Reframing rape through the lens of magical realism

The Spiral of Containment: Rape’s Aftermath is the kaleidoscopic photographic exhibition at the fringes of Constitution Hill’s Number 4 section, where the isolation cells were located. 

Elisa Iannacone, who worked as a cinematographer and photojournalist in conflict and humanitarian crises zones, sought to recover from her trauma as a rape survivor by venturing into a collaborative project with other rape survivors.

“My career as a cinematographer and photojournalist came to a sudden halt after I was sexually assaulted in 2011,” says Iannacone. “After the assault, I felt like a shadow of a person, without much direction, and barely any capacity to navigate Earth. Through art therapy, I started to process my assault creatively … I reached out to other people who had been raped to explore the images that spiralled in their minds. The result became a project that aims to impact people around the world.”

Most trauma representations in photojournalism capture subjects in graphic situations of horror, dejection or pain. Consider the photograph The Struggling Girl, of a vulture and child, which appeared in The New York Times on 26 March 1993. It was taken by Kevin Carter in famine-stricken Sudan while the child was trying to reach a United Nations feeding centre. It incited discussions about ethics in journalism. Devastatingly it was the partial cause of Carter’s death by suicide. The picture severs the subject, its maker and viewers from any sense of hope. 

Cultural writer Susan Sontag wrote that “the only people with the right to look at images of suffering … are those who could do something to alleviate it”.

Iannacone, who wanted to capture trauma beyond the traumatic event in her body of work, which was created over the course of several years, says: “Sure, those images were effective once or twice in the past, but the reality is they’re not sustainable. You’re capturing a person at their lowest point and immortalising that image for posterity and it revictimises the victim.”

In Spiral, which consists of 24 photographs, the subjects are empowered by becoming participants in the making of their own portraits. For every photograph, each survivor chooses one colour from the 24-colour wheel and allows Iannacone to produce the image from a retelling of their own rape experience. Each image is placed in its own isolation cell at the former prison, accompanied by text and soundbites of their voices narrating their experiences. 

“When you access the realm of the imagination and you collaborate with participants to create images that they feel proud of, then you’re shifting the narrative and allowing people to take charge over how they want to be presented to the world,” says Iannacone.

The resulting images, which were shot in different places around the world (seven in South Africa), are radiant, uninhibited manifestations of the survivors’ psyches in the instance of trauma and the notion of self beyond the trauma. Iannacone uses the style of magic realism. The style is used in novels such as Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, where it’s used to convey the social and political violence in Nigeria, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved to reveal the conditions of slavery in the United States and in Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying, where it functions to criticise the violence among anti-apartheid movements in South Africa.

The genre’s tendency to blend realism and fantasy to produce dreamlike scenarios that accentuate emotions and stimulate sympathy offers an alternative way of representing that unrepresentable part of trauma, that “speechless terror” that stems from a disruption of the psyche and a break in memory. Through magic realism, Spiral explores rape survivors beyond the clichéd forlorn figures captured in photography. It spirals through the mental pictures that haunt the subjects, their new or old conceptions of the self, the effect of the trauma they experienced and their struggles to get beyond it. 

By recreating the images from individual stories and marking each story with a dominant colour, Iannacone amplifies the uniqueness of each survivor, allowing the viewer to appreciate the way the subjects see themselves.

“Each photo is an aesthetic feat,” says Kathy Berman, the curator of the exhibition. “Elisa was able to take people from these moments of ‘stuck pain’ and transform them into moments of heroism. Every work is heroic because she was able to work with the survivors to reframe and transform their realities.”

With the etchings of place names, people’s names and expressions of resistance such as “Aluta continua”, the markings on the isolation cells’ walls are the ghosts of the photographs they house. They echo the sentiments of loneliness, wistful optimism and displacement that are depicted in Iannacone’s photographs, providing a textured experience that forces the viewer to confront the many layers of trauma wrapped in each cell. 

Berman, the founder of Just Art International, which focuses on the connection between art and social justice in the curation of art exhibitions, details the physical experiences the viewer encounters as the sun’s light shines into the tiny cells. 

“These resonances of the prisoners incarcerated are quite powerful. What I had to do was relight the room because there were no lights working and I couldn’t do spotlights either. So, it offers an imperfect experience to view the photographs because you, as a viewer, have to fight with the reflection of the daylight, close the door on yourself to get rid of the reflection and then live with the image you see before you.”

In Staying Afloat, a picture reconstructed at Emmarentia Dam in Johannesburg, a survivor tells the story of her uncle violating her at a young age in the cemetery across the road. Although the story is painful to read and hear, the image is of a visionary dreamscape exalting the young woman’s Xhosa heritage, femininity and innocence with the warm orange glow of burning candles, floral arrangements and her Xhosa garb. The viewer celebrates the woman’s beauty and the solemn radiance that emanates from her as she stays afloat on a boat garlanded with proteas.

“The shoot really contributed to my healing process,” says Asanda Rumbu, whose case was in court at the time the photograph was taken. “I was able to confront my rape because of how the photoshoot was set up and how it took me back and reminded me of my experience. Before, I didn’t want to speak about it. I didn’t want to see tombstones, hear water, smell flowers or be near a bush because that took me back to where I was when everything happened. But through what I created with Elisa, I was able to put into a picture what I struggled to turn into words.”

Says Iannacone: “When you’re dealing with a subject who was the victim of crime, I think it’s really important to present their stories in a way that showcases their power.” 

Martin Pelders, the founder of MatrixMen, an organisation supporting male survivors of abuse, features in Normal and tells the story of being violated by a maternal figure. In his image, Pelders sits in a cot draped in bright baby blue materials, which collides with the ominous shadow cast across the verdigris colour on the walls. While the image of Pelders in his cot creates the image of a boy grasping the innocence of his childhood firmly, the wall’s shadow and the corroding blue-green colour symbolise a peeling back and an uncovering of the histories of young boys whose rape stories were silenced through shame.

“When I met up with Elisa after the images, I found myself incredibly emotional, not because of the photo but because of the memory of how intently she listened to my story. It was a little confusing at first. I didn’t know if it was me being triggered or me remembering the event. After a while, I realised that it was all because of that genuine empathy and care that Elisa possesses. It’s not often that people sit and truly listen and care about us survivors,” says Pelders. 

The inability to articulate trauma or the struggle to be truly heard when speaking of one’s trauma intensifies the isolation of survivors and victims. In South Africa, the terrors and identities of rape victims are further diluted by the sheer number of people who have experienced sexual violence. According to police crime statistics, 46 000 sexual offences were reported during the 2021-22 financial year, and nearly 80% of those were rape cases. Between December and October last year, 120 women were raped every day and more than five women were raped every hour. 

Spiral universalises and highlights the collective struggles of rape survivors while distinguishing between the unique ways that individuals experience trauma. As the viewer enters each isolation cell and takes in every subject through words, sound and photographs they are not only drawn to sympathise with the subject, but they’re also able to walk away with a deep sense of love and familiarity for each person. 

The Spiral of Containment: Rape’s Aftermath is showing at Constitution Hill and will run until 30 June.

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