How Dianne Smith Turned A Domestic Violence Incident Into Art

“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."

“He pushed me on the bed, pinned me down, and started punching me in the face,” recalls Harlem-based artist Dianne Smith, the night her 6’6, 270 lb. boyfriend assaulted her.

It was the first time anything like that had ever happened, and when she asked him to go, he refused.

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She considered calling the police, however, she couldn’t risk them coming to her apartment and potentially killing this ‘big Black man,’ which would only make the situation worse. Besides, she had an important meeting in the morning regarding an art piece she was creating for the 40-year anniversary of the play, ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf.’

Instead, she called her best friend from across the street, and his best friend who lived nearby. Together they convinced him to pack his bags and go.

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After he'd left, Dianne began tending to her face, which she says looked like a cartoon character. She also notified her neighbors about what happened in case he decided to come back. The next morning he was there, waiting on her doorstep. But so were her neighbors, who wouldn’t let him any where near her. Using them as a shield, she pressed forward and continued on her way.

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This project meant a lot to her.

As she walked down the street of her neighborhood, she noticed that something in her had changed. “I had my hat pulled down, and I had to ask myself, who am I protecting? Am I worried about what people think? But I'd done nothing wrong. There was no reason for me to be ashamed.” In that moment, Dianne decided that if anyone asked her what happened she'd tell them the truth. It was in stark contrast to her Belizean upbringing where appearances are everything and you don’t go putting your business in the street.

Time moved on, and her now ex-boyfriend continued his effort to get her back. He left voice messages, some apologetic, some verbally violent. Her friends started pressuring her to press charges. Dianne refused.

“I had to make the best decision for me. That meant not getting caught up in the system with court dates that could drag on for years,” explains Dianne. “I felt a lot of judgment, and people telling me what they would do. You don’t know what you will do until you are in that situation. Everyone can’t leave.” It was around that same time that Ray Rice was in the news for assaulting his then-girlfriend. Dianne found people judging her too.

“People were quick to ask, ‘Why is she staying with him?’ when they should have been asking, ‘What's wrong with him to hit a woman like that?’ It always becomes the woman’s problem.”

Fortunately, Dianne was able to get out of the relationship, but that’s not always the case. Domestic violence is a crises. According to statistics, an estimated 50 women a month are killed by former or current partners. About 75 percent of the victims were killed as they attempted to leave or after they ended the relationship. And while Dianne didn’t want to have her ex arrested, she did take precaution. His recorded messages along with photos that she began taking of her face since the night of the assault, were sent to her brother. That way if anything ever happened it was documented.

Ironically, it was these same photos that Dianne began to show her friends when domestic violence conversations came up.

“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,” says Dianne.

One day, while working on her ‘for colored girls’ installation — a visual interpretation of the poem 'Somebody Almost Walked Off Wid Alla My Stuff, — a light-bulb went off.

“I re-read the poem and realized that it’s about a woman taking agency over herself. If I was going to do justice to the work, I had to be authentic. I had to talk about what happened.”

Dianne had already sketched out the visual element of her piece, now it was time to create a video component. She chose three. For the first, she shows photographs of all the stuff in her apartment, while reciting the poem ‘somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff.’ In the second, she shares actual images of her bruised face, while sharing domestic violence statistics. In a third, she interviews a diverse group of girlfriends from throughout the Diaspora. They share powerful stories of stuff they’ve given away, lost or gotten stolen.

Today, Dianne’s installation — which premiered at the Schomburg Museum in New York, and showed at both the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the Houston Museum Of African American Art — is having an impact on viewers. 

"When people discover that the footage in the video is really my face after the assault, and not some performance art, they become very apologetic about what happened to me and it's a level of compassion that is not always extended to domestic violence victims. Especially, those you don’t know.”

Ultimately, Dianne hopes that her work will continue to open minds. “That woman in San Bernardino was murdered by her estranged-husband while teaching in her classroom. Domestic violence impacts the entire community, it’s not just a woman’s issue.”

For more Dianne Smith, visit DianneSmithArt.com

Erickka Sy Savané is a freelance writer and married mom of two young girls. For more of her work, visit ErickkaSySavane.com or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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