Sáoirse Goes speaks to the artist about her experience casting the busts of survivors of sexual assault.
Ali Waller – an installation artist based in Tennessee, casts the busts of survivors of sexual assault survivors in the hopes of creating an intimate and uplifting experience for her subjects. Speaking to Utopia, Waller reflects that she has always “had a passion for mental health care and trauma recovery”, being the catalyst to the inspirations behind her artistic exploits, noting that her work “has always been in the pursuit of wellness and self-expression through the seasons of healing”.
Waller has “been creating art for as long as [she] can remember”. Her decision to make it a career stemmed from “taking classes with a professor from Savannah College of Art and Design in high school”,which marked the catalyst to her professional artistic ambitions. Despite not having gone to art school, Waller moved to Glasgow where she began her art career and later relocated to West Palm Beach to become an art handler whilst “leading art healing groups in transitional housing for women getting out of prison”. Just before the beginning of the pandemic, the artist moved to Chattanooga in Tennessee, where she acquired her “own gallery space and casting studio”.
Her project entitled ‘/200’ features an installation of 940 cast busts of survivors of sexual assault, an exhibit which toured around the United States over the course of 2021. The installation was conceived “in order to honor the women’s lives who were stolen by Epstien, R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstien, and others who may never be exposed”. Contextualising the installation’s title, Waller says that “The significance of the number 200 comes from the $200 which Epstein paid victims for their silence or compliance”. However, Waller makes clear that “This exhibition was not inspired by Epstein. It was inspired by the women who fought from their teenage years into adulthood against sexual violence. The number of plaster casts is in spite of Epstein.This exhibition is not about the abuser, it is about the survivor.”
Waller characterises the inspiration behind this project as a product of “[her] own healing journey”. She continues, emphasising that she “chose body casting as a way to mimic ‘high art’”, highlighting the example of cathedrals, “in a contemporary way”. From the basis of incorporating classical references with her personal motivations, Waller describes her process of casting as one that has “evolved a lot since its origin”, now placing a specific emphasis on the emotional side of the preparation. For this, the artist “puts on mindful meditation music and listen[s] to affirmations before anyone being cast comes in”.
Once her subject arrives, Waller provides them with a consent form guaranteeing the confidentiality of anything discussed, as well as confirming the subject’s legal majority before beginning the casting process. After providing the subject with instructions on how to prepare their skin, Waller asks them “what is your relationship with your body?”. She continues, explaining that the process “only takes about half an hour”, and Waller ends the session by giving subjects an affirmation saying “you are one of (whichever number [she] is on) who have come into this space who believe you, receive you and respect you” followed by,“as I take off the cast, leave whatever you need here”, affirming the cathartic aspect of her endeavour.
In this sense, Waller’s art aims to insist that “you are not alone and you are not crazy”, providing a safe space for her subject. Moreover, her aim is not necessarily to speed up the healing process for sexual assault survivors, but rather to convey the message that “whatever your healing process looks like, no matter how long it may be – you are valid in your healing”. Ultimately, Waller’s goal is to emphasise that she believes the subjects she casts, whatever their stories may be.
With the powerful output of the busts, Waller asserts that “casting has been so monumental because it gives the survivor the power to show their bodies and tell their stories”, while also maintaining their anonymity, should they choose to. Moreover, Waller explains that “having consensual nonsexual experiences with your body after an assault can be very grounding”, wherein her casting acts as a tool “to help survivors return to their bodies and not feel betrayed by them”.
While discussing the challenges she faced while working on this installation, Waller explains that as she works with “a delicate topic for so many”,“it can be a challenge to learn alongside so many people with such different life experiences”. Additionally, faced with the popularity of her work, Waller finds another challenge in the feeling of being in demand, asserting that “it can be hard having to turn some people away because of my schedule”.
Following the success of ‘/200’, Waller has been working on another project entitled ‘Mommy’, which, while not using the medium of casting, provides a “commentary on religious abuse within evangelical churches”. Pointing out the thematic similarities between this project and her casting work with sexual assault survivors, Waller further explains that “rape culture and purity culture really are one in the same”, wherein ‘Mommy’ can be interpreted as a direct progression from ‘/200’. In addition, following the success of the tour around the United States of her casting exhibit, Waller hopes to stage a show when revisiting her friends in Glasgow. Explaining that she has been “wary of setting a date due to the pandemic”, she nevertheless hopes that by 2023 she can have a show and casting tour through London, Glasgow and Dublin.
Sáoirse is one our newest contributors to Utopia The Edit.