This month, one Charlottesville art exhibit will tackle a tragedy that lies in the shadows of civilization: human trafficking. While many think slavery rests in history books, an estimated 12.3 million people survive as slaves today, with millions more coerced into servitude each year—including hundreds of thousands within the United States. Women and children stand the greatest threat of being trafficked, combining to make up 86% of the global slave population. As an industry, it’s surpassed the arms trade and is poised to overtake even the drug trade—yet we seldom hear trafficked victims’ voices. Gloria Felicia, a delightfully energetic artist and designer who goes by the nickname “Glo,” says the hidden nature of human trafficking inspired her current solo show at Java Java Cafe, simply entitled In Motion.
Glo’s In Motion paintings may appear naive or repetitive at a glance, but each intentional layer of color supports a unique story of an individual woman who has survived being trafficked. To start, Glo painted the reverse side of each canvas red, representing the hidden unifier: the red blood which pulses beneath the skin and behind the story of every human. On the front and sides, Glo began with clean, brushed color. She explained that this compositional base layer represents “women’s souls,” the “untarnished, pure” starting point from which we all grow. Devastatingly, nearly 300,000 American children are ensnared into slavery each year—the average age of these children lies between 12–14 years old. To symbolize the fettering and staining imposed by this slavery, Glo finger-paints the final, disturbing layer of contrasting color. These flourishes are meant to “capture emotion and motion—it’s very intense, and in some of the paintings, it almost covers the entire canvas.”
Each painting tells a real story from a real victim, with several factors dependent on the details of the lived experience; the colors, level of chaos, and remaining portion of untouched space all change from piece to piece. Portions of these survivors’ harrowing stories accompany each work of art, with prompts to learn more online. “I wanted to tell the true story of these women’s experiences,” Glo said. “In some paintings, you can see that the spaces are clearing up, with the purity returning—these are women who are starting to be more open and recover from their pain.”
Glo painted the stories of ten women—some of whom have remained anonymous. Though the healing process has begun for many of them, she understands that some “may never fully heal.” In her words:
One story came from a European woman trying to reconcile her own emotions after being trafficked for years. She didn’t know who she was anymore—she didn’t know and couldn’t recognize the feeling of freedom. Her painting is all black. The other paintings are more colorful and more in-motion, but when it came time to put my handprints on her canvas, I remembered how she said that merely living was a challenge to her, and that even though she’s made it out, her experience has and will forever ruin her life.
Another woman was trafficked young, and when she escaped, she did not know who she was. In a way, she got to invent a brand-new person—the person she wants to be. She created her own persona, and in doing so, realized that she could be a leader for other girls, so she could help other people see that there’s hope.
Glo learned about these and other stories through A21, an organization that seeks to end slavery. An international nonprofit, A21 has 13 offices in twelve countries, all of which are dedicated to stopping human trafficking before it starts. With more slaves globally today than at any point in history, the outlook is grim. Despite efforts from them and similar organizations, less than 1% of slaves will ever be rescued. Moreover, the methods by which people are trafficked are often difficult to combat. 43% of slaves are obtained through false job opportunities, when people are promised work, then taken away without recourse. Another 11% are sold by their families. Glo explained, “If you go to Wal-Mart, you’ll see the big wall covered with all these faces of people who have been missing for years. No one knows where they are right now—in some cases, those people are being trafficked. Not only in countries abroad, but also here in the U.S.”
The situation demanded action, and Glo felt compelled to act. “When I select a social issue for my art, I look at a few criteria: sense of urgency, the level of struggle the victim endures, and how severely unrepresented the issue is in the public eye.” To that end, Glo has pledged to donate a portion of the proceeds from In Motion sales to A21.
Glo believes that artists find the problem of human trafficking a difficult one to approach because they are afraid of what they’ll find. “It’s not a fun or popular topic,” she said. To Glo, that lack of popularity is precisely why more artists should pay attention to human trafficking: art is meant to capture hidden or uncommon truths, and it is the duty of an artist to find and explore these truths no matter how disconcerting. Glo has the personal goal “to be bolder, to be fearless, to be the voice for these women who can’t use their own.”
An Indonesian immigrant and life-long artist, Glo followed her father’s advice and received a business degree from University of Virginia, but never forgot her artistic predilections. Since leaving school, she’s pursued art and design, most recently leaving a fulltime job to start a design studio and create more socially-minded exhibit art. While this is Glo’s first exhibit of this kind, the motivation to help other women started in grade school, when she was “bullied constantly,” and when she learned “how hard it is not to have a voice, and how hard it is not to be able to stand up for yourself.”
In Motion is currently on display at Java Java Cafe at 421 E. Main Street in Charlottesville. Show runs through May 31, learn more at storiesbyglo.com.
Photography by Tristan Williams