Sarah Danays: Killing Women – An Absence of Sanctuary

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Earlier this month, Sarah Danays, Durham University’s artist in residence, presented a talk entitled ‘Killing Women – An Absence of Sanctuary’. In this talk, she discussed how her work engages with violence experienced by women. The talk was one of several enrichment talks and workshops provided in support of the 2022/2023 student art prize themed ‘Sanctuary’. Shortlisted work for the art prize is now on display in the Palatine building.

Artists in residence are just one partnership which the university forms with our artistic community. Danays is a sculptor and photographer who, in her residency, works in collaboration with the ‘Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse’ (CRiVA) based in the Department of Sociology. CRiVA is devoted to multidisciplinary research which works towards improving knowledge about and ending violence and abuse within our society. The research of CRiVA is compatible with Danays’ art practice which responds to violence inflicted against women. 

Previously, Danays’ partnership with the university has seen the development of her installation Uterine Dreams: Sculptor, Heal Thyself, exhibited between 3 June 2021 and 18 December 2021, at the Oriental Museum’s Thacker Gallery. The work addresses miscarriage and was inspired by an Egyptian New Kingdom pottery piece of a mother and child and a Greco-Roman travertine of a female torso from the Oriental Museum’s extensive collection. Danays notes that, as in her earlier works which addressed forms of violence against women, the female experience of miscarriage centred in this piece is rarely documented in either contemporary or ancient art forms. 

Her visual artworks provide a sanctuary for traumatic memory

Danays is drawn to working with fragmented and broken sculptures and artefacts in a practice which she describes as a ‘metaphysical surgery’. Her restorations and alterations of artefacts are a process of healing. The artist’s talk discussed her biographical relationship with her work as each piece is intensely personal and just as her adaptations relate to her personal healing, they resonate with a wider female audience.

This act of healing was performed in her tactile transformation of serrated wounds in found sculptural fragments such as Tara (2011). Danays relates that the bronze dismembered arm is sourced from a life-sized 17th century Tibetan bronze statue which was knocked down by the Red Guard Troops during the Cultural Revolution. The piece is named after the female Bodhisattva Tārā who is also known as the ‘Mother of Liberation’. Danays explained that she carved and conjoined the piece of agate alabaster to the broken end of the arm to ‘dam up the trauma’ experienced at this point of the object.

Similarly, The Arms of the Martyrs: Saint Catherine of Alexandria (2018/2019), which narrates the traumatic martyrdom of Saint Catherine, is a damaged panel which Danays restored. It is not solely the violence which drew Danays to the panel, which is fragmented from a broader narrative, but the brokenness of the object which Danays heals through carving a prosthetic arm replacement for Saint Catherine. The history of each artefact, therefore, informs Danays’ ‘metaphysical surgery’ as she infuses these objects with the context of the present. 

The female experience of miscarriage is rarely documented in either contemporary or ancient art forms

Currently she is working on Fragments of the Innocents: no recovery position, which aims to confront and give voice to a femicide witnessed internationally. Danays reflects on the continuous research of the Femicide Census which reveals that on average a woman has been killed by a man every 3 days over the past 10 years in the United Kingdom. She presented the carefully planned wax maquettes she created in 2021, which model the forms of the female body parts she plans to carve from alabaster specifically mined for her in East Staffordshire. The artist prefers the use of alabaster which holds a dynamic quality as when sculpted the stone oxidises upon exposure and grows a patina which Danays terms a ‘scab’. This process of carving requires a care and discipline which compliments her practice while her purposeful photography ensures that her artworks are framed under her intended narratives. 

Danays’ work powerfully raises awareness to gendered violence and intuitively redresses the violations experienced by her chosen artefacts as well as the narratives which inform each piece. In mending a void in cultural records, her visual artworks provide a sanctuary for traumatic memory.

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