Sophia Hewson, an Australian-based contemporary artist, has made headlines with a video of what she’s calling a “rape representation.”
On view at Melbourne’s Mars Gallery and titled are you ok bob?, the three-minute piece shows the artist staring blankly into the camera while “Bob,” a pseudonym, strikes her during intercourse and attempts to force her head to one side. Hewson, who wears a white T-shirt, pushes back each time and defiantly confronts the viewer.
There is no nudity in the video, and all we see of “Bob” are his forceful arms and hands.
“The raped woman is nearly always depicted with her face downcast and her eyes averted,” Hewson, 31, writes in her artist’s statement. The most challenging part of the piece “isn’t watching as a woman is struck or penetrated, it’s seeing her look back out at us from the experience.”
Are you ok bob? is reminiscent of Emma Sulkowicz’s Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol (This Is Not a Rape), a graphic, eight-minute video that intentionally blurs the lines between consensual sex and rape. The video was Sulkowicz’s first performance piece after graduating from Columbia University last year and completing her widely publicized senior thesis, Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight, a protest against the school’s decision not to expel her alleged rapist. Sulkowicz has not produced any major works since Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, which she posted on the Internet last June.
Hewson’s video piece can only be viewed in its entirety at Mars Gallery in Melbourne, which represents the artist. Mars did not return requests for comment.
While Sulkowicz’s performance art was inspired by her alleged rape on campus by a fellow student, Hewson doesn’t refer to her own sexual experiences in her piece.
Instead, Hewson intended to align herself with other contemporary women artists who have depicted or referenced rape in their work.
Much like Sulkowicz’s performative pieces, Hewson’s video is as well-intentioned and politically-motivated as it is provocative. But she isn’t breaking new ground in performance art.
Indeed, the piece delivers an on-the-nose message about defying the shame and stigma surrounding victims of sexual assault.
Reached by The Daily Beast via email, Hewson explained that in cinema and in art, representations of raped women “are often patriarchal depictions,” and that her work “pays homage to a long line of women artists whose calculated use of their bodies as deliberately vicious and referential tools enabled them to destabilize the institution.”
Audrey Wollen, a young artist who rose to fame on Instagram, and feminist writer Susan Griffin are both referenced in Hewson’s artist statement.
Wollen is known for her Sad Girl Theory, which proposes that women’s pain and suffering be used “as tools for resistance and political agency,” she told NYLON magazine.
In the same vein, Hewson told The Daily Beast that her video piece “aimed to create a single representation where the women emerges unbroken.”
Hewson clarified that she did indeed have sex on camera, though the viewer does not see much beyond her unrelenting gaze.
She also explained in her email that she solicited “Bob,” a stranger, to engage in sexual activity while being filmed—and that she purposely targeted an older man to whom she was not attracted.
“I’ve never had rape fantasy [sic] and I didn’t enjoy making the work physically,” she writes in her artist’s statement.
Like Sulkowicz’s Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, Hewson’s video suggests consent is not always clear—and that consensual sex can quickly become violent or non-consensual.
We also know from her artist’s statement that she solicited “Bob” to have sex with her for art’s sake. She asks: “Who is using whom in this situation?”
Another pertinent question is whether Hewson’s “rape representation” trivializes the real experience.
Hewson has an explanation for this, too, writing in her artist’s statement that rape is “more than an unwanted sex act, that it is the foundation for the entire institution of the patriarchy, and hence it is the crucial battleground for dismantling male power.”
Well, sure—if you subscribe to Hewson’s regurgitation of second-wave, radical feminist theory.
Choosing to put herself in this situation—“to show (even symbolically) a woman enduring” rape is “conceptually challenging because it threatens our assumption that man’s power is insurmountable,” she writes.
Perhaps, though the many artists and activists who have threatened that assumption over the past 40 years makes her message less challenging than hackneyed. Her desire to empower victims of sexual assault is admirable enough without her clunky attempts at intellectual profundity.