Over the last 6 months I have been working away on a commission for Undisclosed, a group show curated by Nicola Hockley and Caroline Evans, seeking to expose Modern Slavery as a 21st Century crime. The show runs from 2 March – 18th April at The Hostry exhibition space in Norwich Cathedral, with the Private View on 10th March 6-8pm. Everyone is invited! The plinths are being made, the catalogue is being printed – but before I share photos of the completed work, I thought I would post about the research and making process I have been through.
The Problem of Modern Slavery
I confess I did not know much about the subject before being invited to exhibit. It turns out despite slavery having been abolished in 1833 – it is still alive and kicking here in the UK, and frighteningly prevalent in the production of cheap food and agricultural products. Although it takes many forms from children in county lines drug running, to trafficked sex workers, to valet car washes, the bit that most shocked me was the prevalence of debt bondage in the supply chain of the food we buy weekly from our favourite supermarkets. The pressure to supply cheap cheap goods, means companies look the other way when agencies send them inexpensive and submissive workers, often non-english speaking, who turn up corralled into vans, often down at heal. These are some of the tell tell signs that employers need to look out for if they don’t want their products tainted by the scourge of slave labour. Victims of modern slavery are invariably in fear of their lives from those who lured them to this country with the promise of good work, and then demand that they pay back the cost of flights, accommodation, use of tools – with vastly inflated rates, and despicably low rates of pay. Victims of debt bondage slip ever deeper into debt, while attempts to flee or argue back are met with violence – or threats of violence to family back home. It is a sorry tale. And a blight on the way we consume. But once you know you can’t un-know.
Slavery blooming in UK agriculture
We have been conned by consumerism and seduced by the lured of the bargain. Indeed being a bargain hunter is pretty much considered a virtue. I fell for it. For more than 10 years I have been buying a couple of bunches of cheap daffodils in my weekly Sainsbury’s shop each spring. A two quid treat for me and my family to brighten the kitchen table. Where’s the harm in that? Well it turns out Cornish Daffs are/have been produced with slave labour. It’s no wonder when you consider they are picked by hand, and yet 10 blooms cost just £1. That one pound has to cover the bulbs, planting, tending, hand picking, processing, packaging, delivery to the distribution centre and then on to the supermarkets AND making a profit for shareholders. For me it became clear – if the goods are seductively cheap, and it involves manual labour, someone is getting screwed over.
This terracotta Janus Head, ‘Every Little Helps‘ references Tesco’s strap line. Every little bit of exploitation and cutting of corners, as well as mechanisation helps to keep the price down – but at what cost? This piece is my attempt to take responsibility for my role in the cheap daffodil trade. On one side I have sculpted a self portrait of me as the Bargain Hunter – with a crazed expression of someone who has just spotted an irresistible deal. On the other, is a portrait of an actual survivor of Modern Slavery who kindly agreed to sit for me. I travelled to the Welsh borders to meet up with her, hear about her experiences and take photographic visual references to be able to sculpt the portrait. I wanted to capture a sense of the desolation and dehumanising numbness that she described to me when she was trapped in forced labour. Although my muse was not herself involved in the daffodil production, it was confirming to hear she was glad I was wanting to highlight this story. The contrast between the charm and beauty of daffodils, and the processes at play to get them to market will hopefully shock viewers. The piece will be displayed in Norwich with fresh daffodils coming out of the aperture in the top of the head.
A Feast of Modern Slavery – it is everywhere
My research also revealed that that modern slavery is now so endemic in UK food production, from planting and harvesting, to packing and processing, that an expert who works in the industry told me if I wanted to sculpt the food that is produced using modern slavery, I could choose anything I liked to represent – it is everywhere! So I made a slavery salad – an homage to 16th Century master-ceramicist Bernard Palissy, press moulding shrimp and cockle shells (remember the trafficked Morecambe Bay Cockle pickers who drowned), shrimp, lettuce, asparagus, and eggs to create an abundant platter of glossy but tainted food.
You Can’t Walk Away
The third sculpture that I have made for the Undisclosed is called – ‘You Can’t Walk Away‘ – a quote from Blood and Earth by Kevin Bales. This statement is the simplest definition of modern slavery. If you can’t walk away from your job for fear of violence, arrest, and crippling debt then you are experiencing slave labour. This terracotta shackled foot, that is straining to get away and yet fixed in place also references the terrible shackles of the transatlantic slave trade. I chose to sculpt in terracotta clay as its high iron content – just like blood, gives the clay its distinctive red colour.
Ancient Clay Infographics
Finally, I made a fourth piece called 77 Percent that responds to a 2020 survey by The Ethical Trading Initiative with the Hult Business school which revealed that 77% of UK corporations believe that they have modern slavery somewhere in their supply chains. I was shocked – that’s over three quarters of everything we buy has been produced using unacceptable labour practices at some point in their supply chain. It takes the shine off consumerism no?
77 Percent is inspired by cuneiform clay tablets, humanity’s oldest known form of writing. Babylonian and Sumerians often used clay tablets for accounting purposes – to record bushels of wheat harvested, or numbers of slaves owned. It felt appropriate that this story of slavery – sadly a tale as old as time – should be told using a clay tablet.
To communicate the statistic I divided a leather hard clay slab into a 10×10 grid, and then inscribed the cuneiform word for female slave into 77 of the 100 squares.
Why female slave? I was fascinated to learn that cuneiform means wedge script – due to the wedge shaped stylus used to score the clay. But this wedge shape also shares an etymological root with the Latin Cuneus – for triangular wedge and the arguably vulva – that is the root for the modern words: c*nt and c*nilingus