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.
While responses to the scale of the problem often focus on prevention, there’s also an urgent need to improve support for survivors, Oram said. “Through this project we have begun to understand the realities of women’s lives after exploitation. It explores what survival and recovery mean to them—how they think about themselves, others, and the future. Our hope is that the work inspires new ways of depicting, and thinking about, the impact of modern slavery.”
“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.”Sara Shamma
The collaboration has also yielded insights for Oram, who believes an artist’s perspective has added new layers to her scientific research. “Thinking about the tone of voice, the posture, the look in somebody’s eye and really trying to keep hold of all of that and using it to understand what they meant when they were saying the words, I think that will be a change in practice for me.”
On display at Bush House, King’s College London through November 22, the paintings achieve what words and statistics cannot, conveying at a glance the complexity of human slavery experiences and the complicated emotions behind them.
One of the most complex works in the series, Double Motherhood, shows three generations of women embracing one another in a seemingly nurturing pose. But another reading, captured in the expressions of the younger woman and her daughter, hints at a more malevolent motherhood, where it’s the matriarch that’s responsible for enslaving more vulnerable women in the family.
In another painting, Hiding in Plain Sight, the eyes of the subject create tension, conveying vulnerability and defiance, fear and disdain, simultaneously. Many trafficked women suffer from feelings of guilt and survivor’s shame. “Wherever they go, they sense that they are being watched by people,” Oram said.
Portraits of Traffickers
There’s also a strong emphasis on the devouring male gaze, most notably in a series of oil sketches depicting unnamed men who are suggestive of the human traffickers who sold and enslaved these women. As in the larger oil paintings, these are not based on particular individuals, but rather on the artist’s impressions, drawn from real life experiences encountered in her research.
To protect their identity, Shamma did not depict the women she spoke with; instead she paints their lives, past and present, capturing the pain they have endured and their efforts to overcome it. “I want my paintings to touch and move people, to change their minds and make them ask questions,” said Shamma, who has received numerous international awards for her work over the years.
Art and science have often been married to great effect, but it’s rare to see the research practices of artist and academic carried out in tandem. Kathleen Soriano, who curated the exhibition, believes this work enters new territory, not only in the methodology behind it, but in the issues it confronts and the way they are approached.
“A lot of the imagery that’s been produced around this subject matter has been largely photographic and illustrative, so it’s quite unusual for a topic like this to be taken in figurative painting,” Soriano said. “Art is about making people feel, it’s not just about understanding. I think this will have an impact because people aren’t used to looking at this sort of subject matter in painted form.”