As Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” played in the background, more than 100 people gathered on Thursday for the public reception of the art exhibition “Silence Breakers” at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art.

The exhibition, which opened Sunday and runs until April 5, is a collaboration between the organization Nasty Women Connecticut and the Ely Center. The unjuried exhibition allowed any artist from anywhere in the country who sent in their work by the deadline to be included. At the event, women in Nasty Woman T-shirts directed people to the themes of the different rooms in the center, formerly home to the prominent New Haveners John and Grace Ely. In addition to bringing together artist perspectives about current political issues related to gender and violence, the exhibit also aims to honor Grace Ely as a part of the In Grace We Trust program at the center.

“I looked at my kids and I couldn’t not do anything anymore,” said Luciana McClure, who co-founded Nasty Women Connecticut. “I couldn’t allow for my children’s rights to be taken away and for every right that has ever been given to me by my family to just be taken away by someone.”

Debbie Hesse, the vice president of the Ely Center for Contemporary Art, said the exhibition aims to include artist narratives about violence against women in the age of #MeToo and to “break the silence” by encouraging women to speak out through their art. McClure emphasized the importance of inclusivity in the exhibition, saying it was an opportunity for established and emerging artists of any age.

Hesse, who helped coordinate the exhibition, noted the significance of how space was used in the gallery. She said each room was designed to mirror a room in the original design of the house with artwork that commented on “securities around private life” and domesticity in a subversive way. She pointed out a floral still life that represented different parts of a bomb, colorful decorations on the stairs made out of bullet casings and a wall of artwork arranged like family photos in a home.

“I really liked the idea of it playing off it being the home of a strong woman who opened it up for art for most of her life,” Hesse said. “So I thought we could commemorate her, Grace T. Ely, for Women’s History Month and also kind of play off of domesticity in the context of someone’s home so it creates an extra layer of meaning.”

Darletha Busby, whose husband had two pieces in the exhibition, said she often attends Ely Center events, and she thought this one was important for art in New Haven.

“With all the gun violence and the women’s issues across the globe, it’s kind of on time,” she said. “It speaks volumes to what’s going on and what we are trying to squash.”

While the focus was on gender, the art focused on a variety of current political issues. Local artists Melanie Carr and Rashmi Talpade collaborated on a piece about the presidential administration, entitled “Action/Reaction,” that included a collage of recent tweets and photos in the wake of the recent mass shooting in Florida. The piece also included hand-sewn pillows shaped like quote bubbles that Carr said can be used “to smash your face in the wall after watching the news,” or just to take a break from the influx of news.

Howard El-Yasin combined themes of class, race and gender by using his grandmother’s old uniform from her time working in housekeeping at Yale University and putting it on display next to her suitcase inside of a closet in the Ely Center. He said that he was trying to draw attention to the “invisible identity” of domestic workers who are often ignored in wealthy spaces, such as the Ely house or the University.

Nasty Women of Connecticut will also be hosting events throughout March. McClure said they will be hosting a panel on March 15 with Jessamyn Fiore, Barbara Smith and Andrea Sepe, who run Nasty Woman arts movements in other cities. They will also hold a day of art and activism at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum on March 25.

The Ely Center of Contemporary Art was founded in 1961.

Carolyn Sacco |