‘We can still bloom and grow after trauma’: the artist sharing survivors’ stories of abuse

Passersby in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District will see something rather atypical in one of the many storefronts at the moment: a group of old-fashioned lightbulbs standing alongside small internet-connected printers, each unspooling an anonymous newsfeed of survivor stories.

It’s part of a new project from New York City’s public artist-in-residence, Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, an installation called May We Know Our Own Strength, which highlights the voices of anonymous survivors of racism and sexual violence. It runs until 15 May.

“Last summer, we experienced a watershed moment where Asian and Pacific Islander youth were coming forward with their stories of sexual assault and gender-based violence,” said the artist.

“I wanted to create a space where private sorrow could still see the light of day for anyone carrying heavy burdens to lay them down; a reassuring ritual that lets survivors know that their stories will be held with dignity and respect.”

With protesters gathering around the country in an outcry to the Asian and Pacific Islander community, Phingbodhipakkiya wanted to help break the silence. Anyone can visit the artist’s website, MayWeKnow.NYC, and submit their story of survival; be it of sexual assault or gender-based violence. She performs a ritual to honor the Asian women recently murdered in Atlanta every night at 8pm, and viewers can watch the space via a 24-hour livestream.

The artwork will grow organically over time depending on the submissions received through the website, which are then printed out (so far, there have been 500 submissions). “Each week, I harvest armfuls of anger, hope, grief, loss and shame and begin to weave them into the installation,” said Phingbodhipakkiya.

She uses the printed-out paper as a kind of sculpture or textile, sometimes cutting them up and weaving them into wire structures or hanging them from above. Sometimes, they are laid alongside warm-colored lights, candles and dried flowers (Phingbodhipakkiya used flowers as symbolic of solidarity and resilience as part of her recent Time magazine cover, which she illustrated, as well). It embodies a sense of solitude and silence.

“So much of this work is a meditation on how we can still bloom and grow after trauma,” she said. “Like the unpredictable nature of healing from trauma, the finished installation may end up being something unexpected.”

Phingbodhipakkiya wanted to pay tribute to the six Asian women who were victims of Atlanta hate crime, having grown up in the city. “We can’t discuss this tragedy without talking about the deadly intersection of racism and misogyny, and how the fetishization and exoticization of Asian women isn’t some abstract theory,” she said. “It has violent real-world consequences.”

Every night, Phingbodhipakkiya visits the space to dim the lightbulbs in the installation and print their names out: Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yue, Paul Andre Michels and Delaina Ashley Yaun González. “And all 16 incandescent bulbs shine resolutely into the darkness,” she said.

The stories from survivors keep coming in, and every time they’re submitted through the website, they’re printed in real-time through one of the 16 internet-connected printers onsite.

One story, which brought Phingbodhipakkiya to tears, reads: “I am a survivor of sexual abuse. My older male cousin molested me when I was 12. What makes this even more complicated is that he is from the AAPI side of my family, so I often find myself struggling to accept that the source of my connection to this beautiful community also contains my greatest wound. I want to believe that there is a greater purpose, an opportunity to turn this pain into something creative and healing for others. I don’t know what that is yet. But I hope for it every single day.”

Phingbodhipakkiya has used recycled materials from the city’s Materials for the Arts program, which allows artists to reuse donated secondhand materials. It includes an old clock, which she claims is a nod to #MeToo and the Time’s Up movement. “It’s also a way to acknowledge the staggering Rainn statistic that every 73 seconds in America, someone is sexually assaulted,” she said. “That’s why the clock is always set at 7.30, because it is always time to believe survivors and support their healing.”

This project, created in partnership with the local Business Improvement District, is what the New York City cultural affairs commissioner, Gonzalo Casals, calls “transforming the all-too-often invisible experiences of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence into something that must be acknowledged and addressed”.

By presenting an exhibit that uses paper is one that requires a double take: paper can be seen as a material easily torn. However, Phingbodhipakkiya still sees it as a symbol of strength and resilience.

“A single sheet of paper may be flimsy, but with every fold, it grows in strength, just as we do with support, encouragement and resources,” said the artist. “Paper that has been folded 100 times over is nearly impossible to tear, just as survivors standing together in support of each other and bearing witness to each other’s stories is formidable.”

Phingbodhipakkiya sits on the cold concrete floor to read the submissions, rip them off the roll of paper and work with them. “I am physically holding someone’s story in my hands, I don’t take that lightly,” she said. “Each time I bend, fold and twist the paper, I feel like I’m helping to release a long-held burden. I’ve found that process incredibly cathartic.”

Each story is used as a glint of hope. By weaving the stories together, it proves that survivors are not alone, offering a sense of belonging, if not refuge.

“Art helps us connect to our humanity when we feel it has been stripped away, it helps us find our power and courage when we feel we have been violated or silenced,” she said.

“It reminds us that despite the limitations society may put upon us, despite the hardships and heartbreak we have suffered at the hands of others or under oppressive systems, that we are worthy of love, healing and freedom,” she said. “And its multifaceted nature allows us to mend our wounds at our own pace and in our own way.”

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