Breaking the silence: Sex abuse laid bare by Australian artist in Vietnam

'It’s horrible when it’s not your fault, and you feel like you have to hide it.'

In every encounter, Hiratsuka Niki is cheerful, with her sparkling eyes, childlike voice and caring demeanour.

On her project’s Facebook page, "1001 Portraits of the Goddess", young people have praised, thanked and encouraged the 32-year-old Australian artist for her recent water color portraits of sexual abuse survivors in Vietnam. The realistic, humble paintings depict strong women wearing the traditional ao dai, each with their favorite flower pinned on their collars, as well as ethnic women in vivid traditional dresses.  

Hiratsuka Niki was a victim of sexual abuse as a child herself, and her project is inspiring thousands of Vietnamese women to speak out.

In Vietnam, at least 1,300 cases of sexual violence against children are reported each year, according to the United Nations. A report in 2014 by ActionAid also found that 87 percent of women in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City had been sexually harassed at least once.

In 2016, researchers at the Institute for Social Development Studies concluded that social prejudices against women and blaming the victims themselves had silenced most cases of sexual violence, especially if the victims belonged to vulnerable groups such as migrant women, people with disabilities, sex workers and people with HIV.

To speak up in this country takes courage.

“I think there are layers of difficulties for Vietnamese women”, Niki told VnExpress International. “Virginity value, the face of the families, the widely recommended virtue to bear a burden and not make a big deal out of it.”

“It’s also a taboo in Australia, but here it really takes someone special," the artist said.

After her childhood trauma, Niki experienced anxiety, fear and difficulties doing anything normal. She first spoke publicly about her childhood story at her solo exhibition last September in Sydney, which later drew a moved audience to come up to her and encourage her to do a portrait project.

“I kinda refer to some superhuman qualities within these women to step up on a social level and share their stories,” said Niki, explaining her "Goddess" concept. “It’s rare because you don’t actually see a lot of people standing up and sharing this. That’s the biggest challenge of my project.”

Having lived in Vietnam from 2009 to 2010, the artist was appalled by the real challenge when she came back to Vietnam to start her project this year. Roommates, friends and acquaintances simply told her to brush off the idea.

“There's no way any Vietnamese women will share their stories with you,” said a friend, Niki recalled.

Sandy Ngoc Nguyen

But after questioning her decision and rising doubts, Niki reached out to the Center for Women and Development in early 2017. There, she found her first Vietnamese "Goddess": Sandy Ngoc Nguyen, an activist based in Ho Chi Minh City who had already published a book about her story.

“It happened when one of my relatives was ‘looking after’ me while I was sick. I was 8 years old at the time,” Sandy wrote in her portrait caption. “I quickly became aware that he didn’t care about me at all."

“Don’t you know what a privilege it is to be touched by me?” - he used to tell her.

Sandy escaped her abusive family at the age of eight. Under the water color portrait of her wearing a yellow ao dai emblazoned with tulip flowers, Sandy speaks of her battle against suicidal thoughts, which have moved thousands and have been shared by hundreds of people on social media.

Encouraged by the first portrait, Niki knew the silence could be broken. The second woman, Lynn Nguyen, messaged the artist on Facebook after the first story. Lynn then inspired the third, fourth and fifth "Goddess" to follow.

“Niki was very gentle and nice and mindful,” Lynn told VnExpress International. “When we met up, she made sure there was nobody but me and her. I never felt that safe in my life.”

Niki has found 12 "Goddesses" in Vietnam and completed six portraits. From NGOs to acquaintances, and online fans to couchsurfing, the artist has discovered brave voices in the most unexpected places.

This December, Niki will exhibit her portraits at the Vietnam Women’s Museum. Almost halfway into her mission in Vietnam, the artist is eager to complete the rest of her project, even though it means creating 1,001 portraits.

Hiratsuka Niki's self-portrait

“It will take me about 40 more years to complete this project”, Niki laughed. “Yet for me, I need to tell everyone and complete this project, then I’ll feel okay. I would feel this all happened for a reason. I would have purpose, and that really gives me strength.”

“Art is my number one passion in life. In the past when I didn’t do art, I struggled. But when I do art, I find meaning and a lot of strength.”

“It’s horrible when it’s not your fault and you feel like you have to hide it,” she wrote on her project page. “So what I’m doing in ‘1001 Portraits of the Goddess’ is giving women an opportunity to give back the shame.”

Story by Trang Bui

Photo and video courtesy of Hiratsuka Niki

A preview of six portraits in the project "1001 Portraits of the Goddesses". To see the women's full stories, visit the project's Facebook page. 

"...It happened when one of my relatives 'looked after' me while I was sick. I was 8 years old at the time. I quickly became aware that he didn’t care about me at all: 'Don’t you know what a privilege it is to be touched by me?' Then he’d threaten: 'Do you want to die like your father?'..."

"...I only learnt the words 'rape' and 'sexual abuse' towards the end of high school. That was when I finally understood what had happened to me as a child. I wished that the people around me knew how to protect me better. I came to understand just how important sex education is for children because at the time it happened, I didn’t even have a name for it...."

"...Many months later, when I’d mostly forgotten about that little girl, I heard Lynn Nguyen share her story at her workshop. When she named her experience, I sensed my little one calling me. She was saying: 'I’m here, I’m broken and I’m hurt.' I felt she was calling me to tell me she needed help...."

"...I was eight years old at the time. My hair was copper-colored and short like a boy’s. I was wearing a yellow dress with blue polka dots along the bottom; it was very cute...."

"...When I was around 4 or 5 years old, my parents were busy with work so they’d often ask someone else to look after me and my siblings. Nobody ever thought about the risk of sexual abuse, so I went through that awful experience without anyone in my family knowing...."

"...During that Tet holiday, the boy invited me to go out with him and I agreed. It didn’t cross my mind that he could do such a thing without my permission...."

By Trang Bui