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Fighting stereotypes of modern slavery in new London art exhibit

  • Published on
    October 2, 2019
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    Survivor Stories
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A celebrated Syrian artist, Sara Shamma, has just opened her new exhibition in London, which seeks to capture the realities of modern slavery and counter stereotypes of “abstract victims.”

Shamma is an artist in residence at King’s College London, where she worked with academics from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience and female survivors of modern slavery to create her artworks. The project was inspired by Shamma’s first-hand experience interviewing women and girls who were kidnapped by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Sian Oram, a lecturer in women’s mental health who worked on the project, explained why fighting sensational, often-violent stereotypes is so important.

“If you do a Google image search for trafficking, what you tend to see is a lot of pictures of women hiding their face from the camera, women in handcuffs, bound in rope, bound in wire,” she said.

“It’s something that is very graphic, it’s very reductive, I think it is quite offensive to a lot of survivors and I think it contributes to this sense of a very abstract victim. You don’t see the person as a person – you don’t see their humanity.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation reports:

She created a series of images exploring themes such as the lack of family support and the challenges of moving on, featuring portraits including a series of piercing eyes set within loosely sketched faces.

“The stories are very terrible … I was emotionally affected,” she said of the interview process.

“But they are survivors – the whole issue about the exhibition was to capture how they are surviving.”

Oram’s team will use the interview data in a project aiming to assess which forms of support are most useful for ex-slaves and how to better tailor services to help them.

“As an artist I draw inspiration from the immediate world around me.  At certain points in my life, that immediate world has been confused, angry and frightening. Those personal, close encounters have motivated me to engage with the issues and to use my medium, painting, to comment and challenge the status quo,” noted Shamma.

“Over time, we have frequently turned to artists to make sense of difficult or complex issues. Very much in this tradition, I hope that my responses to, and engagement with survivors, through this residency at King’s College London, will help raise awareness and understanding of this very live issue.”

The exhibition is titled Sara Shamma: Modern Slavery and is curated by Kathleen Soriano. The show is open at Arcade at Bush House from 1 October to 22 November.

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