Power to The Panty Project: Spreading Awareness Through Art at MSU

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Reflecting during Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Last year, Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in federal prison for first-degree criminal sexual abuse. During the seven-day court duration, 156 women gave impact statements. Since his time in court, close to 1,000 Nassar survivors have come forward. 

Former Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon is under investigation and facing criminal charges. The university’s former Interim President John Engler resigned after backlash when he claimed that Nassar survivors were “enjoying” the spotlight. A lot has happened in a year. 

In that same year, Candace Keller — associate professor of African Art & Visual Culture at MSU — met Babette Shaw, an artist, poet, photographer, activist, educator and researcher. 

The two met at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, around the same time that the Nassar case broke in early 2018. Keller invited Shaw to MSU to use her art to encourage dialogue and understanding. Shaw came to MSU in January of this year as a visiting artist and scholar within the Department of Art, Art History and Design.

Her purpose at the university was to engage students and community members in “The Panty Project,” which exists within her solo exhibition “The Wash (As It Seams),” which was on display at the MSU Union Art Gallery from Jan. 21 – March 2, 2019. 

Shaw began working on “The Panty Project,” a social practice project, in 2012. The project started with women’s underwear of all colors, sizes and prices — to represent women of all races and socioeconomic status — hanging next to one another on clothes line, which represents the common thread of womanhood. It was titled “Panty Lines: The Ladies Are Talking.”

“[In 2012] political individuals were misspeaking about the function of women’s bodies,” said Shaw. “Women’s bodies and their sexuality has been long controlled. I figured that it was finally time we talk about this.”

This encouraged Shaw to perform research regarding the language used to describe women’s bodies. She found that many words used to describe women’s reproductive organs were of negative origins and held negative connotations. 

“Language is a tool designed to communicate and connect and yet our language is very polarizing,” said Shaw. She sewed 24 of these words onto varying sets of women’s underwear, which became the first “Panty Portraits.” 

“I’ve been making work about gender constructs and racial intersectionality,” said Shaw. “I became interested in expanding the project outside of myself and my experiences,” so she put out a call for people who identify as women to share their stories with her “because we all have a story to tell.” These individuals’ stories from all over the country — including some from the MSU community — contribute to Shaw’s art installations. “I invite all to participate in the making of the art and help me say what needs to be said in regards to culture and society,” she said.

“This project serves to aid in the un-silencing of voices and to offer a step toward healing and transcendence,” said Shaw. This is much needed at MSU. 

MSU still has a long way to go before making claims that campus is a safe place for survivors of sexual assault and rape. Bringing artists like Babette Shaw onto campus reminds students and community members that the Nassar trial itself may be over, but survivors of sexual assault — including the sister survivors — are still healing. Like Babette said, “It’s not about me — it’s much bigger than me. It’s about all of us; it’s about humanity.”