Red Dress

Redress (verb) Remedy or set right. Restore the balance in a situation.

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What do people say about us?

Thank you Una for three amazing art workshops for our Wren Bakery trainees. It wasn’t just learning different art skills that we can practice and take forward, but your openness in sharing your stories with us inspired our women to do the same, and many of the pieces of art we created started to tell our stories too. Thank you for creating a safe, creative, fun space, we will miss it and look forward to a final session next month!

The Wren Bakery Charity, with Una

It was a powerful experience being involved in the project. I definitely feel like I’ve grown as an artist and personally from being involved. 

Dedicated to All the Others: Group funded by Leeds Inspired

Ultimately, I learnt to just be myself. As a dyslexic writer and someone who has never really had any formal training it takes a lot for me to put myself out there in the literature world and being in this programme helped me feel more grounded and solid in myself, especially when speaking or writing about my life experiences.

Participant of a creative writing group, with Una and Sara Allkins

What is Red Dress Collective?

Red Dress Collective is a new not-for-profit arts organisation, dedicated to helping people create artistic works by drawing on their own lives. We work with people at all levels of artistic ability, including professionals. We can help you, as an artist or organisation, to explore a theme and develop your thinking, or we can help your community group to gain confidence through making art, performance and writing together.

Whoever we are working with, we aim to facilitate the highest possible quality of artistic production – and we aim to help raise the voices of those who have difficult stories to tell. We use a variety of materials and methods in image, writing, and performance. Just ask.

We work with individuals, community groups, charities and organisations, using an ethically informed, workshop based process. Discussions and life stories emerge naturally in the workshops – we don’t push, we create space. We will carefully build your activity around your own needs and ambitions. All our work is trauma informed; we can help people to explore all sorts of creative processes and all sorts of life stories, including experience of sexual and violent crime.

Who are we?

We are a small team, comprising Dr Louisa Parker (Aka Una, artist, writer and creative director), Sara Allkins (Dramaturge), Anna Mazzola (Human Rights Law) and Dr Tamara Turner-Moore (Psychology). We can also access support for clients from a specialist counsellor, an accredited member of the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists.

  • Our core purpose is to make high-quality artistic works in response to a range of difficult human experiences
  • Red Dress creative projects are rooted in the notion that it is not only the telling of the story that is important, but the being listened to
  • We believe that taking a less intense approach to artistic work about violence and trauma can help audiences engage at a more profound level – it gives them space to think
  • Our work is dedicated to all the others.

Our Work

To learn more about our current projects click the image below:

Contact us

To work with us, or ask a question, use the contact form here:

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Blog posts

Una’s Dedicated to All the Others: A Transformative Theatre Experience

Written by Felipe Vieira de Galisteo. Translated by Iona Macintyre

Coletivo Rubra’s production in May 2022, funded by Arts Council England

At the end of 2016 I walked into a bookshop in São Paulo. I wasn’t after anything in particular; I was looking for books that would help inspire me to create a new theatre show the following year. At the time I was a bit tired of traditional drama and I was on the lookout for other literary forms. That’s how I found myself in the graphic novel section browsing the aisle, just following my nose. I didn’t really know much about that kind of book so I didn’t feel confident asking a salesperson for help. Just by chance, I saw an image on a shelf that grabbed my attention. The book cover showed a girl in a red dress holding up a typical graphic novel speech bubble, but the bubble was empty. The title was Becoming Unbecoming and the enigmatic word Una was written in the corner of the cover. It took me a while to figure out that Una was the name of the writer. I thought: ‘An autobiographical graphic novel, well that’s different!’ Slowly I leafed through the book, taking in the drawings, and reading snippets of text and the reviews on the back cover. I shuddered as it dawned on me what it was actually about. One after another the images took hold of me and I decided to buy the book. I went straight to the till because there weren’t many copies left. 

I got home and read the whole book that night, getting very emotional and, at the same time, reflecting bit by bit on its content. I felt I was reading a great work that managed to address, from personal experience, the social and political dimension of sexual violence against women all over the world. It was a strong condemnation of rape culture and structural sexism in society. It was a work that was also sensitive, poignant, and educational in just the right way. I realised that that book had the potential to be a great resource for my work as a drama teacher. I had six years of experience working in the city of Mauá on a project in the Secretariat of Culture called the Cultural Offices where teens and young people from marginalised areas do extra-curricular courses in the Arts.

There were always more female students than male students involved in the project. That’s usually the case with theatre in Brazil. In in the federal university where I studied in my home state of Porto Alegre in the South of Brazil it was normal to have one man for every three women on the course. In Mauá it was no different. Scenes reflecting violence against women, sexism and the patriarchy – all deeply rooted in Brazil – came up time and time again in the scenes improvised by my female students, and that had especially been the case during the previous two or three years. I knew that it was time to study these topics in-depth.

It’s important to stress that we had just gone through our first experience with a woman president. She was deposed that year in a terrible parliamentary coup in which the very issues I mention here constituted an important part of the plan to bring down the elected government. Dilma Rousseff, a former political prisoner who was violently tortured during the military dictatorship (1964-1985), had been re-elected in 2014. In the one and a half years of her second term she was attacked more than any other president in the entire history of the country. The extreme right and conservatism made great strides in the country. As they grew so too did the indices of violence against women. At the same time, protests against this situation grew, as did the struggles led by women’s and feminist groups in Brazil. This context could not be ignored in my theatre classes, just as I couldn’t ignore the fact that it was necessary for me to not just to rethink my condition as a man in this society but to make changes in the way I thought, and in my behaviours and attitudes. Therefore it was necessary to talk more and discuss the questions in-depth, work on them, and study! Luckily when I went into that bookshop that day I found just the right book.

The year 2017 began and I was responsible for seven theatre groups inside the Culture Offices. One of them was a large intermediate theatre class, meaning it was comprised of several students who already had some prior experience of drama. There were about 30 young people of whom more than 20 were girls between 13 and 20 years of age.  Quite early on I worked with them on aspects of the theatre of Bertolt Brecht, looking at the epic poem ‘Concerning the Infanticide. Marie Farrar’ that portrays the theme of abortion and the social issues involved. It was an emblematic moment in that class that generated intense and healthy debates, including with the audience that took part in a work-in-progress. I then understood that the group was ready to go deeper and that was when I shared the book Becoming Unbecomingwith them. The impact was immediate. As well as having practical sessions, we spent nearly two months reading and studying the work. We also decided together that it was necessary to read a lot on the subjects depicted in the book. Stories of traumatic experiences of sexism and violence were shared. The work helped to awaken a subject that should not be swept under the carpet. The young women began to talk about the issue. The group grew stronger and an enormous bond was forged. I tried to make the process as comfortable as possible, giving maximum freedom of creation so that we would manage to adapt the play for the stage but at that point that wasn’t the most important thing. The most important thing was that that work, the work that had made such an impression on me, would be accessible to more people, who having seen it, would also be encouraged to speak more about the serious problem of sexual violence. In Brazil more than half of all rapes are committed against girls the same age as my students. Many times it was hard going, it was difficult to speak, but all this was transformed into creative power and into, as one of the girls herself would say, the growing wish ‘to never keep quiet’.

At the end of the year we put on the show to great success. In an auditorium of almost 200 people, the piece deeply moved mothers, fathers, friends and colleagues. The group got together afterwards and we talked a lot about the need to continue performing the work because it had such great capacity to educate people on the matter. After some problems restaging the show at the beginning of 2018 we got together again in the second semester and staged it once again in under the auspices of the cultural office, this time in the city’s municipal theatre to more than 300 people. There were many changes in the team during the new process: many people left. It was even necessary to expel one of the young men (an adult) from the cast because of behaviours that weren’t appropriate given the process we had been undergoing for so long. Some girls also left because of other commitments. For them it’s a stage of life with many transitions, during which many difficult decisions are made: where to study, where to work etc. Because of that, at the end of that new period of the piece we got everyone together to talk about the need to grow the work beyond the Cultural Offices: we needed to create a theatre group. So that’s when Coletivo Rubra came into being.

Once we had set up Coletivo Rubra we had the idea of contacting the author of the book to talk to her about our experience of making the theatre show. We were really surprised at her quick reply which was so sensitive and generous about our work. Our message, written by many hands, arrived to Una via email and from her we received not just her blessing to keep going but also her extremely caring words and the shared wish to work together! So at the beginning of the new year we sketched out an objective that was quite bold for a recently formed group of young theatre practitioners in a city like Mauá: we would bring her to Brazil!

We spent 2019 rehearsing and modifying elements of the show to improve its quality and, at the same time, we tried to put the wheels in motion to bring Una to Brazil. We performed the show in the Belem Culture Factory in São Paulo and we were selected to take part in the Vamos que Venimos international youth theatre festival in Santo André where we presented in the SESC Theatre. We also kept up a dialogue with Una who began to look for a way to fund her trip to Brazil. We set up a crowdfunder to collect money for her stay in Mauá, we contacted the publishing house that brought the book out in Brazil and the book shop Ugra that specialises in graphic novels, and together with women’s groups like Sempreviva and Movimento Olga Benario,  with organising by Casa de Referência para Mulheres Helenira Preta, we also organised a joint series of activities (with debates, a relaunch of the book, workshops and recitals) for the days that Una would be with us. Una managed to cover her flights thanks to the British Council and in October of that year we made a dream come true: as well as numerous other activities, we performed the show to the author in the Municipal Theatre of Rio Grande da Serra in front of more than 200 people. And she loved our work! It was an unforgettable experience that is difficult to describe! The whole story going back to 2017, when we adapted the work for the stage, and the process of bringing Una to Brazil for the experience that we had, was, for me, even after 21 years working in the theatre, without a doubt one of the most important experiences I have had in my career, and, without a doubt, the one that brought about the deepest transformations within me.

Since then Coletivo Rubra and Una have remained in contact with the aim of developing further projects and the group are also undertaking new research for other theatre performances. Coletivo Rubra has come a long way during this period, becoming more professionalised. At the beginning of 2020 we presented the show once again, this time in a housing association in Jardim Zaíra, one of the numerous favelas in Mauá. Our idea from then on was to take the work to other marginal places in the city and even to those in other cities. There was also the possibility of participating in the Vamos que Venimos festival again, this time in Argentina and in Chile. Unfortunately, the world was assailed by a terrible pandemic. In Brazil alone it has already killed more than 300,000 people due to the neglect of the population by the genocidal, fascist, sexist, racist, and homophobic Bolsonaro government. In spite of the enormous difficulties, we in the Collective keep up the fight, sharing our work, moving audiences and raising awareness. We presented the piece Dedicated to All the Others online at the beginning of the year 2021. It’s not the same as doing the show in front of an audience, but it’s better than not doing it all. All we want is for this terrible phase in Brazil to be over as soon as possible so we can get back to work and put new plans into action, side by side with Una, so that this literary work, adapted for the theatre, can be brought to more and more people.

*Felipe Vieira de Galisteo is a 39-year-old actor, director, drama teacher, poet and dramaturge who has written and directed more than a dozen theatre shows. Born in Porto Alegre, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, since 2010 he has been based in the city of Mauá, in the state of São Paulo, where he works as a public servant in the municipal cultural centre. Apart from his work with Coletivo Rubra he is also involved in projects like the Popular Culture Committee and, as a member of Popular Unity for Socialism, he participates in workers’ movements and social movements such as the struggle for housing rights.

The legacy of Artemisia, or Why Should We Care That Someone Was Raped?

Written by Una, first presented as a talk at Comics Forum, Leeds, 2017.

Una helping Artemisia to cut off Holofernes’ head. Image from Becoming Unbecoming (2015)

I’m going to talk about honour and artistic freedom. I’m going to argue that the old fashioned concept of honour has contemporary potential, in that it matters what we draw and how we draw it. My novel length comic Becoming/Unbecoming explores through drawing a culture of misogynistic shaming typical to the 1970’s but relatable elsewhere. Below, you can see a double page spread from the book, explaining that as I had not been careful, the Ripper might want to get me, because bad things happen to bad people. It is a self portrait that grows with me, from the age of ten to 16. My timeline, and the timeline of the hunt for Peter Sutcliffe, who turned out not to be a monster, lurking in the shadows, but a man from Bradford, living fully in broad daylight.

growing up double low res

Now, a self portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi, painting a self portrait, at the age of 37. Artemisia was a brilliant Italian Baroque painter, influenced by the work of Caravaggio, who was trained alongside her brothers by her father, Orazio, also a painter. Her naturalistic style is all her own. She is one of the few female artists who has NOT been ignored by art history.

artemisia self 1
Self portrait as the allegory of painting (1638-1639)

Her first known painting, Susanna and the Elders, made at the age of about 16 is remarkable in many ways. The biblical story of Susanna is that she is surprised while bathing by two ‘peeping tom’ elders who then try to blackmail her into having sex with them. Susanna was a popular subject for painters at the time at least partly because it’s a good excuse to include a naked female.

Apart from the obvious precociousness of being able to produce this painting at such a young age, the main difference this work has to other work from the period in question is the attitude of Susanna’s body and the distress apparent on her face.

susanna 1
Susanna and the elders, by Artemisia (1610)

Here are some other examples made by contemporaneous male artists. Notice the unfeasible postures, the increased flesh exposure and the expressions on Susanna’s face. In the third image, it is almost an expression of pleasure.

susanna 2
susanna 3
susanna 4

This reminds me of something. Same old, same old.

Hawkeye wolverine

Below is Gentileschi’s Mary Magdalene, described by the Art Historian Mary Garrard as being distinctive, because unlike Magdalenes by other painters she is not in a constant state of weeping grief but recovering from crying – eyes swollen but half open, head resting wearily. This Magdalene is not crouching low, beseeching the heavens, but seated, without humility, on a high backed armchair, central to the frame. Remember that the word maudlin, meaning tearfully or weakly emotional, is a corruption of Mary Magdalene’s name.

magdalene
Mary Magdalene as Melancholy (1622-1625)

Now I’d like to show you two of Artemisia’s famous paintings of Judith. She made the first one at the age of about 18 and the other a few years later. The story of Judith is that she saved her town from a warlord on the rampage by getting him drunk and then chopping his head off. 

judith 1
judith 2

The violence depicted in Artemisia’s paintings of Judith is unusual. Lets have a look at some other examples.

Allori’s Judith, looking coy.

judith 3

Two bored looking Judiths

judith 4
judith 8

There’s this pair of sulky teens.

judith 7
judith 9

Then there’s this, this and this.

judith jan massey
Judith_Holofernes-Jan_Sanders_van_Hemessen

Images don’t stand alone, they exist within a visual landscape, a cultural geography.

There are unique complexities inherent in the depiction of female figures that those who wish to depict them need to take into account: Centuries of gendered inequality and prohibition to wealth, property and education for women, a culture of visual imagery that has long relied on the objectification of women’s bodies, etc. etc. Artemisa Gentileschi herself could not read and write because she had not been taught this, being a girl.

I’ve heard it said that it’s a cliché when women draw attention to autobiographical information in the work they make, or when feminists find the personal in the work of women in history. Many people like to assert the importance of objectivity over everything else. But don’t all the paintings shown here speak more about the (male) artists who painted them and the era in which they were painted than they do about the depicted or represented subject?  These images are as autobiographical as any I’ve seen, they certainly don’t belong to some kind of neutral centre.

Even Caravaggio, a painter who was not notorious for his restrained style, seems to have painted a Judith who doesn’t want to get her dress dirty.

judith 5

Why am I showing you this? If you’d wanted an art history lecture you’d have gone elsewhere, presumably.

I’m showing you this because Artemisa was famous during her lifetime and forever afterwards not only because of her painting but because she was raped at the age of 17 and took part in a trial to prosecute the man (and his accomplice) who did it. She painted her first Judith while the trial took place and the anger in that image in undeniable.

She didn’t report the rape herself, her father heard rumours and went to the authorities. There wouldn’t have been a trial at all if she hadn’t been a virgin. Artemisia was publicly humiliated and called a liar at the trial. She was tortured with thumbscrews to see if she was telling the truth.

Meanwhile, the man who raped her, Agostino Tassi, was already a convicted rapist, whose wife was missing, presumed dead at the time of the trail.

Artemisia didn’t find out he was married till the trial and it is an indication of the desperation these circumstances would have inflicted on her at the time that Artemisia had hoped Tassi would marry HER, to save her from the even worse fate he had inflicted on her by stealing her virginity. She was even betrayed by the only other woman in the house, the housekeeper, who ignored her cries for help.

Transcripts from the trial show that her rapist, Tassi, and his accomplice Cosimo Quorli were allowed to bring in a stream of witnesses to call Artemisia a whore, although unlike in many cases more recently, the Judge accused them of lying and did send Tassio to prison.

What Tassio did was called at the time ‘Throwing the game’ stealing a girls honour and getting away with it. There is an age old divide between those who think this makes you more of a man and those who think it makes you less of one. After the trial was over a family friend rescued her from ruin by marrying her and moving with her to a different area. They stayed together for a few years before separating.

Art historians have been arguing about Artemisia for 400 years. What is more historically important, her artistic brilliance or her rape? Was the artistic brilliance caused by the rape? Was it all made up and actually she loved Tassio? Are feminists doing her a disservice by claiming her as a feminist hero, thereby undermining her status as stand-alone artistic genius? Are art historians doing her a disservice by claiming her genius and ignoring the autobiographical information that so clearly contaminates her images? However you look at it, something that someone else did has ended up defining her AND her work.

As she was already well known as a painter, she had to live with the notoriety, speculation and loss of her reputation for the rest of her life. She couldn’t hide. But Artemisia never depicted a rape scene, not even when she painted Lucretia, arguably the most famous victim of rape. What would have been the effect if she had?

lucretia 1
Lucretia, by Artemisia Gentileschi (1623-1625)

I’d like to ask a question about the artistic freedom and narrative necessity that comics artists and writers and film makers and comedians cite when challenged about their rapey material. Did Artemisia ever have what we might term artistic freedom? Do you think she would have used that artistic freedom to paint a rape scene?

Perhaps Artemisia didn’t depict rape because she knew that sexual violence doesn’t look anything like the melodramas below, that were the typical depictions of her era. She knew that in fact it is a much more ordinary, squalid act, not picturesque at all, and an everyday occurrence across the world.

lucretia Titian Tarquin and Lucretia 1571
lucretia hans van aachen

Notice that in these images the woman’s body is displayed for the delectation of the audience.

In my book, Becoming/Unbecoming, there are no direct or graphic depictions of sexualised violence despite the fact this is the only subject the book explores.

The panels that explore sexualised violence and its after effects communicate through form and the symbolic. Comics is unique as an art form in allowing, for example, multiple and simultaneous narratives, shifting temporalities and a visual language that communicates on an iconic level. So it’s not necessary to describe the abuse in graphic detail. But is it ever necessary?

Lately, thanks to many high profile cases in the UK, discussions around the social conditions that hinder the reporting, prosecution and prevention of sexual violence are inescapable. There seems to be potential for change. But how to rethink this problem so that another 400 years don’t pass while we argue about what it all means. The global culture today is not always different from the one Artemisia knew, but how can we act to change our culture and our social conditions? Can we harness visual culture to influence the way people think about this ancient problem? Entrenched attitudes are hard to change aren’t they?

In 2013 a social psychologist called Sezgin Cihangir, investigating the concept of ‘honour based violence’, did some research with a group of older high school students in the Netherlands, assessing their perspectives on the importance of male and female sexual purity and its relationship to honour as part of an education programme within the school. The results by gender are fairly predictable, but there’s something more interesting. Cihangir found that those students, mostly male, who responded aggressively to perceived insults, who described being provoked to violence by it, were the same students that held strong views about sexual purity being related to women’s and girl’s honour. In addition, this group perceived their own personal honour as being determined not by their own actions but by the actions of others around them, their close relatives and peers.

Cihangir’s subjects were from Dutch, Turkish Dutch and Moroccan Dutch backgrounds. Reading between the lines it seems perhaps the researcher expected to find some cultural differences but he found NO cultural differences between these groups. What he did find was that the unhelpful attitudes towards women he found in one group of students were changed when the group was exposed in an open classroom to new and different ideas. Peers who held different ideas around sexual purity seemed to influence a change in attitude, evidenced when measuring responses at the end of the programme. These findings match research in prisons which suggests that men who have been convicted of a wide range of violent offences towards women can be influenced to change their attitude by peer pressure from other men. They don’t listen to what women say, that’s for sure!

I’d like to reclaim this old fashioned idea of honour, and refashion it as the honourable, even the heroic. Unlike heroes and heroines, heroic acts are genderless. It is a term that describes honourable actions in the face of danger and adversity, usually from a position of weakness. We can be honourable in our work, even heroic. We can choose. It’s not about censorship, but about understanding your audience.

So does it matter what we do, say and represent?

Well, some people don’t think so:

Mark Millar on the use of rape in his comics ‘I don’t think it really matters’

Says Laura Hudson on Mark Millar: “There’s one and only one reason that happens, (in Kick Ass 2) and it’s to piss off the male character.”  “It’s using a trauma you don’t understand in a way whose implications you can’t understand, and then talking about it as though you’re doing the same thing as having someone’s head explode. You’re not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don’t understand, you shouldn’t be writing rape scenes.

And the last word to Sarah Silverman:

On rape jokes – ‘the truth is, it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy. Because who’s gonna complain about a rape joke? I mean, I would say rape victims, but they’re not traditionally complainers, they don’t even complain about rape.”

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