In the Shadows

Lea Bult  Sculpture

Lea Bult, Truck Stop Near La Presa, California – Detail. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In 2004, thirteen men in Nepal found prospective employment at American luxury hotels through a foreign staffing agency, but they never made it to America.  Flown to Iraq instead, their passports were confiscated and they were passed to insurgents; only one survived.  A cursory perusal through the case summaries of the University of Michigan School of Law’s online Human Trafficking Index quickly reveals how widespread the issue actually is, as readers confront this and an ever-growing list of similar cases.  Responding to the problem through her art, Michigan artist Lea Bult has created an extraordinary body of multimedia work, Out of Sight, which draws attention to modern slavery and human trafficking, reminding us that some of the most pressing social issues are invisible at first glance.   

Bult blends elements of illustration, installation, and construction, and much gets lost in translation when her work is viewed in photographs; it really must be seen in person.  They resemble shadowboxes, and can be described as three-dimensional painting.  Her work typically depicts seemingly innocuous urban cityscapes, painted on transparent plexiglass, which is mounted away from the wall.  As viewers come closer, they’ll find that in some areas the paint is either semi-transparent or scraped away.  Behind the paintings are tactfully placed cut-outs and collages of human figures.  When we stand directly in front of them, the illusion is that we’re peering through walls, or into the contents of industrial containers transporting human cargo.  Each of her shadowbox-like works depicts an actual case retrieved from the University of Michigan’s Trafficking Database.

Lea Bult Sculpture

Lea Bult, Truck Stop Near La Presa, California. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Her current body of work, which she just produced while in residency at New Hampshire’s illustrious McDowell Artist’s Colony, consists of life-sized drawings depicting modern slavery, which are cut out and either project out into the viewer’s space or are, in some instances, freestanding, making her work emphatically confrontational.  These are both illustrative and sculptural, recalling in many ways the more reductive silhouette paper installations of Kara Walker who, like Lea, has frequently addressed slavery in her own work, though Walker’s art is generally focused on the American antebellum South, reminding us an of an essential part of our American history that we’d prefer to keep in the shadows.

Lea Bult Sculpture

Lea Bult, Duress. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Viewers interested in seeing Bult’s work firsthand will find it on display this summer at Aquarium, a small, 24-hour urban micro-gallery that Bult has just established in the Ann Arbor Art Center (incidentally, the gallery is itself a sort of shadowbox: a 7’x7’x2’ window that features a rotating display of public art).  Admittedly, her art leaves one feeling unsettled, as Walker’s invariably does, but that’s for the best.  “America,” Bult writes, “was born with the congenital disease of slavery, and, legal or illegal, it has never left us,” and her work, as unsettling as it is, does an amazing job shedding light on a perennial evil that should not be ignored.

Learn more about the artist and about human trafficking here:

By Jonathan Rinck

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