At an installation that’s recently toured the country, each plaster bust has a story.
The creation of Chattanooga-based artist Ali Waller, the “/200” project features 940 busts of women, including Waller herself, who are sexual assault survivors sharing their story through sculpture.
The 22-year-old artist started working with plaster in 2020 after seeing the “Filthy Rich” documentary series, which explained how Jeffrey Epstein groomed and abused young women and girls. She originally hoped to cast 200 women to represent the $200 Epstein paid young girls to “recruit” more girls to give him “massages” during which he would sexually assault them.
The first installation of that project, called “/200,” exceeded that goal with 550 busts. Now, Waller has made casts of nearly 1,000 women and plans a Chattanooga show to honor the 1,000 survivors she’s cast.
The “/200” exhibit has traveled to Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville in Tennessee as well as Winston Salem, N.C., West Palm Beach, Fla., and Indianapolis. This year it will travel to Rhode Island, New York and Denver, Co.
Purity culture was a prominent theme in her show “Mommy.” The show, which she held in Chattanooga in May 2021, highlighted how her church’s male-centered leadership and purity culture’s strict gender rules affected women in her family.
“I got to a point where I was like, ‘If I don’t express this in some way, if I don’t get rid of the shame that comes along with these things, I’m going to lose it and I’m just going to be a terrible person.’ It turned into me really having no limit to my openness. I almost feel like having this be public art is the final processing of it,” Waller said.
When Waller first posted about “Mommy” on Instagram, she was overwhelmed with messages from other former church kids and pastor’s kids. Where the “/200” project was interactive, “Mommy” was more personal, making reading other people’s stories more difficult.
With the “/200” project, Waller asked for people’s stories. But a later project, “Mommy,” seemed draw people to share their story without prompting.
“I think that a lot of people lead out with their story because they’ve been on the brink of telling it for so long but no one has received that part of them, or allowed space for that part of them. So even though they don’t know me, they know that I would at least understand their story because I’ve been open about mine,” Waller said.
Despite the discomfort of confronting her trauma and immersing herself in the trauma of others, Waller said creating this art has been healing for those who have participated in the work.
“Creating this art is such a beautiful practice of sharing space and intimacy with strangers and sharing consent and safety. I would love for that to be a lifelong thing that just continues to grow, and reach everywhere because it’s been so healing. I want to continue creating with authenticity. Whether that means I continue doing things in museums or galleries, or I continue doing community oriented projects where communities come together and find places for me to exhibit — either one of those is beautiful. I just want to share the freedom that I’ve found with everyone.”