On November 2nd, 2007 Meredith Kercher was found dead in her apartment in Perugia, Italy. What followed was part murder investigation, part tabloid fodder, and part witch hunt.
Amanda Knox, Meredith's roommate, was arrested for the crime. Despite having no physical evidence linking her with the scene of the crime, Knox was tried and convicted, along with her former boyfriend, for the murder of Kercher. The charges and trial were based on sexual insinuations rather than proof of guilt. With no basis in reality, prosecutors accused her of killing Kercher in alternately a Satanic orgy or a drug-fuelled sex game gone wrong.
While Amanda's sexual history was being put on trial, the prime minister of Italy was re-elected and even celebrated for his Bunga Bunga parties with underage girls. Meanwhile, Amanda's youth and beauty was used against her as a piece of evidence pointing to her guilt -- she "smelled like sex", she was a "sex monster", she was "Foxy Knoxy".
Artist Sienna Reid, in her exhibition Sticks and Stones, explores how the Knox trial exploited fears of female sexuality through "the etymology and semantics of the words that were used to describe her by the police, prosecution, lawyers, media and ultimately the anonymous online masses." The work reveals parallels between the Knox and Salem Witch trials, where the language of witches and superstition fanned the flames without relating to any facts of the cases.
Reid uses painting, video, photography, in her installation for a powerful effect. The largest wall is taken up with Greek inspired Defixiones or Curse Tablets, Reid explains "The media becomes the real-time example of the curse tablet of ancient tradition, which was fueled by the idea of the power of the word and its ability to take on a life of its own and actively create harm."
From afar, the Defixiones create an amber colored wall that has the visual weight of steel. As you approach the wall, the designs reveal themselves. Scratched into the wood with frightening violence, the words and images evoke both the supernatural and the harsh retribution sought against it.
The Sticks and Stones photo series, a collaboration with Elizabeth Raab, is the most direct reference to witches. As Reid explains, "'Witch' is a branding word that is still used in a number of countries as a valid reason to execute women, normally through burning or stoning." It was also a word that was used to frequently describe Amanda Knox during her trial as a, "'bewitcher of men' a 'spell-casting witch', an 'enchanting witch', a 'sorceress of deceit', 'a witch of deception', a 'succubus' and 'Lilith'".
This language plays on religious fears of sexual or independent women, and serves as a serious reminder [that] women are still put on trial in the name of god.
Sienna Reid's exhibition Sticks and Stones is a thoughtful and superbly executed project. It takes a widely publicized contemporary event -- an example of lurid tabloid mania -- and reframes the conversation, forcing us as participants to realize how eagerly we vilified a young woman for our entertainment and how ingrained in our history this practice is.