A Face of Feminism: Lilian Anneloes

The beach is almost right behind Lilian’s house, so in summer she grabs her longboard and rides down in her bikini every day. Today is just like any of those days, except for dark clouds appearing, moving slowly to veil the low afternoon sun. It’s already dinnertime, and most people are leaving the beach. But Lilian and her friends do not really have anywhere else to go, or much else to do. Her eyes glide down from the sky. Two guys on a Vespa drive up to them. Her friend admits she fancies one of the guys and, giggling, the girls join them – oblivious of what lies ahead.

Quickly, Lilian and her friends realized each and every one of the guys, who turned out to be in their mid-twenties, had their own criminal backstory. But 16-year-old girls and boredom make for a dangerous cocktail, and the girls befriend them. The rest of the summer is spent in filthy houses, at parties with people overdosing on and using drugs.

“Even though it wasn’t ever really part of the plan, you wouldn’t be able to call an ambulance or the police, because you’re sixteen and you don’t want your parents to find out,” Lilian explains. “There were violent incidents, and even the police invaded sometimes.” “Years later, when I met one of the girls and heard that one of the guys tried to light his house on fire. Even though I wasn’t there, I knew I never wanted to go back into that group.”

Halfway through the summer, Lilian visits a friend’s house. She sees her friends in the backyard, among them the guys on the Vespa and some of their friends.

“I should’ve known that one of the guys was giving me a sexual look. Except I was sixteen, I had just lost my virginity, and I didn’t.”

She has the last clean spoon in the house.

A playful chase.

A bedroom door, which he closes.

“I remember repeatedly saying: ‘No!’ But he didn’t stop, and I froze.”

One moment she’s sitting on the bed.

The next she’s on the floor.

Her head hurts. It’s stuck between a closet and the bed.

“I don’t remember how that happened. But because I froze, I blamed myself. For a long time.”

Lilian Anneloes – pale skin, red lipstick and bold mind – now lives in Groningen with her two rescued cats, one of which demands constant belly scratches. She graduated from Academy Minerva in Groningen in 2018 and uses drawing, film and writing to tell a story of gender, sexuality and personal experience. It took years for her to recognize what happened that summer. It was only in her third year at Minerva that she first visited a psychologist for her trauma. “That’s when I thought: ‘Oh, wait, I actually was raped. It’s real.’”

This realization helped Lilian find her artistic niche: gender, sexuality, societal critique and activism with a strong research-based nature. Her visual work is pervaded by raw human reality but with a slightly surrealist touch. This mixture of realism and surrealism is striking in ‘The woman as a Kitchen Table’ (2018), a highly realistic drawing of a female figure surrounded by men, drinking and laughing. The woman is depicted literally serving as the kitchen table on which the men place their beer and crisps. The contrast between realism and surrealism is powerful, for it actually constitutes a more truthful realism; the visuals of reality, plus a social reality for women that is only visible when drawn magnified.

Lilian Anneloes, The Woman as a Kitchentable, graphite on paper, 82 x 112 cm, 2018

“I have never felt inequality as much as I did in that bedroom,” Lilian says. As a sixteen-year-old girl, her innocence was abruptly taken by cruelty. But her eyes shoot fire as she insists that she does not want to be known as a victim. “I’m doing fine now. It’s not about me. I know I am privileged, as an artist, to be able to talk about these issues without it being too destructive on my status or career. I know who I speak for. And I know that I dare to talk about this. So, I won’t let them shut me up.”

In 2020, Amnesty International started an action group, consisting of people who have experienced rape. Lilian was asked to be a part of this action group, and together with seven others and the help of Amnesty, they have worked to prevent the Dutch Minister of Justice and Security from implementing a new law on sexual offenses that distinguishes between ‘sex against the will’ and ‘rape’.

In the old sexual offenses law, a victim of sexual assault could only press charges if there had been any physical violence or force. Because this law was outdated, a new law was proposed in the beginning of 2020. “The old law was based on the idea of rape where a man drags you into the bushes and rapes you. But most of the time, that’s not how rape works,” Lilian explains. “Because of this old law, I was not able to press charges. That’s why it took so long for me to recognize what happened; according to the law, it wasn’t real.’

The new law was intended to make it easier for victims to press charges. “But the distinction between sex against the will and rape in the new law is very problematic; sex against the will ís rape!” Lilian exclaims. Together with Amnesty, Lilian fought for the concept of consent as a starting point in the new law. “Laws are leading in societal morals. If you, as a government, suggest that there’s a difference between sex against the will and rape, this idea will be manifested in society.”

The action group plead their case to the Minister of Justice. And he listened. The new draft law labels all rape cases as rape. It is built up in layers, and the lower limit consists of a situation where one person should have known from for instance, non-verbal signs, that the other did not want to have sex. However, the principle of consent is still not embedded in the law. “It’s great that he listened, but once again: ‘consent’ is not there. So, we’re not done yet.”

While feminism bears a predominantly left-wing and female connotation, Lilian is also interested in how the white, cisgender male experiences sexuality, gender, and his own privileges. She researched this in a short documentary that she is currently working on, ‘De Buurvrouw is een Kutwijf’ (The Neighbor’s a Bitch). For this documentary, she intensely followed a young and diverse male friend group for a year. “Yes, the white cis male can walk the streets safe at night. The rape numbers among men and women are completely different. But the suicide rates among men are way higher. Why? My ex-boyfriend couldn’t cry around me for two years. One of the boys in the documentary doesn’t dare to have sex! We have to admit that the system we have created also suppresses men.”

That Lilian’s feminism is not restricted to females, is on display in her 2018 project ‘Het hart ontdaan van al zijn bloed is wit’ (The heart, drained of all its blood, is white). Lilian recorded herself talking to every man she had ever had sex with. For this project, she even tried to reach out to her rapist, to hear what he had told himself about that summer day. Unfortunately, he never answered his phone. “I don’t like the ‘monster narrative’, I want to understand his motive. But he is still a disgusting man. The motive does not change or nuance what he did. He is a rapist; not a sex-against-the-willer,” she laughs. “I will never nuance what he did to me.”

The theme of personal trauma runs like a thread through Lilian’s work. Her visual work is primarily known for addressing gender roles and sexuality, but her written work reveals a second motif: that of the dark side of the small village.

As a ten-year-old girl, Lilian was forced to flee her hometown when her family was terrorized by the villagers. What started as a disagreement between her father and the local community’s board, ended in break-ins and fireworks thrown into their hallway. Some years later, when her older sister appeared on the doorstep in torn-up clothes and tears on her face, her parents promptly decide to move before even selling the house. “I remember we would spend all of our summers in holiday resorts. I thought it was fun. As it turns out, the summer at one point became dangerous because so many people would be free from work and school. My dad once returned home early to clean up the mess they made, so when my sister and I would return home it would look like nothing had happened…. The thing is, in a small community like that, no one dares speaking up. Once you’re the scapegoat, you’re screwed!”

It is this downside to social coherency that Lilian explores in her written work. “I think in the village, life and death are too close to each other,’ she contemplates, as she refills her cup of ginger tea. “In the countryside, especially on a farm, a kid will quickly learn the cruelty of life:  If the horse limps, the horse needs to be slaughtered and then we’ll eat it. Whilst in the city, you don’t learn these types of things. You’ll see a ladybug and you’ll say: Oh! How beautiful!”

The white cat has a lumpy tail that hints at its abusive past. He aggressively bumps his head against Lilian’s arm, demanding attention. “It must have some impact on the social order, you know.” Lilian scratches the cat’s belly, who has wrapped his entire body around her arm. “Being that close to cruelty.”

Lilian Anneloes’ project ‘De Buurvrouw is een Kutwijf’ has been delayed until further notice as a result of the COVID-19-crisis. In the meantime, you can follow the project on Instagram: @buurvrouwkutwijf. You can follow Lilian on Instagram: @liliananneloes, or check out her work on her website: liliananneloes.com. More information on the work of Amnesty and their campaign to a consent-based law can be found under the name #LetsTalkAboutYES on their website, amnesty.nl.