Tackling Trauma: A Talk with Robie Schuler

By Andrea Corkal
* feature photo is taken from the artist's work: ce qui n'effacera rien (2020). crédit photo: thierry du bois

I met with Robie on a calm Tuesday afternoon at a cute corner café called Café Neve. At nearly 1.73m, I towered over this bubbly petite woman by possibly 0.3m. She came in with a wide, contagious smile and a big boisterous laugh as she told me to “disregard [her] broken English”, not needing to be apologetic in the slightest as her English far surpassed my French. I proceeded to ask about her work, and that is when we started an unexpected conversation about feminism. This is where the conversation took a more serious tone, one that you don’t often look to have between strangers but that she made completely comfortable. We discussed the nature of her art and how her art seeks to shape a conversation addressing trauma, domestic violence, distance, and rape culture.

Robie is a multidisciplinary visual artist. Her work isn’t restricted to one medium; it ranges from photography to installations, to videos, printing, writing, embroidery, performance and more. Once she is inspired to create a message, she finds diverse and creative ways to display or communicate it. When asked how she got started with art and what led her to the subject matter of trauma, she told me, "I knew if I didn't do it then, I wouldn’t do it in 20 years.” After entering art school in 2016, it took her a little while  to find her focus and figure out what message she wanted to portray with her art. In 2017, she found it. This was the year that she got out of a 4-year abusive relationship with her previous partner. Robie began discussing her trauma in 2019, and she took him to court in January of 2020. 

As Robie was in university at the time, she retells that she was “going through the court process and therapy, and I am still going a bit,” and that is what led her to focus her work “on the notion of trauma, but regarding abuse, domestic violence and rape culture.” She wanted to explore “why these sorts of things occur and why is it accepted into society.” Her court experience was not a positive experience, and it has led her to center her art around these themes in hopes of amplifying the voices of other victims—as well as the voices of artists tackling the system surrounding domestic violence and rape culture. 

lexique de la violence, detail (2019)

One barrier she mentioned surrounding these topics is “empathy bias.” Empathy bias is the contrast between how much we can empathize with people we know and who hold similar backgrounds to our own, versus those who don’t. We find it easy to empathize with our own family and friends and with experiences we have had, but people often have trouble having empathy for people with dissimilar backgrounds and lifestyles.

This is a subject matter which Robie would like to tackle to help bridge the empathy gap that exists in domestic violence cases—particularly, since the punishment system for sexual violence lacks concrete empathy for victims. Throughout her court case, she had to be precise about every detail when retelling sequences of events, despite having PTSD, which is accompanied by memory loss among other symptoms that would affect her ability to do so. This led her to feel that during her time in court, her case was centered around minimizing the damage of the case on her aggressor, rather than on her. The trial felt as if she was the defendant, and she had to prove her trauma. 

lexique de la violence, installation (2019)

Empathy bias, particularly in the realm of feminism, is not only an issue affecting men. Robie surprised me when she assertively told me that women are just as guilty of victim shaming and many “women didn’t empathize” with her as well; within western society, women are seen as “dirty,” as if we are born with some internal purity that “we will inevitably lose through different mediums through the eyes of men.” She continued, explaining how women can be conditioned to see other women in relation to our own purity and “are trained to be non-feminists alongside the male standard.”  Robie hopes to be able to recount her experience in court and how the system failed her, with the goal to push for improving the system socially and bureaucratically. 

la chaise (2020) crédit photo: thierry du bois

Robie was very open about her experiences despite the heaviness and sensitivity of the subject matter. When I asked her if it was difficult to put her own traumas on display and be totally and completely vulnerable, she easily responded, “no, it’s healing.” Her artwork is a means to heal herself and others. People “come to [her] and open up about their own experiences with violence and rape and it’s very emotional. It’s very draining but it’s great. It’s hard when producing the pieces, and I cry and relive, but afterwards it gets easier.” It’s a rewarding task to create a space for healing and it’s important to start conversations surrounding rape, trauma, and domestic violence.

les salopes n'existent pas, part of the installation (2021)

Alas, on the other side of the spectrum, Robie told me that after her first few exhibitions, she came to expect what she termed "the angry white man", who happens to make an appearance at every show. She has yet to miss a session of verbal abuse from a white, male audience member who finds offense in her work and often retorts that her work is "too feminine" and "only for women." However, this criticism is only a sign that she is starting necessary conversations when she is met with outrage and misunderstanding. 

After spending my afternoon with Robie, I felt inspired to look at all her artwork and be able to take in her message across all her mediums. Robie certainly isn’t shy about making her voice heard on the issues close to her, showing trauma and healing as empowerment. Her artwork motivates unity and empathy. It reminds us that we all strive to be understood and respected, and overcoming distance and trauma is not a journey we take alone.  

les échappatoires (2020) crédit photo: thierry du bois

Robie is continually participating in other exhibitions and is currently working on a book written by herself, her mother and her sister. The book explores their experiences with distance and their changing relationships through the years, as well as their individual relationships to Robie’s father who lives in Germany. In the future, Robie hopes to do more curating work, where she would get to work with other artists and piece together various artists’ work for exhibitions. 

You can see more of Robie Schuler's work on her website and Instagram.

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