Women We Laud

By Christina Verigan

Kay Chernush

Photographer & Founder of ArtWorks for Freedom
In her 30 years as a professional photographer, Kay Chernush has worked around the globe, but the assignment that changed her life was one working with the survivors of human trafficking. This experience inspired her to create ArtWorks for Freedom, a nonprofit dedicated to finding new ways to approach the modern slavery through the arts. In less than a year, ArtWorks for Freedom has expanded to include guest contributors in poetry, theater, music, and dance, and continues to seek new artists to support its mission.

ArtWorks for Freedom has teamed up with EmancipAsia to launch its first awareness campaign in Singapore in the summer of 2012. Next year, a new campaign will be launched in New York City, before traveling the United States. Central to the campaign is Chernush’s “Bought & Sold,” an audiovisual exhibit combining images and survivor narratives. Her large-scale photos are displayed outdoors to help people understand that slavery happens everywhere – including through sex tourism and forced servitude – even if we don’t see it.

The images in “Bought & Sold” do not reveal survivors’ identities. “Beautiful, dignified portraits don’t add to our knowledge about what trafficking really is,” she says. Instead, Chernush focuses on individual experiences. One image, entitled “Chili Pepper Bath,” is accompanied by a caption from its survivor narrative: “When he forced me in the water, it burned. I was 13, screaming, crying, begging him . . .”

Chernush knows what it’s like to be on the other end of the lens. In 2006, she published Self-Examination, a series of self-portraits documenting her experience with breast cancer. This has helped her understand the complications of photographing victims and survivors. She takes portraits of subjects for their personal use. “I don’t want them to be raped again, re-exploited by showing their identities,” she says. “Voodoo Inverso,” shown above, is captioned with the words of one survivor who was subject to a fake voodoo ceremony before being sent to Italy: “With this picture I reverse the voodoo onto my trafficker. I am not afraid anymore.” For information about taking action, and to see more images from Chernush’s “Bought & Sold” series, visit ArtWorksForFreedom.org.

Yuja Wang

Classical Pianist
Yuja Wang is changing the world of classical music one note at a time. Fearless in both musical selection and performance, her playful style reveals a deep enjoyment of music, exuding an energy that can electrify a concert hall. Watching her zip through “Flight of the Bumblebee,” a challenging piece, makes it easy to see why her performance has been described as “superhuman.” (A YouTube video of this performance went viral last year.) Her combination of technical perfection and emotional intuition makes her a standout performer.

Wang was born in Beijing, China, where she began playing piano when she was six. By the time she was 12, she had played publicly in China, Australia, and Germany. Eventually, she attended the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where she studied under Gary Graffman. Her first album, Sonatas & Etudes, was released by Deutsche Gammophon in 2009, when Wang was just 22 years old—she’s been with the label ever since. The following year, she won the Avery Fisher Career Grant, among other awards.

Despite being a student of the classical old guard, Wang has proved to be a bit of a rebel. Her fashion sense is just as bold as her playing, which has stirred up controversy in the conservative classical world. Many reviewers can’t resist commenting on her fashion, which is as edgy, youthful, and fun as her playing. Some concert halls have a strict dress code for orchestra members, but soloists are generally permitted to wear what they like. Traditionally, women choose floor-length evening gowns and sensible shoes. Wang prefers to buck the trend—whether it’s with a thigh-high slit or a pair of sparkly stilettos.

In an August 2011 concert at the Hollywood Bowl, Wang sported a ruched orange minidress with lace inserts and a deep V-neck. The LA Times ran a photo of Wang taking a bow beside her Steinway while a pinch-faced man in the orchestra looks on with disapproval—and a bit of Hel-lo! And that might be just what classical music needs. Wang’s new album, Fantasia, is set to release on April 10. “Danse macabre” and “Carmen” will be familiar, even to classical newcomers, while Wang’s arrangement of “L’apprenti sorcier” should be a treat for connoisseurs.

Classic Heroine
Sybil Ludington (1761 – 1839)

American Revolutionary
Late in the evening on April 25, 1777, there was a knock at the door of Sybil Ludington’s family home. America was in the midst of the Revolutionary War and late-night visitors rarely brought good news. A messenger had come to ask Ludington’s father, Colonel Henry Ludington, to organize the local Continental militia for battle. He told them that two-thousand British troops had arrived by sea at Danbury, Connecticut, where they plundered the Continental troops’ provisions had set the town on fire. The messenger was one of several dispatched to sound the alarm.

After an exhausting ride to an unfamiliar area, the messenger feared that he would not be able to find militiamen’s homes and execute the Colonel’s instructions. The Colonel needed time to plan as the troops were alerted, so he could not go himself. Sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington, the oldest of the Colonel’s 12 children, saddled her horse Star and rode through the rainy night. As Paul Revere had done in Massachusetts two years earlier, she knocked on doors along her route to alert the militiamen that the British were close. It was time to gather for battle.

The trip was dangerous, as the countryside was full of British loyalists, spies, and war mercenaries. Despite this, Ludington traveled until dawn, covering 40 miles – nearly twice the distance of Revere. Thanks to her, 400 soldiers had joined her father’s ranks by morning. The troops could not reach Danbury in time to save it, but they did skirmish with the British in the Battle of Ridgefield. Though Ridgefield was technically a Continental loss, the British never again tried to mount an attack so deep into Connecticut.

George Washington thanked Sybil Ludington for her bravery, and for the rest of the war she worked as a Continental messenger. Once American independence was safe, Ludington married, had children, and lived a quiet life in Unadilla, New York, until her death in 1839. She may not be a household name, but her inspiring story deserves to be remembered.

Originally published April 2012
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