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Domestic Violence Survivor Turns Abuse Into Art in Harlem

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Dianne Smith, an artist from Harlem, NY, became a victim of physical and emotional domestic violence the night her 6’6” boyfriend pinned her down to a bed and repeatedly punched her in the face. Afterwards, he tried to prevent her from seeking help by threatening her and taking her cell phone. Eventually, with the assistance of friends who lived nearby, Smith was able to persuade her boyfriend to leave. When he came back the next day, she again sought the help of her neighbors. They shielded Smith from the boyfriend, who was waiting for her outside her home.

Smith has cited many of her own reasons for not calling the police to report the assault. She didn’t want to make the situation worse. She feared that the police would kill her boyfriend. She knew she had an important meeting the next day. She wanted to move forward.

As she stepped outside the next day, attempting to hide her bruised and beaten face, Smith discovered that “moving on” was not so easy. She also questioned her motivation for trying to mask the condition of her face. “It forced me to ask myself, ‘who am I protecting?’ ‘Am I afraid of what people will think of me?’ I had never lived in that space in my life and I decided I would not carry a burden of shame for something I did not ask for,” said Smith.

Rather than hiding her battered face, Smith decided to use what had happened to her to give support to other victims and to raise awareness of the prevalence of domestic abuse. Being an artist provided her with a means to deliver her message.

Already working on an art installation in which she was creating a visual interpretation of the poem “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” for part of the group show in celebration of the 40-year anniversary of the play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf at The Schomburg Museum, Smith decided to include a video of her domestic abuse.

“People couldn’t believe it happened to me unless I showed them my photos. They had this preconceived idea of what a domestic violence victim should look like,” Smith explained.

Smith’s work has also been displayed at the African American Museum in Philadelphia  and the Houston Museum Of African American Art.  Smith’s willingness to put herself out there, even amid criticism, could inspire other victims to not be ashamed, and hopefully encourages them with the knowledge that there are other survivors out there to help.

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