Warning: This story discusses sexual abuse.
A "powerful" and "raw" sculpture exhibition about a New Zealand woman's experience of child sexual assault is helping visitors of all ages open up about past traumas.
Currently showing at the Exhibitions Gallery in Wellington, The Secret Keeper created by 53-year-old artist Catherine Daniels, is believed to be the only exhibition in the world shining a light explicitly on childhood sexual abuse.
Described as "intensely real, raw and profoundly moving", the exhibition made up of 56 sculptures of varying sizes that walk a visitor through Daniels' childhood trauma, kept a secret for decades.
Since its opening by Wellington philanthropist Chris Parkin last month, Daniels has sat with "the girls" every day and had hundreds of people of all ages share their own experiences with her.
"You have no idea who's going to walk through that door, from a 5-year-old to a 85-year-old, and they all have their own story," she said.
"The event is different, but it's the journey after that event that everybody relates to here. And this encapsulates everything about that journey."
"I can hear up to 200 stories a day from people … they come in here and they say, 'we feel safe to talk'."
She said she has had women in their 80s open up to her with stories of trauma they had never shared with anyone.
"I can't drop something like this and walk away and not have someone there to talk to people about this.
"Some of the stories I've heard have been pretty full-on. But they feel safe to say something like that here because there's all these girls around them."
Daniels experienced sexual assault as a child, but it wasn't until she was nearly 50 that she was able to fully share her trauma.
She took up writing, and then began making sculptures six years ago in an effort to portray what she couldn't express with words.
"I made that one sculpture because I couldn't say what I wanted with words," she said.
"This was the first time I had actually tried to sculpt my emotions, and it was really daunting."
While Daniels found the process personally "cathartic", it was soon suggested how it could be shared to help others.
"Probably about a year into it my psychologist and publisher said 'you have to put this out into the world, because this is going to change people's lives'," she said.
"It's been pretty scary to put myself out there. I didn't make to make myself a famous artist ... all I did was say what I wanted to say, but couldn't verbally say.
"And I think that's what everyone's drawn to – the fact that it's really raw. It's walking through a life that you never get to see."
The 56 figures portray a range of emotions in Daniels' journey, exploring the dissociation and fragmentation sometimes experienced by survivors.
The exhibition has been recognised by psychologists for its power in supporting and validating other survivors.
It has also sparked interest from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, which is now interviewing Daniels about her experiences of abuse while at school.
The Secret Keeper has already been shown in Palmerston North and Whanganui, and Daniels and her team hope it could eventually be viewed internationally, to spread more awareness about child sexual abuse.
"This is the most universal thing in the world, sexual assault – it has no genre, no ethnicity, it doesn't matter who you are, where you've come from, how rich you are, how poor you are."
She hoped her work would help to change the culture of silence around the hidden pandemic of sexual assault, and create a more positive future for survivors.
"They're worried about a pandemic with Covid but they've got no idea they've already got a pandemic on their hands that has been around for years, and it's going to continue unless we make changes," she said.
"What we need to try and create is a generation where when children look up for help there's someone there for them.
"Because secrets make you sick and the longer you keep secrets, the sicker you become. And I kept my secrets for way too long.
"But if they get help straight away it doesn't ruin their entire life."
The Secret Keeper closes this Saturday at the Exhibitions Gallery on Brandon St, Wellington.
It will be at the Community Art Gallery in Napier from March 18 – April 7, and at the Incubator in Tauranga from April 30 – May 28.
Daniels has also written a book called The Secret Keeper, featuring images of her sculptures by award-winning photographer Esther Bunning.
Where to get help:
Need to talk 0800 173 71737
Rape Crisis 0800 883 300
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Women's Refuge Crisis Line 0800 733 843
Youthline 0800 376 633
Mental Health Crisis Team 0800 800 717