LONDON—The emphasis of international organizations on the trafficking of women is often more on trying to stop the practice than on healing those who have been sold into slavery. In a new exhibition that combines the perspectives of art and academia, Syrian artist Sara Shamma highlights the need to help survivors cope with their trauma and build a future, despite the suffering they have endured.
The exhibition, Sara Shamma: Modern Slavery, which opened October 1 at King’s College London, articulates the experiences of trafficked women around the world, including the thousands of Yazidi women and children abducted and used as sex slaves by the Islamic State. Shamma became interested in the women’s fate after hearing their stories from friends who had seen them sold off at slave markets with price tags around their necks. “I wanted to shed some light on modern slavery as a whole because it’s a big issue but nobody talks about it, especially in the Middle East.”
During an art-research residency at King’s College, she worked alongside Siân Oram, a senior lecturer in women’s mental health at the university’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience. Through the Helen Bamber Foundation, a human-rights organization that supports survivors of extreme cruelty, they identified and interviewed women from different countries, drawing out details that troubled Shamma deeply.
“After the first interview with a survivor,” she said, “I couldn’t sleep. I was imagining pictures, noises, smells. … These paintings are my reaction about what I learned. They are not an illustration of what happened, but the feeling that these stories leave in you.”
How Women’s Ordeals Begin
Some of the women said their ordeal began when a spouse or parent died and a relative stepped in to exploit them. “A male member of the family, maybe an uncle or somebody else, took her and raped her, sold her children and then sold her separately,” Shamma said, recounting circumstances she heard several times.
She knows all too well how pervasive modern slavery is. Living in Syria and Lebanon, she has witnessed other forms of captivity, including the domestic slavery endured by migrant workers across the region, which is often taken for granted in local society. An estimated 2.4 million migrant domestic workers are enslaved in the Gulf countries alone, according to the International Trade Union Confederation.
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Speaking with survivors from other countries and cultures has given Shamma’s exhibition a global relevance. Measuring modern slavery is difficult but in 2016, an estimated 40.3 million people were enslaved on any given day, 71 percent of them women, according to the Global Slavery Index.