In a city known for its Southern hospitality and quaint charm, it may come as a shock to learn that Atlanta is one of the central hubs in the nation for human trafficking. According to a 2014 study by the Urban Institute in Atlanta, local traffickers can make more than $32,000 a year. The data upends the common belief that human trafficking and sex slavery are “third world” issues.
The exhibition “Freedom Expressions ATL II, Ghost Slavery: Art Against Human Trafficking,” on view at Gallery 72 through October 9, aims to challenge that notion by presenting works by more than a dozen artists of diverse backgrounds. A re-mounting of “Freedom Expressions ATL” which was featured at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport earlier this year, “Ghost Slavery” uses each artist’s work to present a different narrative about modern-day slavery, helping viewers to understand the shocking realities of this human rights issue.
Atlanta artist Charmaine Minniefield drew from history with her acrylic-on-canvas pieces Stars and Strifes — Blue. Using bold colors and patterns, side-by-side portraits of two nude black women represent the sexual exploitation often inflicted upon African-American women during antebellum slavery. Three mixed-media constructions by Atlanta artist Alfred Conteh — The Property Owning Pimp, The Mother Pimp, and The White Girl Pimp — feature texts that provide a narrative about those that are often glorified in the sex trade: pimps and johns. For example, The Property Owning Pimp, “can provide for a poor out-of-doors whore who has no place to live… [but] she must walk the chalk line.” Conteh sheds the visuals of shiny suits and diamond encrusted goblets, images often associated with the glorification of pimps, in hip-hop, and reminds viewers that “pimp culture,” is an industry with victims of abuse, who are often women and young children. What is more troubling is how much more often these victims are arrested than pimps. According to one study by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, states such as Massachusetts arrest prostitutes far more than pimps and johns.
Tracy Molloy, a Brooklyn-based artist and social activist, took three different images, a classroom with empty desks, a handcuffed child, and an unoccupied swing set, which seems to illustrate the industry’s child victims. In the collage Lowest on the Food Chain by Virginia artist Kay Chernush, hundreds of men are scattered across agricultural fields in Central America. It paints the reality of many modern day slaves, who work in fields for long hours with little pay, if any.
Brikena Boci, who often uses colorful fibers and textiles, is familiar with living under systems of oppression, having grown up in communist Albania. In Anonimja, she displays nearly a dozen images of female heads encrusted with crystals and colorful sequins. Boci addresses the element of self-identity within the realm of human trafficking. What are the women saying? Do they even have a voice?
We’d like to think slavery ended 150 years ago, but “Ghost Slavery” reminds us that is still exists, taking on various forms that require us to be educated and aware. The exhibition serves as a call-to-action. At the very least, it fosters dialogue about a growing human rights issue occurring in our own Southern backyard.
“Freedom Expression ATL II, Ghost Slavery: Art Against Human Trafficking” is on view at Gallery 72 through October 9.
Annabella Jean-Laurent is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who blogs at militantbarbie.com. Her writing explores race, media, and gender in society.