There are many socially engaged artists working today. Being socially engaged means to be concerned with the struggles and strains of society, whether that is of a society close or far from you, and to be an active part in attempting to change or shine a light upon the situation; however, the addition of ‘artist’ to the title of socially engaged brings a barrage of complications and issues.
Considering myself to be a somewhat socially engaged artist (or at the very least a socially concerned member of the public with an interest in art), I’m aware of the moral tight rope on which an artist can stumble when it comes to the controversial topics social engagement can lead to. The negatives and positives of creating socially engaging art have come to blows with Eva Sajovic’s work in Hidden Presence, an exhibition as part on Cardiff’s Diffusion Festival: Looking For America.
Hidden Presence contains a variety of photographs and art by Sajovic and Julian Germaine, exhibited inside the lavish, but ramshackle Customs House: a usually abandoned space , but temporarily occupied specifically for Diffusion. The show is themed around subtle ideas of modern slavery, particularly that in Britain (which really does have extremely tenuous links with the festival’s bewildering American theme, if any), aiming to bring attention to its existence in the modern world. The public’s general knowledge of slavery is usually based in a historical sense – of black men and women imprisoned in forced labour – but modern day slavery is far more of an elusive crime, hence the exhibition’s Hidden Presence title.
In particular, I wish to focus upon Sajovic’s work with young women involved in sex trafficking and slavery, specifically with girls removed from the sex industry and rehoused at a rehabilitation centre in Chepstow. What exactly happened to them, and who exactly they are, the viewer does not know; their identities and stories purposely kept anonymous. We as the viewer are only aware they are there to recover.
On the surface, the show is an innocent attempt to give these girls a voice, and to bring attention to Britain’s modern sex trade, an issue communicated poorly throughout the country and the world. Sajovic has exhibited drawings and collages the girls themselves created in a display table in the middle of one of the cold, dark rooms of Customs House, with large, unframed portraits of girls, three with their backs turned to the camera, displayed on the surrounding peeling brick walls. It is a worthy undertaking to bring sex slavery and the dangers of sex work into the public eye, however, something about staring across at the large, somewhat unremarkable portraits is uncomfortable. My day had been filled with visits to the spaces occupied by Looking For America, a topic I was not alone in finding fairly unexceptional and rather forced, so at first I decided I was simply in the wrong mind set to understand the work. However, after much discussion between peers, there came a much more sinister conclusion.
The portraits are sexual. Stood with their backs to camera, the girls’ identities are safely hidden, but their bodies are not. The viewer, faced with no one to stare back at, is instead inclined to notice the romantic way in which the girls’ hair moves with the wind, inclined to notice the shape of breasts and hips, of exposed flesh and curves – traits long portrayed by artists and cultures alike as womanly and erotic. You are forced to notice, left with very little but their bodies to observe and remark upon. And how dare I look upon them like sexual objects. After everything suffered how could it be so easily forgotten that these women are not for consumption!
Despite any anger felt, not an inch of me believes Sajovic’s intention is to sexualise these girls. However she without a doubt has, and these women should not, and cannot, be looked upon in this way anymore. It should seem obvious these women are more than their bodies, but the viewer cannot see it – the viewer is in fact encouraged not to. This is only further emphasised by an old wooden pallet on the floor, sporting a two foot high stack of A3 posters of one of the girl’s portraits. A sign next to it says ‘Free, please take one’. There are hundreds of them, all of the same image, printed on cheap, flimsy paper, easily creased and torn, easily thrown away. This does nothing but make it worse; this girl is no longer human. This girl is consumable. This girl is disposable. And this is surely contradicting exactly what Sajovic wishes to express.
It seems such a careless thing to do that I question whether Sajovic has attempted some kind of cruel irony, as if she’d like you to feel guilty as you pick up a poster, or cast your eyes over the shape of the girls’ bodies, as if to show you the way we look at their bodies as wrong and uncomfortable. That intention has gone far amiss, but even if irony was the original aim, it would bring into question Sajovic’s ethical practice when working with the girls – something also often controversial with the work of the socially engaged artist. An artist working with a community or group of people often confronts the problem of giving back: what can their artwork do to positively impact the people they have worked with? We were assured while visiting the exhibition that the girls were enjoying working with Sajovic, but the work in its exhibited state does very little to help in the public eye. The work does not encourage me to research into Britain’s sex slavery or urge me to help correct the injustice done to these girls. I can only stare at them, I feel very little; this is not giving back. Does it then even warrant being exhibited?
Sajovic is not yet done working with these girls, which gives hope that this was just a clumsy, hurried mistake in a project not yet fully thought through – an impression given off by the festival’s Looking For America theme as a whole. If Sajovic’s intention is to help these girls, and others still trapped in sex slavery, focusing the camera upon the already over sexualised female form will do nothing. These girls are people, and they need to be reminded that they are – we need to be reminded that they are. The camera, with its tendency to beautify and objectify, is not the means in which to do this.
However, if Sajovic has reminded me of anything, it is that art has power, and that we, as artists, have a burdensome weight on our privileged shoulders to use that influence wisely and correctly. There are a thousand questions to be asked about the moral and ethical practice of the socially engaged artist, ones that will more than likely never have an answer, but there is always potential to create art that can change the world for the better. Sajovic has made mistakes here, but she has heart and she has care, and therefore there is potential for this project to do justice to the girls, to evoke such a response to the viewer that public opinion may change and situations may be amended or improved. This is after all the intention of every truly socially engaged artist, and one that art has all the means to achieve. I look forward to seeing how Sajovic’s art will reach this point.
Written: Rachel Lucas
Edited: Rebekah Prentice