25 slaves work for me.

This was the result given to me by the personalized quiz offered near the start of the exhibit. The quiz took into account where I lived, what sort of foods I eat and the electronics I have, among other things.

Above the quiz station, a panel hangs on the wall with a quote from the artist: “We thought slavery had disappeared 150 years ago when in reality it is all around us … This exhibit is intended to spark dialogue and inspire creative action.”

In collaboration with ArtWorks for Freedom, an organization that fights modern slavery and human trafficking, the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts featured works by Kay Chernush in an exhibit titled Bought & Sold: Voices of Human Trafficking. The collection aims to bring awareness to current forms of slavery through art.

Photo courtesy of The Smith Center for Healing and the Arts.
Photo courtesy of The Smith Center for Healing and the Arts.

The gallery is humble and unassuming, tucked between a tanning studio and other U Street shops. The exhibit occupies one room, well-lit with a dark wooden floor.

In order to create her pieces, Chernush interviewed victims of human trafficking from across the globe. She took a set of photographs, one she gave to the subject, and the other she transformed into a series of works. Each piece is accompanied by an interview with its subject.

Anthony Palliparambil, exhibitions manager, explains Chernush does this in order to give the victims a sense of confidence and worth, to make them feel like “they were worth having photos taken of them.”

Palliparambil tells me one work in particular hits close to home.

It is similar to the others, except the subject was trafficked from D.C. He explains she was raised in Fairfax, Va., in a middle class family. While still a teenager, she ran away from home and was picked up on 14th and I Street, not far from the gallery itself.

Photo courtesy of The Smith Center for Healing and the Arts.
Photo courtesy of The Smith Center for Healing and the Arts.

While he is explaining this to me, I am reminded of the documentary A Path Appears, based on Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book. In this film, a pimp goes to malls to search for girls shopping alone. He approaches these girls and says, “You have beautiful eyes.” If the girl looks at him and says “Thank you,” he continues on. If she looks down and says, “No, I don’t,” then he knows he has her.

The exhibit, as a whole, does not force anything upon the visitor.

There are no crude photographs. The collection strikes a balance between the concrete and the abstract.

As I was leaving, Palliparambil highlighted the window display, created by Barbara Liotta.

Palliparambil describes it as more “harrowing” than the rest of the exhibit. It features shards of glass with human body parts painted on them in green, glinting in the light that shines in from the street.

They represent the lives, bodies and identities that have been torn apart by the trafficking industry. There are tiny shattered pieces scattered around below the hanging pieces.

They are too small to be put back together again.

Raye Weigel is a freshman English and community health double major and can be reached at rayanneweigel@gmail.com.

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