On a wall at Beacon Street Gallery, handwritten in big letters in English, Hindi, and Urdu, are these words: “You belong to me. You’ll serve me and my whole family.” “I didn’t choose you. My mother did.” “Shut up or I’ll tear your tongue out.” Part of a work called Shame, they’re just some examples of the abuse suffered by the south Asian residents of Apna Ghar, a local shelter for victims of domestic violence. Sculptor Indira Freitas Johnson, who sat in on weekly meetings at the shelter for six months, has collected these quotes and other words, images, household objects, and clothing to create Voices of Shakti: Pain, Struggle, Courage, a collaborative installation that examines south Asian attitudes toward women and domestic violence.

Johnson was first exposed to domestic violence as a child growing up in India. Her mother was a social worker, and sometimes her clients would come to the house and show the scars left where they had been beaten or burned. Since then, Johnson, who moved to Chicago in 1974 and received her MFA in design from the Art Institute, has used her art to question the cultural norms of a society in which religion and tradition play a large role in dictating strict gender roles. “Art is a very good vehicle for social change,” she says.

One display, Order of Protection, relates the stories of three women from Hindu mythology exalted for their exemplary devotion to their husbands despite the abuse they received. In Woman’s Worth hundreds of marriage ads cut out from local Indian newspapers are pinned to a red background. Revealing the qualities that south Asian culture demands from women, these ads ask for characteristics that “a lot of Indian women don’t have,” says Johnson. Tall, slim, and fair are three attributes that dizzily repeat themselves like a mantra. Another piece, Shakti, has the word “shakti”–Sanskrit for the creative feminine energy that’s part of both man and woman–spelled out on a mound of earth. Forming its letters are pieces of broken glass, prayer beads, rose petals, nails, twigs, and broken bangles–symbols of the rites of marriage and also the hardships.

Johnson specifically creates art that’s collaborative in order to raise awareness and provoke dialogue. A few years ago she sent life-size sketches to a slum in Bombay where local women transferred them onto quilts. The drawings addressed issues relevant to south Asian women–like dowries–and sewing the quilts sparked discussions among them. “There are a number of groups who do not have a voice in society,” says Johnson. “Through collaboration I can act as an instigator to help people have a voice.”

Voices of Shakti will be on display at Beacon Street Gallery, 4520 N. Beacon, through May 31. Gallery hours are noon to 5 Wednesdays through Saturdays. Call 847-232-2728 for information.

–Sashi Menon

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.