Tatjana Rebelle spoke of the unspeakable.
The poet stood before a crowded room of women in the General Public Collective this past August and wrapped poignant, lovely words around the ugly, unthinkable actions of rape and sexual violation.
When finished, Rebelle stepped outside to collect herself, leaving behind a chorus of applause and a full-minute standing ovation.
That's when Elle Roberts realized what she's doing mattered.
"I knew in that moment, that was it," says Roberts. "I couldn't believe this woman, who felt so vulnerable and yet powerful, felt comfortable enough to do this in a space that I helped create."
She is referring to the women317 show that gives local women a safe space to speak their truths through performance and visual art.
When Roberts speaks, her words don't quite match her voice.
The upbeat, enthusiastic 26-year-old talks joyfully of her work, but the wisdom and weight of her words belie her bubbly disposition. They come from a deep emotional well that's sobering, from a woman who seems decades older. She articulates with conviction and utter reverence for females of all ages and demographics.
"I was a high school teacher and worked with youth outreach programs and women in domestic violence situations. You see the margins of our society through these experiences," she says.
Her background and personal involvement with at-risk teens and women who suffered unimaginable domestic abuse have informed Roberts' view on feminism. A freelance writer and artist, she founded shehive , a local project that creates a safe space to deconstruct gender inequality. It includes workshops for women to explore gender issues in popular culture, and it organizes informal gender-neutral gatherings to discuss relevant current events.
- Courtesy Shehive
Tatjana Rebelle speaks during a women317 event at General Public Collective in August.
These days Roberts is busy curating another installment of women317. She and partner Reese Maryam, who cofounded women317, launched the show back in the spring of 2014.
Next Friday at the General Public Collective, women317 will once again put artists at the forefront of a conversation centered on justice and social change. The show's theme, The Vagina Dialogues, is at least partly inspired by Eve Ensler's famous play The Vagina Monologues. Except Roberts and Maryam hope the local artists will use the stage to start a "dialogue" about women's issues, and many more topics beyond sexuality.
"We aren't defined by our bodies. It is very important to let that be known," she says.
Instead of focusing on where people stand politically, Roberts would rather it shift to women being seen as human beings with full choices over their bodies.
The show boasts a diverse and impressive lineup with women of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and it will include poets, singers, visual artists and storytellers.
"I think you can expect a night of bold statements," says Maryam. "women317 is always a memorable experience, and you can expect it to continue to be so -- it's definitely a night of power for women."
- Courtesy Shehive
Women317 brings artists and writers to offer their perspective on the things that matter to women in the Circle City.
Roberts says she's curating the show intentionally without a great deal of direction for the artists, encouraging them to use the creative forum as it's intended.
"I'm going to be seeing the show for the first time when it happens," she says. "This is a donation-based, shared-resources, grass roots event to which artists all donate their time and talent. This way we aren't beholden to represent views that are not our own because of funding issues."
Not everyone can be on the frontlines, like the 911 operators who take calls of abused women, for example, but every woman can make a difference, according to Roberts. The takeaway from the night is simple: "to affirm other women in your own life and practice those affirmations in real time." She hopes it will remind women to practice those things in small and practical ways every day.
"We're changing things that are so horrific and terrible, because we are resilient. We are not staying in those places where we are broken." she adds. "The conversation starts here, but it doesn't end here."
Recently Indianapolis has seen more art shows that challenge gender stereotypes, such as Difficult Women, and Still Working: A Feminist Exhibition. The scene is growing to reflect the rich and heterogeneous experience that being a woman entails.
- Image by Tena Gasert
Shehive wants to bring all of Indy's women together.
"We've just hit the tip of the iceberg, and we've only been doing it for two years. So that just says to me that if we invest in women, it will pay off a hundred fold," Roberts says.
If there is a space where women can speak their truths, they will absolutely deliver; if you build it, they will come.
The women317:Vagina Dialogues will be a free event for all ages (but consider the content will not, in any way, be censored). It will take place next Friday (Nov. 13th) at 7 p.m. at General Public Collective on 1060 Virginia Ave.Among the 60 artists on the roster, here are some of the featured guests to perform:
No Expiration Photography (to photographically document the show)
DJ Miss Alicia
Hen (Tender Evans and Lisa Berlin)
Kiss of Deaf