors and what they go through,” Bogo said.

For Bogo, seeing the clothing struck a particular chord with her.

“Just being able to show what you wore — I think that’s really hard to confront,” Bogo said. “That has to be really hard to even hold on to and then to hang up and have other people see.”

On top of admiring the bravery that comes with sharing traumatic experiences, Bogo said she felt the gallery showed that art can be a valuable tool for survivors of sexual assault to make sense of their experiences.

“Sometimes people don’t know how to word certain things or how they feel and art is a good representation of that in many different types of forms,” Bogo said. “Whether it’s the clothes that they hung up there, or the poems or the drawings, everyone expresses it differently, and sometimes art is the best way to do that.”

Sharma, one of the gallery organizers, said she had the idea for the event after becoming frustrated with the prevalence of sexual assault in college campuses. Looking for a way to help spread awareness, Sharma reached out to Carrie Benson, director of Pitt’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Education program. With Benson’s input, Sharma said she came to realize that art can be a powerful way of addressing sexual assault on campus.

“Right now I feel like a lot of the advocacy you’ll hear about is flyers with statistics or required classes for freshmen about safe sex and consent, and I think this is a way for survivors to express themselves in a way that might be easier than actually talking about it,” Sharma said.

Sharma said art can provide a more human perspective on sexual violence than statistics.

“We have statistics for anything and everything, and with the amount people see on a day to

day basis on social media — it’s very easy to disconnect from that,” Sharma said. “[Art] sticks with you a little bit more because these are really personal stories and if the emotion is invoked in you, I think it’ll stick a little longer than a statistic.”

With the rampancy of sexual assault on college campuses, tackling the issue is a big undertaking. But Benson said she feels even smaller initiatives like holding an art gallery can be an effective step in the right direction.

“I think when we’re trying to address a big societal issue like sexual violence, sometimes it’s a lot of little things that we’re doing to make a difference,” Benson said. “So something like an art gallery may seem small, but it can have a huge impact on the individual folk coming here who may be survivors and feeling that community.”

Sharma agreed, saying the gallery provided a safe space for dialogue.

“Holding something like a gallery would be a space for people to see that there are organizations and people who want to show you that we are making progress,” Sharma said. “It’s not a replacement for the change that needs to be made, but I think it’s something that could help while we get there.” 

Benson said the frustration that Sharma shared with her when first coming up with the gallery is understandable. 

“Recognizing that we can both be frustrated with what is happening in our society and also celebrate the beauty of art is meaningful,” Benson said. “Art can be a really powerful way to protest.” 

Miranda Shea-Wood, an educator at PAAR who held a table at the gallery, said when students come together, they can make an even greater difference.

“I think doing anything student-led is going to be a lot more impactful than anything that myself or Lauren [another educator at PAAR] could ever do,” Shea-Wood said. “It’s kind of like your peers leading your peers and democratizing this idea of sexual violence prevention.”

For Olivia Rosati, a senior European and Eurasian studies major and an SGB board member, the idea of peers leading peers makes her believe that the bravery survivors showed at the art gallery can have rippling effects. 

“I think it takes a lot of bravery for the artists to be able to take something they experienced that was traumatic or painful and turn it into something productive and beautiful and to have the confidence to share that with the community,” Rosati said. “I think it can help a lot of people who are experiencing similar feelings but don’t have the confidence to share.”

To Benson, the gallery encouraging more people to share their experiences is invaluable to helping the community heal together.

“Sexual violence, that experience can be so isolating,” Benson said. “It can make it really hard to want to engage in community and I think to come and see the work of others survivors who are also artists have their on display, it builds community. It breaks down that isolation.”

The Teal Gallery will be shown again at the Alumni Connolly Ballroom on Nov. 28 and 29.

About the Contributor
Tanya Babbar, Staff Writer
Tanya Babbar is a sophomore majoring in English nonfiction writing with a minor in creative writing and GSWS. She likes to try new tricks on her roller skates and she often eats pavement. She values the importance of knee-pads and a helmet and claims to study the best inside a blanket fort.

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