Giving women a voice bit by bit: N.L. art project inspired by medieval torture

Social media can be a waste of time, but a quick scroll through Instagram has inspired a western Newfoundland artist’s latest project.

What Robyn Love saw there during Brett Kavanaugh’s U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings last fall was upsetting to her.

It was a sketch of a woman with a medieval torture device called a brank or bridle, locked onto her head, being led on a leash by a man.

“When I saw that image, I had a very visceral reaction. I actually almost felt like I could taste the metal in my mouth,” said Love, whose art studio is based at the House Museum in Gillams, on the North Shore of the Bay of Islands.

The metal part of the bridle to which she’s referring was a plate that went in the mouth so a woman couldn’t speak, swallow or eat.

Now, Love is turning that instrument of torture into a project to encourage women to speak out.

Digging into the dark ages

Love started by researching the story behind the image she’d seen, and what she learned was even more disturbing to her.

In the Middle Ages, women who were deemed to be engaging in gossip or slanderous talk could be punished by being forced to wear a bridle, often by their own husbands.

And while women don’t have to endure such punishment now, Love says the impulse behind that instrument of torture still resonates through our culture today.

These are a few of the bridles which Love has created so far, and she hopes to create 100 in total. (Robyn Love)

In the context of the Kavanaugh hearings and the #MeToo movement, Love said she knew she wanted to do something with the bridles to create art to make a point.

“I thought, ‘How could I turn it on its head, switch it 180, so that putting things on your face, or bridle, could it amplify your voice or could it draw attention to and celebrate women’s voices and mouths and give women space to make noise?'”

Bridles of a different sort

Instead of metal torture devices reminiscent of the branks of the Middle Ages, Love is creating 100 homemade headpieces that focus on the idea of amplifying women’s voices.

One of them is a simple pair of safety glasses with a noisemaking party favour attached.

This was the image that Love saw posted on Instagram last fall during the Brett Kavanaugh U.S. Senate confirmation hearings. It evoked such a strong reaction in her that she decided to create an art project. (Instagram)

Another is a box-like creation with chattering teeth to evoke the idea that, through the ages, women have been reputed to engage in too much chatter.

Love said all of her designs are meant to counter the belief, which she thinks is pervasive even today, that women talk too much, that they cackle when they laugh, that their voices are shrill.

“How can we take what has been used against us and celebrate it actually and look at it differently?”

Getting women talking

Love has a grant from Arts NL for her Branks project, and she plans to show the bridles to women, invite them to try on the bridles, and get them to talk about their lives and their experiences.

So far, Love says the reaction she’s had from women has been mixed, from uncomfortable laughter to horror, sometimes from the same person.

Love invited CBC Newfoundland Morning host Bernice Hillier, right, to try on one of the headpieces she created for her Branks art project. (Cherie Wheeler/CBC)

“I do think there is a funniness to them, because they are sort of ridiculous,” she told CBC’s Newfoundland Morning.

“Of course, there’s nothing funny about the original ones at all. But there’s a way that that pain and laughter work together, and so laughter can be a release.”

Love said some women she’s approached have chosen not to put on the bridles at all because they found the story behind them too upsetting to consider.

Starting this fall, Love plans to travel to share the bridles with women across the island of Newfoundland.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador