Artist Karen Hawkins is currently in the midst of amassing 52,000 pink bows.
the number of substantiated child sexual abuse cases reported annually by Child Protective Services agencies.
The massive installation, which opens on April 21st at Gallery Shoal Creek in Austin, Texas, immerses the viewer among the panels, which are hung in every direction. “It’s really meant to not just engulf you in it, but to force you to navigate your way through,” Hawkins says.
My name is Karen. I was ten years old
Karen is in the process of collecting what she hopes will be thousands of voices for an audio component that will run on a loop. The first voice will be the artist’s, saying My name is Karen. I was ten years old. “That voice will recede back into the crowd and then another voice will come forward, a different person: My name is Jill. I was six years old, and that will recede back and another will come forward,” Hawkins says.
Victim of childhood sexual abuse
Hawkins’s voice message tells her story: she was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and she is certain that the actual number of annual victims is much higher – 52,000 are only verified cases. “Many can’t be substantiated, or are not believed, or do not come forward until they’re adults,” she says. She did not acknowledge or talk about her own abuse until she was in her 20s. Now 53, Hawkins says, “Most of the women I know who are my age also kept it to themselves as children. So that number must be significantly higher than that in actuality.”
Political art is a departure; cathartic
While Hawkins’ art has often involved large-scale installations, taking a political stance is a “very big departure” for her. “I had to struggle with the idea that I’m about to step forward in a very vulnerable way.” She discussed the project with her husband and five children before going forward. “It did feel cathartic, and terrifying, and brave all at the same time,” Hawkins says. “I think that everyone who lends their voice to this, and everyone who is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse sees it will have that same sort of experience.” But she also felt like she had to do it. “There was just no other direction that I was going to be able to go in my work right now. It was that compelling to me.”
Why pink bows
Hawkins decided on pink bows as a single, ubiquitous symbol of girlhood. “Pretty much every little girl at some point or another has a bow that they wear in their hair, and this light pink seemed the most symbolic of a girl’s childhood and innocence, and it’s easily recognizable.”
Reaction to messages from other victims
Women of all ages have left recordings through Hawkins’ web site. “Some of their voices are really strong and powerful and they’re stating it as kind of a matter of fact, and some of them you could tell have a tremendous amount of emotion, they’re a little wavering, a little timid,” she says. “I want to hold their hand. I want to tell them it’s okay.”