The first thing visible when you walk into Women Hold Up Half the Sky is the expansive “sky” that hovers above the gallery. My daughter, Rosie, the consummate twelve-year old, was immediately taken by it, which of course made me happy. As a museum professional, I lust for “wow moments” in museums, and so I was pleased that she had one right away. “This is amazing,” she said, peering over the railing of the mezzanine. “I can’t get over it.”
We made our way into the first section of the exhibition, which focuses on maternal health, and what drew her in most were the paintings and textiles made by families involved with the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. Each one tells the story of a woman who perished in childbirth as a result of violence, cultural practice, or poor health care. The images, to say the least, outraged Rosie. Like most kids, she is obsessed with things being fair, and these stories seemed to illustrate just how unfair it is that there are still women who do not survive childbirth. “Horrible. Women should have all the help they need and not have to suffer,” she said with indignation. You said it, sister, I thought to myself.
I expected Rosie to take the next section of the exhibition, on gender-based violence, particularly hard since Rosie, whom we adopted out of foster care, had a rough early life: her birth mother had been in juvenile detention for assault. But she skipped right past the harrowing stories of women overcoming abuse, stopping only at the compilation of letters from the organization Women for Women International (WFWI). This year, through WFWI’s sponsorship program, Rosie and I began to support a woman survivor of war. Our donation will help this woman, a Nigerian named Mercy, pay her school fees. (Other women in the program might use the donation for job training or to pay for basic things like food and water, or to finance the start-up of a small business.) Rosie and I had recently written to Mercy, and we have yet to receive a response. But Rosie, who loves mail almost as much as she loves The Simpsons, was thrilled to view correspondence similar to what we might receive from Mercy.
Perhaps the most emotional part of the exhibition for each of us was the audio installation I’m Invisible: Surviving Slavery in 21st-Century Los Angeles. Recorded by StoryCorps and produced by multimedia artist Ben Rubin, the work plays excerpts from interviews with trafficking survivors who are now members of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST). The stories are unsettling, and the fact that these women were trafficked to our city and enslaved in such close proximity to where we live unnerved us both. Thankfully, Rosie is still at the age where we can hold hands because that—along with the fact that I was wearing my Skirball badge and wanted to keep it together in front of visitors—kept me from turning to mush completely.
Eventually we ambled out to the Wish Canopy station, where visitors can write their wishes for women and girls and have their wishes added to the ceiling installation, created by architectural office Layer. Since we’d stepped foot into the gallery, Rosie had been looking forward to adding to the sky, and she grabbed a pencil and the special, wing-shaped blue paper immediately.
I couldn’t help but spy on her as she worked, writing in the neatest handwriting I’d ever seen from her:
I wish that women can have free lives and become whatever they want to be.
She proudly hung her wish along with the others. Never have I felt in greater agreement with the words on the wall of a museum.
Perhaps nothing is more gratifying to a parent than seeing his or her child empathize with others, imagine the world better than it is, reaching higher to make a difference. And for once, instead of worrying about the world insinuating all of its harsh realities into her life, I only worried that Rosie wouldn’t have enough time to remedy all of them.
This post by Jason Porter first appeared on SkirBlog: Stories from the Skirball Cultural Center