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'Half the Sky' exhibition hopes to inspire action

Based on the Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn book, the 'Half the Sky' exhibition in L.A. looks at oppression of women around the globe and ways to strengthen and empower them through education and jobs. 

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“My primary goal was to inspire visitors to be moved and to take action,” Ms. White says. She balances emotional impact – like a wall of silhouetted women waiting to tell their stories of mass rape in the Congo – with images and text showing change is occurring. The West African group Tostan, for example, has educated women to end the centuries-old tradition of female genital cutting in 5,000 villages in Senegal.

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White also commissioned new artworks to illustrate the themes, like sound recordings by artist Ben Rubin of local women trafficked and held in domestic slavery or forced into prostitution. (An estimated 10,000 women are held in Los Angeles underground brothels, according to immigration agents, and thousands are forced into labor without pay or hope of escape.) Survivors tell their stories, like a 33-year-old Kenyan woman who finally escaped to a shelter, saying in a soft, halting voice: “All we have to do is be strong.”

A lobby installation features the well-known Los Angeles artist Kim Abeles’s “Pearls of Wisdom: End the Violence.” During a two-year community-engagement collaboration, Ms. Abeles worked with domestic-violence survivors in shelters, producing 800 pearlescent sculptures, a small sample of which are shown.

The project serves as a metaphor for the exhibition, since abused women turned their trauma into objects of beauty and hope. Each began with a symbol of abuse, encircled by yarn, strips of bandages, plaster, and paint. “I realize the power and strength women have, but you also can’t ignore the challenges worldwide,” Abeles says. Calling those who escape domestic violence “champions,” she adds, “I’m not hot on the idea of thinking of women as just victims.” Each woman offers advice, ranging from the practical: “Always keep spare keys,” to the urgent, “If he wants you to be perfect, run ... run now!”

“It was important to pair with domestic violence here in our own community,” White notes, and to give voice and visibility to local struggles.

The design of the exhibition catalyzes visitors to express reactions. A cloudlike “Wish Canopy,” designed by the Los Angeles architecture firm Layer, overarches the exhibit floor. Composed of interlocking ovoid spaces, the canopy is gradually filling with viewers’ wishes for other women written on pink, lavender, and blue paper.

“The overhead canopy,” Kirschner says, “has turned out to be an effective, dramatic way to symbolize the power of collective action.” Some of the scrawled wishes are poignant, like “When I see violence, I will tell someone. I will not look the other way again” or “I wish you could see you are not alone.”

The exhibit’s most atypical aspect is the chance to take direct action to advance human rights. One kiosk offers a choice of recipients to receive a microloan, reinforcing one of the main messages: Economic empowerment of women improves lives.  

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