A few weeks ago my partner and I were walking in Symonds Street Cemetary in Auckland and chanced to find the grave of a young woman who had been fatally shot in 1886. Since this was Auckland in 1886, and New Zealand has generally been considered a fairly safe place, I was determined to find out the story behind the death of Emily Keeling.
I’ve written about it in my family history blog, Shaking the Tree, but essentially Emily Keeling was a 17 year old on her way to Bible Class when she was shot by a young man who claimed he loved her and could not live without her. He killed Emily and then himself.
Yesterday was the 127th anniversary of Emily’s murder, and I went back to Symonds Street cemetery to lay flowers on her grave. With me were two wonderful women friends who also wanted to remember and honour Emily Keeling and all the other victims of domestic violence.
You can read Dee’s moving blog post about our trip here.
One of the reasons we have taken up Emily’s story is that we are all Trustees of the Friends of Women’s Refuges Trust (FoWRT).
This organisation was set up almost 20 years ago by a group of women on Auckland’s North Shore, to fundraise for Women’s Refuge. FoWRT has done this by organising what has become a major and important biennial sculpture exhibition – Sculpture on Shore.
In 2012, Sculpture on Shore exhibited work from over 100 New Zealand artists and artists’ collectives, attracting over 17,500 visitors. The range of work is diverse and extraordinary and in some cases, created specifically to reference the site, or the issue of domestic violence – as in the case of Bernie Harfleet’s 14 , and Turtle Donna Sarten’s Black and White and Red all over.
Since its inception, Sculpture on Shore has raised over NZ$1.2 million for Women’s Refuge. It’s a huge undertaking that relies very heavily on volunteers – over 200 volunteers in 2012. That’s two hundred plus amazing people who give up hours, days – and in the case of some, like my friend Alix, weeks – of their lives to make the exhibition work; to make it wonderful for the thousands who come to see it.
The first time I went to Sculpture on Shore was about 10 years ago. What I remember most about that occasion was my son – then aged about five – running from exhibit to exhibit shouting out the prices, and telling us we couldn’t afford them! By last year he’d managed to slow down enough to appreciate the art, and went home with a plan to submit a proposal to have a piece of his own accepted in 2014!
But that’s an aside. The real point about Sculpture on Shore is that at heart, it is an act of love and of compassion and of solidarity with the many victims of domestic violence in New Zealand. Artists, visitors, and all those who organise, staff and support the event do so not just for the love of art, but because we become part of a tangible, powerful force for change. In New Zealand, on average 14 women, six men and ten children are killed by a member of their family each year – a statistic poignantly highlighted in Bernie Harfleet’s 14. NZ Police are called to domestic violence situations on average once every seven minutes.
Reading the newspaper reports that followed Emily Keeling’s death, it appears that her killer had not tried to harm her before the fatal shooting, which in some ways makes his actions even more shocking. We may never be able to prevent such men (or women) from harming those they claim to love, but that doesn’t mean we are helpless. When it is estimated that one in three New Zealand women will experience psychological or physical abuse from their partner at some time in their life, it is likely that we all know someone who is a victim. Women’s Refuge is one of the key organisations helping those who experience domestic violence, but we are all able – on a personal level – to show the same love and compassion and solidarity that underpins Sculpture on Shore.