You’ve probably flipped past a story about it while browsing TV channels. Perhaps you caught a few seconds of it on the news.
Unfortunate, you think. That’s terrible, you shrug.
Though human trafficking receives some media coverage, how often have you heard about cases in Michigan or your hometown? It’s a far-off phenomenon that hardly touches American soil. It couldn’t happen in the land of the free.
While this comforting notion helps us blithely disregard its appearance in the news, it is a horrible misconception.
Albion College’s Artist in Residence Lea Bult sets the record straight about human trafficking in the U.S. Her “Out of Sight” exhibition promotes public awareness of the horrific prevalence of such modern-day slavery.
The gallery features unassuming landscapes such as parking lots, factories and even a massage parlor. Bult often includes a truck or van in these images.
First you notice the sweeping gray sky. Your eyes scan the background, which yields only a few trucks. Your sight rests indifferently on a truck at the forefront. It’s just as grimy as the rest. Soot covers its trailer so that it nearly blends into its surroundings.
But there’s something off about that trailer. You look a bit closer, squint a little harder. There are perhaps twenty figures piled into the back of that truck. You blink. Maybe it’s your imagination.
No, certainly not. The figures remain scrunched together, uncomfortably piled into the truck as human cargo. They’re barely decipherable from afar, but unforgettable once you spot them.
This is Bult’s “Truck Stop. La Presa, California” piece. It is one of many oil paintings which compose the gallery. It engages the viewer in an unnervingly realistic manner. Trafficking victims are faintly visible in the backseats of vans and within nondescript buildings. As in real life, the viewer can simply gloss over the fact of those figures or acknowledge them and take action.
Bult has worked with this subject matter for about three to four years. Her approach to such an uncommon theme is rooted in her academic experiences. While working with the non-profit artists collective Forth From Its Hinges in Ann Arbor, Bult met a Japanese internment survivor.
“That was a spark, just learning more about that whole forgotten chapter of American history,” Bult said.
This knowledge helped Bult realize that human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery that is often overlooked and under-acknowledged.
Soon thereafter, Bult visited South Africa – where human trafficking is a considerable problem – for an artist residency. Bult often noticed posters requesting that people call a helpline if they notice any apprehensive activity. This furthered her interest in the subject and she subsequently focused on it for her thesis.
Bult drew further inspiration from the University of Michigan Law School’s human trafficking database, which chronicles specific cases.
“I was particularly interested in the local stuff, stuff that happens in the Midwest,” Bult said. “You don’t think of it being a problem here in your own town, but it is very much a problem in this country, too.”
Strolling around the gallery, one piece particularly stands out. “Parking Lot. Jackson, MI” is perhaps most relevant to Albion College students as it depicts a startlingly familiar scene. Michigan’s not-quite-blue sky envelopes a Walmart parking lot, where a large van sits casually. Stare a moment longer and you’ll just catch the soft white outline of a passenger (or, rather, a captive).
Bult reconstructs scenery from a specific case’s details. This often includes an entirely commonplace setting, as traffickers tend to meet in such unassuming places as parking lots and hotels. She says that in that particular instance an underage girl was trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation throughout southeast Michigan. Her representation is especially chilling because it hits so close to home.
“[Human trafficking] is not just a problem that happens in faraway countries, it’s a problem here,” Bult said. “[I want my work to] educate people about the problem and bringing that issue to a wider audience.”
She feels greater awareness will encourage people to report something should they notice a suspicious situation.
Though she’s studied and represented many cases, Bult’s most challenging piece dealt with Cheetah’s On the Strip, a strip club in Detroit. Faced with the challenge of depicting these particular victims without sexualizing them, Bult chose not to include any figures.
In 2005, Aleksandr Maksimenko, Michael Aronov and at least eight other ringleaders were discovered to have tricked Eastern European women into working at Detroit area strip clubs.
Covering this case was remarkably difficult for Bult because Cheetah’s remains open.
“It’s really ridiculous,” Bult said. “That one is closest to my heart even though it’s the most heartbreaking. There was no justice really in the end. Unfortunately it’s common for things like that to happen with trafficking.”
Close proximity to these crimes makes them even more affecting. The cases that stand out most to Bult are happening closest.
“The ones that are happening in Detroit and places like Jackson and Southfield – those are the ones that I’m most interested in,” Bult said.
Besides drawing from her thesis work, Bult often browses osocio.org for inspiration. According to the site, it features a collection of “non-profit advertising and marketing for social causes.”
Now that she’s in residence, Bult hopes to explore new techniques and different ways of approaching the subject matter. Though much of her previous collection heavily featured landscapes and settings, she would like to start working with more human-to-human interaction.
To help with this, Bult turns to Leon Golub, whose style is abrasive and rough. Golub deals with topics like war and interrogation. Bult also admires her colleague Michael Garguilo’s work.
“It’s good to look at both the big names and the people in your own network, your peers,” Bult said.
Bult looks forward to expanding her artistic repertoire and plans to focus more on figurative imagery.
“I feel like for the last eight years I’ve done a lot of settings,” Bult said. “It’s really exciting for me to tackle something new.”
Lately, she has worked with purely pencil drawings – something out of ordinary as she has used mostly oil paint.
“Right now I’m trying not to put myself in too much of a box. I’m kind of just experimenting and I’m sure something will come out of that process that I will grab onto and go with,” Bult said.
Last Thursday, Feb. 13, Bult delivered a lecture on human trafficking to accompany her art.
“[Bult helped to] reveal how awful certain situations in human trafficking can be,” said Hannah Schultz, Livonia first-year.
Schultz was especially affected by a piece featuring x-ray photos of people in cargo trucks.
“That was one of the scariest things I’ve seen,” Schultz said. “Lea did an excellent job of bringing these situations to light.”
Taylor Sokoloskis, Niles first-year, who also attended Bult’s lecture, agrees.
“Making people aware that human trafficking is happening right under their noses is a worthy goal,” she said.
Lea Bult will surely continue to provoke reflection with her disturbing and enlightening work. Her gallery “Out of Sight” will be on display in the Bobbitt Visual Arts Center until Saturday, Feb. 22.
Photo by Emma Planet