“How many pearls it takes to be happy…”


Art and its potential to turn the spotlight on the exposure of children and young people to sexualised violence
Prof. Dr. Sabine Andresen, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt/Main
Educational scientist; pursues research on children, poverty and the family; is Chair of the Independent Inquiry into Sexual Child Abuse in Germany
"How many pearls it takes to be happy…" and how fragile happiness is, when children are exposed to sexualised violence. In muted shades, the artist Renate Bühn paints in oils a girl lost in her own world. She is threading pearls. At the edge of the frame is an ashtray. The colours and composition, the child’s posture and the expression on her face signalise an exceptional state under seemingly normal circumstances.
How difficult it is – even later, in adult life – to put into words a child’s experience of sexualised violence: so many attempts fail, because no one listens to or believes the child, or because family life continues as normal, punching holes in a youngster’s body and soul.
Pins are an element in the art of Renate Bühn, and for good reason: 4 000 pins, stuck in foam to spell out a Latin prayer, stand for the pain of those who had to put up with sexualised violence; and perhaps they prick the conscience of us all.
In the “Lavabo” work series, the artists references the findings published in the Final Hotline Action Report of the German Bishops’ Conference on Victims of Sexual Abuse: for example, that priests used religious rites to deviously win the trust of their child victims. This is art dead set on uncovering bizarre untruths: “I will wash my hands in innocence” – is the prayer regularly spoken by a priest who is a perpetrator, or an accomplice.
Renate Bühn is both an artist and an activist. Her art documents the experiences of victims-survivors as well as the sexist and violent structures of our liberal society; and she demands of this society, from a feminist standpoint, that it listen, open its eyes, and overcome its wilful ignorance.
The visitors to her exhibitions are not left cold by this, as the visitors’ book attests: individual reactions, emotions, and expressions of deepest sympathy are put to paper, but also signs of denial. Victims-survivors too write down how they feel about the exhibitions. Many of them see themselves and their own experience mirrored in the work of Renate Bühn.
And that is what makes this art so special: sexualised violence is “turned into a language” by the power of symbolism, by the sense conveyed of the fragility of everyday life, only the surface of which looks anything like normal. And this makes it possible to speak out about sexualised violence, both in a conversation between me, myself and I, the viewer, as well as in dialogue with others.
Finding a voice and naming: these are the prerequisites of working through the pain and injustice that children and young people suffer owing to sexualised violence, pain and injustice that are aggravated by their experience of having nowhere to turn for support and understanding, also in their adult lives. Often, alone the fact that victims-survivors are discriminated against and stigmatised is enough to keep them silent.
Against this backdrop, Renate Bühn works as an advocate of victims-survivors, lending them a voice, raising awareness of their situation, demanding that society acknowledge the problem and take responsibility for it. Long before 2010 and the increase in public discussion of sexualised violence, she was using her art to put its causes and consequences firmly in the public eye, quite literally by making it visible. As early as 1986 she demanded a public debate both on sexualised violence and society’s silence on the matter. In the meantime Bühn has succeeded in sparking that debate herself, since more than 60 000 people, including many schoolchildren, have seen her work. Many of them will have discussed her treatment of sexualised violence among themselves and with others. Perhaps the exposure to such work will encourage them to treat victims-survivors with more respect and a sense of responsibility.
Art is also aesthetics and, as in the tie installation, it develops a particular aesthetic force. Yet Renate Bühn never seeks in her work to aestheticise violence and the pain that it causes. Creating a public platform and fostering debate through art is, for her, a political and ethical statement. She sensitises people to the problem. She smooths the path for those who have not yet spoken out – as well as for those who have not yet listened.
One goal of society, in facing up to and tackling sexualised violence, is to keep memories of it alive and so establish a culture of remembrance. For doing so will, and must, bring acknowledgement and commemoration in its wake, or at least set the ball rolling. People’s eyes must remain open to the reality of the pain and injustice brought on people by sexualised violence. Here too, Renate Bühn’s symbolism has a part to play. She uses symbolism to demonstrate that powerful patriarchal structures still wield power, carry a lot of weight, and can be overwhelming. Anyone looking at the tie installation senses this weight, not only intellectually, but also physically and emotionally. Everyday objects, such as ties, shirts, or a rocking-horse even, are anchors that maintain a sense of normality. As part of an artistic installation, however, they highlight how people in everyday life turn a blind eye and keep quiet; they highlight that solace and safety are in short supply.
With this in mind, the art of Renate Bühn gives voice and form to a critique of society’s ignorance and reluctant response. How urgently public action for the protection of children and young people is needed, still today, is demonstrated by those objects of hers that remind us of the girls and women who can no longer speak out, objects that bear the names of the girls and women who died as a result of sexualised violence, and so confer dignity on them.
Renate Bühn plays a part in ensuring that we will not forget those people. Her artistic work and exhibition projects have the unique power and capacity to face up to and tackle the sexual abuse of children and young people in our society – and also to prevent it.


Since January 2016, the Independent Inquiry into Sexual Child Abuse in Germany has been examining the extent, nature and consequences of the sexual abuse of children and young persons in the Federal Republic of Germany and the former GDR. The Commission is tasked to identify structures that have facilitated the sexual abuse of children and young persons and to investigate why tackling and preventing it was hindered in the past. Its remit is the sexualised violence inflicted on girls* and boys* not only in institutions but also within their family or social circles, either by a person/ persons unknown, or in the context of organised crime. “We are listening so that the situation of those concerned, also of the children concerned, will change. On the basis of our findings we will offer guidance both to the government and the general public. We will clarify what needs to be changed, in order that children and young people in the future will no longer be exposed to sexualised violence.” Source: https://www.aufarbeitungskommission.de  (06.08.2017)