Picturing Slavery: Learning from Antislavery Murals Then and Now

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Susan Trimarco Mural, No Standing Ground, (2013)

When you walk around your nearest town or city, look up. Try and avoid an immersion into the world of Facebook or Twitter, and instead pay attention to the walls of the buildings surrounding you. I realise this sounds strange, but in doing this, you might just spot a contemporary slavery mural. As of 2017, every habitable continent in the world houses murals and/or public art installations dedicated to raising awareness of contemporary slavery. Texturing the streets of Bluefields, Nicaragua; Miami, US; New Delhi, India; Freetown, Sierra Leone; and Buenos Aires, Argentina for example, are murals all devoted to raising awareness of modern slavery, and within the last two decades, the efficacy of murals as protest tools calling for a wider public acknowledgement and complete abolition of the modern day slave trade has been recognised. In 2009, off the back of US artist Ross Bleckner becoming the UN Goodwill Ambassador, Antonio Maria Costa (the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) impressed the importance of using art to tackle the awareness of human rights issues like human trafficking and forced labour:

Art is one of the most powerful advocacy tools to raise awareness and move people to take action. A painting says a thousand words. Appointing Ross Bleckner as a UNODC goodwill ambassador…provides a unique opportunity to implore others to join us in our fight against conscription of children, and other forms of human trafficking and modern day slavery.

Murals embody Costa’s sentiments. With 40.3 million enslaved men, women and children in every corner of the world today, murals are powerful protest tools used in today’s society to raise awareness of modern slavery in its many forms such as forced labour, domestic servitude, debt bondage, forced marriage, child marriage, child soldiers, sex trafficking and human trafficking. Having extensively researched contemporary antislavery murals, I’ve noticed their function mainly falls into two categories: for education, and for rehabilitation. Most commonplace are the murals created for educative purposes. With a push today towards making cities ‘slavery free’, murals should be an important step in that process as they can help to raise awareness of the wide-spread nature of contemporary slavery. Murals can teach the tell-tale signs of modern slavery, the local stories in specific areas, and the various forms that slavery can take, but they can also exist to simply insert visual, and sometimes abstract, depictions of modern slavery into the public consciousness in order to raise awareness and catalyse the general population into action.

An example of this comes from Buenos Aires in 2013 when a Seattle-based street artist by the pseudonym of No Touching Ground created a lifelike portrait of Susana Trimarco (pictured) in the downtown area of the city. Trimarco is a human trafficking lobbyist who has a personal experience with the sex trafficking industry. She is an inspirational and courageous woman and the mural lining the streets of Buenos Aires at over 10 feet stands in celebration to her human rights work. But the mural’s initial intended purpose isn’t just to celebrate the bravery of Trimarco. It’s also to insert the issue of sex slavery into a public space in order to begin an uncomfortable, but fundamental, communal dialogue that brings awareness to the issue of human trafficking plaguing the lives of many people throughout the country. The high profile nature of the Trimarco case may mean that passers by, and certainly locals, recognise the life-like portrait painted by No Standing Ground, but to the wealth of tourists visiting the Argentine capital, the story will be new. When they seek to know more about Susana Trimarco, the work she’s done and why her face decorates a busy street in the nation’s capital, people will learn about the high levels of sex trafficking and forced labour throughout the country—and this is why murals are so important.

In doing this, a dialogue gets opened when tourists and locals learn how “Argentina is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor.” (1) The Susan Trimarco mural helps to pull back the curtain to make sure this issue isn’t being hidden away in a country where “judges receive bribes from traffickers or do not adequately investigate signs of official complicity.”(2) As reported in the July 2015 Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, one of the main problems embroiled in the sex trafficking industry in Argentina is the reported police complicity in 40 per cent of sex trafficking cases, either as purchasers of commercial sex or as personal contacts of brothel owners—and as a result, this serves as a disincentive for victims to report exploitation. (3) In a country with a broken judicial system, these unofficial awareness-raising methods, such murals and public art, are that much more important in order to make sure a visual voice is given to those who cannot speak. And for the 3,465 women that were rescued from human trafficking operations in Argentina between 2008 and 2014—this mural tells their story and inserts their voice into the public domain for people to learn about.

Contemporary antislavery murals are widespread—and as we now know, they live in every habitable continent in the world—but they actually have a long history that we can learn from in order to create more protest/awareness raising murals contemporarily. The antislavery mural has been in existence since the 1920s Harlem Renaissance era in the US through murals such as Aaron Douglas’s Spirits Rising (1930-31), Aspects of Negro Life (1934) and Into Bondage (1936)and it has undertaken a somewhat tumultuous, and occasionally controversial journey through the 1940s WPA murals, circumnavigating the Civil Rights Movement to eventually live in the streets of 1960s Black Power America, before undergoing censorship rules and patronage shifts in the 1980s and 1990s. On December 2nd, 2017, the world’s first archive of antislavery murals was launched by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, titled ‘Murals: Walls of Slavery, Walls of Freedom’ (antislavery.ac.uk/murals). I created this archive to bring together all interior and exterior murals from the 1920s through to present day that focus specifically on figures and themes of historic abolition. I wanted to establish a sense of permanence and longevity for these murals to ensure they remain visible in the historical protest narrative, even if erased from their physical location. Two of the main purposes of this archive are to firstly show how these artworks have long been protest tools to tell forgotten antislavery stories for the purpose of galvanizing community activism, but also to highlight lessons we can learn from them and apply to murals today that raise awareness of contemporary slavery and human trafficking. So what can we learn from the lineage of the antislavery mural depicted in the archive? What works, and what doesn’t? What made them a past success and what can we use and apply to contemporary antislavery murals?

Antislavery murals of the past commonly depicted abolitionist/antislavery figures such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and John Brown. They commonly drew upon the history of the transatlantic slave trade to root the mural with historic specificity. They were expansive, lining the streets of every major US city, and they were commonly accompanied by a dedication ceremony/festival. These four important lessons are successful tips that can be applied to the creation of murals today in order to raise awareness of contemporary slavery, and to ensure the antislavery mural maintains its longevity.

[1]https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/245365.pdf

[2]https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/245365.pdf

[3]https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/245365.pdf

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