Viet Nam News
by Minh Thu
Hiratsuka Niki, a Japanese-English artist from Australia, appears cheerful to the casual observer. But in her mind, she is haunted by a sad past: she was abused by her father when she was young.
After years of living with the secret of her abuse, she began sharing her story publicly. The response from other survivors of sexual abuse encouraged her to continue sharing and begin an art project in late 2016. Since then, she has traveled in Australia and Việt Nam to paint women who are victims of sexual abuse. Her project, titled "1001 Portraits of the Goddess”, included an exhibition at the Việt Nam Women’s Museum, and has inspired many Vietnamese women to speak out.
“Art is my number one passion in life. In the past when I didn’t do art, I struggled. But when I do art, I find meaning and a lot of strength. Art became the way I invited people to share their stories with their communities,” she said.
“It’s horrible when it’s not your fault and you feel like you have to hide it,” she wrote on her project page. “So what I’m doing in the project is giving women an opportunity to give back the shame.”
A self-portrait of Hiratsuka Niki, part of the project 1001 Portraits of the Goddesses.
Listen to whispers
Niki was born in 1986. She studied Vietnamese in Hà Nội from 2009-2010, which turned out to be a major advantage when she returned to work on the project six years later.
Thanks to the project, she had a chance to travel to many places and make friends with many women.
One of them is Phùng Thị May, a Red Dao woman from Sa Pa Town in the northern province of Lào Cai.
Niki was in the Old Quarter with her friends one day when three women wearing ethnic minority dress walked by.
“I remember they were laughing about something, and I couldn’t help but notice how light-hearted and free they seemed. That’s when I had a chance to know May,” said Niki. “Then May took me to her village and pointed things out like a tour guide but our relationship from the beginning was very much one of friendship.”
May felt confidence and close enough to tell Niki her own story and then agreed to join the project.
Hiratsuka Niki and Sandy Ngọc Nguyễn, author of a book on sexual abuse, visited youth in Thái Bình Province to spread awareness of sexual abuse. — Photo courtesy of Niki
When May was a high school student, she lived and studied in a place far from her village. She would only go home for holidays or Tết (Lunar New Year).
Once when May came home, her friend invited her to go out with him, and she agreed. Later, he raped her.
“It never crossed my mind that he would do such a thing without my permission,” said May.
“Afterwards, I became depressed, I was constantly anxious and unable to trust anyone. I was lucky to receive much sympathy from Niki and other women. I didn’t want my past to affect my future.”
Giàng Thị Sao, a Mông woman from the northern province of Tuyên Quang, said Niki made a beautiful drawing for her. Above all, the project brought her a chance to share the hurt and live a better life.
“The most difficult thing wasn’t the experience itself, but social prejudice,” said Sao. “When I was growing up, society focused a lot on virginity. So according to them, I was a woman with no value whatsoever.”
“I hope that the stories shared here will help prevent sexual abuse in Việt Nam and around the world. Our women and children deserve to live in a safe world,” she said.
Now Sao is the founder of Wake Up Na Hang Club, which creates an environment for local students to practice speaking English, and for avid English learners to access more resources.
Hiratsuka Niki (right) opened an exhibition of some of her work on the project 1001 Portraits of the Goddesses. — VNS Photo Minh Thu
Feel like home
Niki always feels at home when she comes to Việt Nam. When she returned to Hà Nội late 2016, one of the motorbike drivers waved and started walking towards her. Her instinctive reaction was “Oh no, I don’t want a motorbike taxi right now.”
“But as he came closer, I realised that he was my motorbike driver six years ago,” said Niki.
“He asked me if I had a lunch yet, which is how Vietnamese people say hello. He talked to me like I had never left the country for six years.”
Last month, she organised an exhibition in Hà Nội to review a part of her Goddess project. Almost halfway into her mission in Việt Nam, the artist is eager to complete the rest of her project, even though it means creating 1,001 portraits - or more.
Niki said she wants to portray as many women as possible. She will approach more and more women around the world and help them raise their voices. — VNS