Waking up to violence against women

Rachelle Stein-Wotten

Sounder News

Wednesday, July 8 2020

Sheila Norgate is done being funny.

The multi-disciplinary artist who often uses humour in her work has embarked on a project in which she feels compelled to face head-on the dark side of her chosen subject matter – violence against women. 

“I’m tired of using my humour to get people to understand the message,” she said of the approach she’s taking in Fem Noir, her ongoing video series that she’s releasing on YouTube. What began as a stage show has been remixed into bite-sized videos that have continued to evolve. While the series doesn’t mirror the stylistic choices iconic of film noir, Sheila, an avid viewer of the genre, chose to riff of the name as a nod to the foreboding subject matter and pessimistic mood. “I’m riffing off that sense of danger” in the films, she said. “The truth is dark what’s happening to women.”

The so-far 13-part series glides from satirical takes on the social and economic ‘powers’ of women’s anatomical realities to compilations of male historical figures’ opinions about the female anatomy and mind. But the most recent installments have taken a different tack, one of documentary-style reports and outrage responding to cases of attacks against women in Canada and criticism of media coverage and of law enforcement.

“April 19 was the Nova Scotia massacre,” Sheila said, explaining the tonal turning point for her. “That man had a history of violence and abuse and his long-term partner was his first target.” Before killing 22 people, the gunman assaulted then tied up his girlfriend. She escaped overnight. 

“When that happened, I just thought, I can’t do the comedy anymore,” said Sheila. “I have to go into the feminism stuff because I was called to do it. The way this is being reported … the police will not say this was a misogynous attack driven by a violent man.”

In a process she calls intuitive, Sheila writes the scripts and pairs them with music found via the YouTube Audio Library and a combination of her own paintings and photographs, from flowers set at the driveways of recent victims to women protesting in the streets decades ago.

“It is a trajectory for me,” she said of the videos. “They’re going to evolve. God knows where I will end up. I think they’re a body of work in a way…. I’m following the same thread as I do this, which is a basic human rights failure where women and girls are concerned. How you express that and all the different ways it shows up in our culture are too many to count – I’ll never be done.” 

Given the heaviness, and seeming endlessness, of the subject matter, Sheila notices the toll it takes on her. “I’m watching all the time to see that it’s not harming me. It’s hard on me and hard on my partner as well because I have to stay abreast of the darkness. Most people don’t want to know about this.”

Many don’t. They are crimes perpetrated behind closed doors, in homes. In one video, Sheila points to the painful report from police after a man in Edmonton killed his wife and daughter: “there is no risk to the public.” She hopes that the more people talk about, the more it won’t be ignored. 

“I’d like things to change and to wake up to the fact it is happening. We pretend it isn’t there and don’t act. Misogyny goes back millennia. It’s at tough nut to crack. I’d like us to wake up to how prevalent it is in the home.” According to Statistics Canada, in 2018, most police-reported intimate partner violence occurred in homes and eight out of 10 victims were women.

At the age of 70, Sheila sees her time to keep fighting is waning, but her resolve is not. In addition to Fem Noir, she’s beginning a series of paintings with circus imagery to explore the “tightrope” women walk along in their daily lives. I think I’m doing this now because I don’t know how much longer I have,” she said. “I will be a feminist until I take my last breath. How that looks in terms of what I do will depend on my strength, my health and my muses.”