In “Caged Bird,” poet Maya Angelou wrote: “A caged bird stands on the grave of dreams, his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream, his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.”
Sculptor Ann Weiner took the spirit of Angelou’s birds and found women who exemplify the striving for freedom. An exhibit at Housatonic Museum of Art in Bridgeport, “When Caged Birds Sing,” spotlights women from around the world who defied oppression and repression to fight for a better future.
“I want to tell contemporary stories of extraordinary women who were abused because of their gender, but who had the resilience to move forward to work in behalf of other women still at risk,” Weiner says.
Some of Weiner’s heroines are famous: Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by a Taliban gunman for advocating for girls’ education; American Laverne Cox, the transgender star of “Orange is the New Black”; Somalian Waris Dirie, a supermodel who advocates against female genital mutilation, which she suffered at age 3; and Nujood Ali, the Yemeni girl who became the world’s youngest divorcee at age 10.
Others are less well-known: former Ugandan child soldier Grace Akallo; Maria de Penha of Brazil, wheelchair-bound after being shot and electrocuted by her husband; Peruvian sex-trafficking victim Jhinna Pinchi; and Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan, whose gang rape was “honor revenge” to punish her family.
Weiner’s sculptures emphasize the horror, in ways that may make a viewer queasy. Dirie holds a teddy bear and wears a cage, as a circular saw cuts her crotch, blood pooling at her feet. De Penha sits in a wheelchair in a blood-stained wedding gown, an extension cord wrapped around her. A ghostly Mai stands next to a white-shrouded woman with soiled hands, as a child screams at her feet, surrounded by stones.
Robbin Zella, director of the Housatonic museum, says the issues presented in the show transcend gender definitions. “These women are considered property. It’s not even women’s rights here. It’s human rights,” Zella says.
WHEN CAGED BIRDS SING is at Housatonic Museum of Art, at Housatonic Community College, 900 Lafayette Blvd. in Bridgeport, until Feb. 10. On Feb. 8 at 2 p.m., “Human Rights Panel Discussion: Out of the Shadows” will be moderated by Afghani activist Fatima Sabri. housatonic.edu/artmuseum.