Arts & Sex Trafficking

Exhibition Uses Art to Heal Females Rescued From Sex Trafficking

A thought-provoking art exhibition is using art therapy to empower females rescued from sex trafficking, while raising funds to pay for the education of four survivors for four years
Artworks adorning the walls at Pteas Chas in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Artworks adorning the walls at Pteas Chas in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

A steady flow of art lovers enter Pteas Chas and head upstairs. Lush flowers flank the stairway as they make their way to the third floor. Here, they discover more than 24 photographs of artworks adorning the walls. This forms the compelling exhibition of two artists.

"What's your Gold?" is a collection of artworks that uses art therapy to empower women and girls rescued from sex trafficking. It also documents the story of their journey of healing.

The exhibition is the work of Hiratsuka Niki and Miguel Jeronimo in collaboration with NGOs and support from Pteas Chas, a guesthouse turned arthouse in Daun Penh district’s Wat Phnom commune.

Hiratsuka Niki (left) and Miguel Jeronimo. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Hiratsuka Niki (left) and Miguel Jeronimo. Kiripost/Siv Channa

The initiative aims to raise funds to support young girls to obtain a college education for four years in Cambodia. It also encourages women and girls to follow their personal goals and dreams for the future.

Hiratsuka Niki, an Australian art therapist and artist, said she worked on a similar project when she was in Australia. Before relocating to Cambodia, she was trained as an art therapist, which helped her heal from her own experiences.

“I was sexually abused by my father, and this is something I would like to share by using art. In a way, that is healing for other people and inspiring,” she said. “So, I decided to make a project.”

Niki said art is perfect for people who are unable to heal from talking. She added that for some, they simply speak for the sake of replay but it does not heal them.

“I think different people need different things to heal, but I think there's something very powerful about art. It just goes very deep,” she said. “So, it’s like we speak a different language to the girls, but through art. There's a direct connection, we can understand.”

Artworks adorning the walls at Pteas Chas in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Artworks adorning the walls at Pteas Chas in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Meanwhile, Miguel Jeronimo, a photographer and exhibition organiser, had a strong desire to work on something that symbolises the survivors. Miguel, who is from Portugal, said the identities of the girls should be hidden, even though victims’ faces are frequently blurred or pixelated in the media.

“I really want to do a photo project in which their identities are hidden in order to make it more individualised and empowering,” he said. “So, I hide their identities by doing collages and painting their dream or what they want to become in the future on their photo portraits.”

As both Miguel and Niki have been living in Cambodia for more than four years, both want to contribute to the country’s development, he said.

“We love the country and we want to do an art project to give back to the hostess,” he said. “Since we both are interested in sex trafficking, we want to do something about it.”

Furthermore, Niki and Miguel urge the girls to focus on their future goals and what they want to become using the Japanese craft of Kintsugi (the fixing of broken objects with gold in order to attribute them more value) as a metaphor for the process of healing.

Kintsugi is an old Japanese technique used to fix pots, Niki said. If anything horrible happens to the girls, Kintsugi is a good technique for them to view their paths in a different way.

“It’s like when you smash something and it breaks, you throw it away. But with the Kingtsugi, if something breaks, you really love to put it back on again,” she said. “It recycles, and it’s even more beautiful than before.”

The fund will support four girls who have already left a shelter to attend college in Phnom Penh for four years, she said.

“They’re ready to go to university but need some money to pay for school and book fees. So, we use the exhibition as our opportunity to help raise money for the girls,” she added.

Photographs of artworks adorning the walls at Pteas Chas in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Photographs of artworks adorning the walls at Pteas Chas in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

One wall displays a moving quote from one of the survivors below a portrait. Given the name Rabbit to conceal her identity, the survivor said she wants to improve her life by becoming brave, setting goals, and putting effort into her studies.

“I ask of myself that I improve, from being a very shy and upset girl to being a strong young woman who doesn’t get swayed by the upcoming problems she needs to face bravely, and to be a young woman who knows how to love herself,” she said. “In the future, I want to complete all the things I am studying at this time.”

This exhibition’s target is to raise $13,050. At the exhibition opening on Saturday, they hit $10,139 of the goal.

The fundraising drive will run for three months until the end of September. The exhibition will be open until September 10 on the top gallery floor at Pteas Chas.