PHOTOS: Human trafficking victims find a voice through painting
In her painting, he is depicted as a tiger. The artist is a Filipina who was forced into prostitution in the UAE. The Tiger is her first client. He hired her for an hour and they got talking.
She risked punishment, but she told him everything - that she had come to the UAE to work as a beautician, but she and her two colleagues were locked in their villa and forced to sell their bodies. She told him how she didn’t want to do it and hoped to escape back to the Philippines.
The client, shocked by what he heard, quickly lost his passion. He went out to talk to her handler and booked the woman for the whole night, so no other man would touch her. Back in the bedroom, they plotted an escape and later that night, with his help, she fled the apartment with her two friends.
This is just one of the stories that inspired the ‘Silent Voices’ exhibition at Ghaf Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi, which ends at 9pm tonight. Under the tutelage of Jennifer Simon, a residency artist at the Ewa’a Shelter For Women and Children, the victims of human trafficking have unveiled an extraordinary collection of paintings that express their pain at losing their dignity and their anger at their pimps, but also their love of their families and their hopes for a new start. Visitors can buy the paintings, ranging in price up to Dhs4,000, with all proceeds going to the Ewa’a Shelter.
Jennifer’s six-month residency with the women was funded by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation to encourage human trafficking victims to find creative expression, often for the first time in their lives.
“I brought them different art books and we discussed art styles,” says Jennifer. “Over time, the women began to develop their own style. Some liked Andy Warhol, some liked Banksy - you can see the influence of many artists.”
One of the paintings on the gallery’s second floor is inspired by subversive street stenciller Banksy. It’s called ‘My Trafficker’ (pictured far right), by 21-year-old JD. It features a cutout photo of a bearded man who has been painted in 19th-century top hat and suit, but below the waist he’s wearing jeans; in his hand he carries a modern machine gun. The meaning is clear: the old-fashioned gentleman of the top half soon gave way to the mean gangster beneath.
Each painting comes with a one-line explanation from the artist. For this one, JD writes drolly: “Looks can be deceiving.” Several of the paintings express the women’s desire to return to their home countries. One, by 21-year-old Asian artist NB, is a seemingly happy three-dimensional painting of a flower surrounded by ladybirds. It’s entitled ‘Trapped In The Frame’. In her description, NB says: “I want to fly to my family, but I feel like a ladybird that can only fly a short distance.”
The artwork that really stood out for Jennifer was by
35-year-old MA, the woman who created the tiger painting. Pictured far left, it’s actually a triptych of three connected paintings, representing MA and her two beautician friends with the tiger standing guard in front of them. It’s called ‘The Defender’. “We were lucky to meet the man who helped us,” explains MA.
Jennifer says this is her favourite work. “She is an amazing artist, really professional,” she reveals. “She told me that, with art, she has found what she wants to do in life.” The most expensive work is another painting by MA, a vivid, colourful portrait of a prostitute putting on her lipstick, pictured on the cover of Insider. It’s entitled ‘The Mask of Deception’. Her description reads simply: “Being beautiful does not mean the beauty is for sale.”
Silent Voices is at Ghaf Art Gallery, Al Khaleej Al Arabi Street, Abu Dhabi, and runs until 9pm tonight.