Launching with a celebratory community event, on February 15th 2019 (6-9pm), Lilacs In Bloom was exhibited at My Gallery in Dover from 16th-23rd February. The exhibition of Lilacs In Bloom aimed to raise awareness about the human and social consequences of human trafficking and modern-day slavery in the UK.
LILACS IN BLOOM: THE STORY OF THE PROJECT
‘To create is an act of liberation and every day this need for liberation comes back to me.’
In Autumn 2018, I was awarded an Arts Council England grant to run seven participatory artmaking workshops with survivors of modern-day slavery and human trafficking that are in receipt of support from Migrant Help. Lilacs In Bloom is the outcome of these workshops.
The first participant who came to the workshops was a friendly and charismatic man from Lithuania. He spoke only a little English and we communicated mainly via Google translate. I could see that he was utterly exhausted, and when I asked him if he would like to make a painting, I thought it might be too much to ask. I was surprised and delighted when after only a little hesitancy and deliberation he began to carefully mix colours and then paint a tree.
“It is a lilac in bloom,” he told me through the translator, adding that “In Lithuania, each yard grows lilac and in May it is very beautiful when they blossom.” He then pointed to Lithuania on a map on the wall and showed me pictures on his phone of his home city, and then pansies and other flowers that he loved. And so, a conversation began which continued from one workshop to the next and took in tales of ice fishing for perch in winter, 19th century folk music, the duduk, and the music of Frank Duval.
The arrival, the next week, of three young children and their hardworking mother from West Africa, made for a lively session. The children had no qualms about diving straight in to play with paint with hands and brushes, whilst the grown-ups gravitated to experimenting with making collages with found fabrics.
My intention at the outset was to offer the opportunity to have an immersive experience, exploring painting and collage. Creative self-expression offers a way to be free in the moment – to choose how to express thoughts and feelings and even, significantly, to be free of feelings and completely absorbed in the exploration of ideas. It was wonderful to see participants finding their own creative voice in the project. One of the fantastic things that happened was that each time I introduced an idea for a new way of working, the participants kept raising the bar and produced something that far exceeded the scope of my own ideas.
There is hope for a bright future for these five courageous individuals. It was a great pleasure working with them at the start of a new journey in their lives.
LILACS IN BLOOM: ABOUT THE ARTWORK
Early on in the project, I realised it would be difficult to attribute authorship to the works created by each participant. In order to protect them from human traffickers it would be safest for them to be anonymous. This prompted me to think about a composition for the final piece in which all the individual works could be viewed as parts of one whole, and I began to visualise a sea of shapes, which together would have a collective rhythm.
From there, I thought about the form that the individual works would take, and the mediums and materials we would be using. Since 2016, I have been collecting and employing in my practice scraps of cloth that wash up on the shore. When I work with these found fabrics of everyday life – such as sections of hankies, dresses, shirts, sheets, tea towels, upholstery – I am thinking about returning to them their material agency. Restoring individual agency is a central part of the journey of recovery for survivors of human trafficking and modern day slavery. I felt these anonymous, tactile and colourful pieces of cloth would provide fertile ground for generating ideas and exploring creative potential. I brought these, scissors, thread, and lots of paint and small canvases (whose shapes are based on the shapes of broken buoys and other bits of plastic I pick up when I comb the beach) to the workshops. We all worked in the same space creating individual works, freely exploring and developing our own approaches to making, and sharing ideas and discoveries as we went along.
HUMAN TRAFFICKING AND MODERN-DAY SLAVERY
Human trafficking is a hidden trade in human beings, which operates in every town and city in the UK. It is a booming business and a massive income generator for organised criminals. More than 13,000 people are estimated to be living in modern-day slavery in the UK today, having been either trafficked into or within the UK.
Lucrative industries for traffickers include the sex trade, cannabis cultivation, domestic services, nail bars, car washes, county lines, organ harvesting, food processing, the construction and maritime industries, and agriculture – such as harvesting and fruit and flower picking.
Both adults and children are targeted and migrant victims can be lured to the UK on the promise of a job and a better life. Sometimes individuals live on the fringes of society and are destitute or homeless. Traffickers prey on an individual’s vulnerabilities and use grooming techniques and threats, violence, coercion, forced drug and alcohol dependency and even kidnap, to enslave their targets. Victims are treated like cheap and disposable commodities, and are made to live in squalor and work for little or no money.
Gangmasters exploit workers forcing them to work long hours, in poor working conditions and without protective equipment, carrying out work that may be grueling or dangerous. They take their wages, run bank accounts in their names, and withhold workers’ identity documents.
Modern-day slavery and human trafficking are heinous crimes where victims are entrapped in a spiral of exploitation and are physically and psychologically controlled. Denied all autonomy over their lives, escape can be impossible.
The Modern Slavery Act was introduced into law in 2015. It states an offence is committed if someone holds another in slavery or servitude or requires them to perform forced or compulsory labour. As awareness grows of the prevalence of modern slavery and human trafficking, more is being done to identify and protect victims. In 2017 over 5000 people were referred to the British authorities as potential victims.
There are signs we can all look out for, such as people working without appropriate protective clothing or equipment, or appearing withdrawn or frightened. Individuals may be unable to answer questions directed at them or speak for themselves. They might be afraid of authorities like the police, immigration or the tax office, and may perceive themselves to be in debt to someone else.
If you think that you, or someone you know, may be a victim of slavery, call the dedicated Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 0121 700 or Migrant Help on 07766 668781. You can also make a report to the police on 101. If it is an emergency, call 999. If you think something does not look right, then it is probably isn’t and by reporting it you may be changing someone’s life.
“Migration is a force for dignity because it allows people to choose to save themselves, protect themselves, educate themselves, or free themselves. It lets millions choose participation over isolation, action over idleness, hope over fear and prosperity over poverty. We must dignify those choices by paying them respect. We respect them by treating those who make such choices with dignity. ”
António Vitorino, Director General, International Organization for Migration (IOM)
There are millions of people around the world who have been displaced by conflict, or forced from their homes by natural and climate-related disasters. Others leave their home country to try and escape from a cycle of poverty and build a new life. Migrants can face great dangers: many have died crossing seas, deserts and forests. Migrants can also be preyed upon by human traffickers and sold into modern slavery.
Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall into the hands of traffickers, in their own countries and abroad. Human trafficking is a process of enslaving people. The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, harbouring, transportation or receipt of persons by means of threat, force, coercion or deception for the purpose of exploitation, such as forced labour, forced criminality or forced prostitution. Shockingly, there are an estimated 40 million people living in slavery in the world today.
Migrant Help is a charity, which supports asylum seekers, refugees and victims of human trafficking and modern slavery in the UK. It provides safe accommodation to adults and families who have been identified as potential victims of modern-day slavery and human trafficking in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The charity also provides vital assistance through the provision of interpreters, immigration advice, access to legal representation, counselling, healthcare and financial assistance. This support can help individuals to reclaim their independence and dignity, and make the transition from victims to empowered survivors.
“Ultimately, our main priorities are reducing the risk of re-trafficking and helping our clients gain confidence to move forward to a new and positive chapter in their lives.”
Migrant Help (2019)
To find out more about the work of Migrant Help visit their website: https://www.migranthelpuk.org
Lilacs In Bloom is funded by crowdfunding support and a National Lottery Arts Council England grant.
Migrant Help UK is a UK charity, which helps asylum seekers and refugees navigate the complex asylum process. Migrant Help also provides support and guidance to vulnerable migrants and assists victims of human trafficking and modern slavery on their path to recovery.
GoFundMe campaign https://www.gofundme.com/antislaveryrefugeeartproject
Anti-Slavery Day https://www.antislaveryday.com
LILACS IN BLOOM is funded by a National Lottery Arts Council England grant, a Dover Town Council grant and crowdfunding support.