Since she was raped two years ago, Washington painter Manon Cleary has learned a lot about dealing with the explosive aftershocks of sexual assault. But then this month, on the eve of her current show at Kramerbooks to benefit the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, came a cruel, bizarre coincidence that caught her totally unprepared.
In September 1996, Cleary was attacked on a goodwill arts trip to Kazakhstan by a Kazakh artist she’d met only briefly. She returned home to Washington in an odd, dissociated state of denial. “I remember I’d bought a sleeveless dress for an art opening,” she recalls now, “and I was concerned if I could wear it because of the bruises on my arms.”
But within a few months, Cleary began digging into her buried feelings with a series of paintings—self-portraits that show her features twisted by terror, rage, and anguish. And though Cleary is an exacting craftswoman, the new canvases are slashed, burned, and spattered with bloody red paint.
Works from The Rape Series, as she bluntly calls it, have appeared in shows in New York, Baltimore, and D.C.; at every show, women have volunteered their own experiences with rape. So when the Rape Crisis Center asked her to lend the whole series to a show marking Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Cleary readily agreed.
Shortly after she signed on to the center’s show, a friend called Cleary to say that a show of Kazakh art was due to open in Washington the very same night as hers—and that her rapist would be accompanying his work to D.C. The news unglued her. “My first reaction was panic,” she says. Retelling the story, she breaks down again. “It was as if the bad guys had won.”
As it turned out, her attacker never got into the country. Cleary thinks an affidavit she filed with the State Department after the attack may have kept him out. (The affidavit, with names blacked out, is part of the Kramerbooks show.)
“I included the affidavit in the show to say, ‘This happened to me.’ Because I think if people knew how often this happened, they’d be giving all their loose change to the Rape Crisis Center.”—John DeVault
The Rape Series shows at Kramerbooks and Afterwords through the end of April. For more information on Sexual Assault Awareness Month events, call (202) 232-0789.