Jana Leo is an artist, architect, teacher and author. In 2001, shortly after moving to the US from her native Spain, she was held hostage in her apartment and raped. Her book, Rape New York, was published in London by Book Works in 2009, with an accompanying exhibition at Invisible-Exports in New York.
Neither the book, nor the exhibition, nor Leo’s own sense of closure would have been possible without her immediate concern for art. In the book, she recalls that as soon as her assailant had left, she took pictures of all the traces of what had happened: the cup from which he drank, cigarette butts, the bed’s wrinkled sheets. Leo had studied architecture and philosophy; her work explored the notion of domestic space. She wasn’t necessarily even aware at the time that this collection of autobiographical documentation would have value as legal evidence. She was trying to regain control and arrest the dehumanising effects of the violence she’d suffered. Later, as she continued to keep records of the various objects and documents she collected in the wake of the crime, these became attempts to counteract a second process of dehumanisation, the one she encountered through the legal and civil procedures that followed the attack. In her criminal case, Leo had to prove that it had been rape. In her civil suit against her negligent landlord, she had to prove “emotional loss”.
Rape New York is an archive of processes, language and documentation. Leo says that it serves in part as a textbook or manual for ways in which art can feed into other disciplines – in this case, the law. The book describes the actual assault, then Leo’s often thwarted attempts to obtain justice; it also explores how New York City’s economic inequalities create an architecture that actively encourages violent crime in particular areas. Sometimes being there means risking extreme personal harm in order to expose and interpret a horror the rest of us might otherwise never think about. §
Images: Left; Crimes against Body vs. Property Manhattan (2008). Right; Rape New York, installation view, Invisible-Exports, New York (2009). Both courtesy of the artist and Invisible-Exports, New York.