Anti-Slavery Day: A story of Art, Freedom and Hope
Today, 18th October, is International Anti Slavery Day.
To mark this, all this week outside St Paul’s Cathedral is an art exhibition called “Art is Freedom”, displaying art created by those who have escaped Modern Slavery.
It’s been created in a project run by the charity Hestia, hosted and partnered with a local church in West London.
Here, a church volunteer Jacqueline tells her story of how and why she’s got involved with this work using her skills as an artist, and what she has learnt through it.
Stepping into Action on Modern Slavery
My story into learning more about Modern Slavery really started in April last year.
Over 4 weeks we met on Zoom, and learnt more about Modern Slavery together.
Doing the Hidden Voices course exposed us all to the rising levels of human exploitation taking place all over the UK.
We were shown how to identify signs of modern slavery, given advice, shown how to identify when people are being exploited; and encouraged to find ways of setting up local support groups.
Following the course, I wanted to become proactive, but also wanted to learn more.
For many years, the issue of drug related crime has been on my heart so I enrolled on a course focusing on County Lines - a form of modern slavery targeted at young people and the vulnerable.
Organised crime gangs stop at nothing to achieve their goals; human trafficking, sexual exploitation, forced labour..,their ‘business model’ doesn’t work without extreme forms of exploitation and so they work relentlessly to succeed.
I must admit, it made me question whether institutions like the Church of England were playing a big enough part in combatting this issue: if drug dealers will stop at nothing to maintain their empire, how is our church matching that zeal to stop at nothing in order to keep our children and vulnerable people safe?
I wasn’t sure of the answer, but figured if I was angry about the situation, I couldn’t just criticise.
I needed to get involved.
Setting up an Art Workshop
One of these evenings on Hidden Voices, a few of us were discussing art. Alison from Compassionate Communities asked if I’d be interested in getting involved with Hestia.
We met and she told me about the partnership between Hestia and a church local to me, running workshops and support for modern slavery survivors.
She also mentioned Hestia’s “Art is Freedom” initiative. As a professional artist myself, I loved the idea and we took it from there.
Fast forward a few months and I found myself leading art workshops at that church, every Tuesday morning, for 6 weeks during August & September. I led alongside another very talented, professional artist Mandeep.
The workshops were for survivors of modern slavery and the aim was to create art for Hestia’s Art is Freedom exhibition they hold each year for Anti-Slavery Day in October.
This is a very short time to turn around work for an art exhibition, particularly as we hadn’t met the group before and weren’t sure of their skill set. Some people were travelling from the other side of London - so whatever their motivation for coming and whatever their ability, we wanted people to leave feeling uplifted - and wanting to come back for more!
Our intention was clear: we wanted anyone joining the group to feel like a creator; channelling their thoughts, dreams and personalities on to the page. We wanted to give them licence to let their imagination fly - to suspend everyday worries and enable art to free them.
The theme Hestia had set for the exhibition as ‘Hope’.
People verbally reflected on the word and then set about creating collage that reflected their emotions.
Mandeep and I were hesitant about introducing this theme - as it may have raised difficult issues for people or appear intrusive, but the response was positive.
People shared their feelings; that sometimes it felt like there was no hope; other times there appeared realistic to believe in better times.
During the project, different people would attend and no two weeks were the same.
It allowed for really interesting group discussions and insight into the lives of others; different mindsets, approaches to life and coping mechanisms. Some people struggled with speaking English more than others, but it didn’t stop a sense of camaraderie.
I was expecting to teach women and children but actually more men visited in the end.
The Hestia team later explained that charity programmes are often targeted at women and there’s a lack of projects that appeal to men - and particularly men bringing their children. This stuck with me; even within a disenfranchised group, there are people further ostracised.
What I’ve learnt about what Slavery does to people
Gaining first hand experience from talking to people is priceless; it’s consolidated everything learnt on the training courses and makes me feel more informed, and therefore more confident in the help I can offer.
From my conversations, I’ve learnt:
Many survivors are living under the radar, hiding their identity, being in fear of trusting people…and it becomes second nature to consider yourself a second class citizen. This feeling is so entrenched it takes an army of support to wrench people out of this mindset.
People really value acts of kindness, however small. My church congregation would bake cakes for the art project every week, and attendees were really touched that their comfort and well being mattered to people who didn’t even know them.
Visiting the church venue location, attendees often entered the church and commented on the tranquil atmosphere. For some, it was the first time they’d entered a church and they loved the architecture and the sense of peace. Just because survivors of modern slavery have been ‘freed’ it doesn’t mean that they’re mentally free.
In the past I’ve researched the power of interior spaces on mindset, and I saw this happening before my eyes. I’d love the opportunity to take people to explore the wider world that they may not have experienced yet: different landscapes, parks, free galleries, architecture: environments that can lift the spirits and free the mind.
If you’re a survivor of modern slavery your status here can feel precarious; you may be waiting indefinitely to hear whether you have permanent residence in the UK, or face being deported. A sense of security or opportunity to build a life can feel out of reach. Therefore, a real need is finding a way of coping and managing a ‘life in limbo’. Good mental health is essential, but that’s easier said than done if you have a history of trauma.
An obvious need is finding positive things to fill their day. People aren’t allowed to work and have limited budgets; they can’t pay college fees and may only know a limited network of people. Occupying time and finding distractions from worries can be difficult - testament to this is the fact some people travelled from the other side of London to attend.
- Often people attending were highly skilled - and would be professionals in their countries of origin, so coping with this new identity & lack of purpose was tough. In the class, we encouraged people to teach each other new skills, in the hope people were reminded of the value they had to others.