‘Set Them Free’ sees the promise in survivors of human trafficking

The fundraising exhibit, which opens at the Vanderelli Room tonight (Friday, March 10), invites viewers to look past tragedy and toward the beauty, hope and promise contained within each person.
One of the 94 pieces of art on display in "Set Them Free," now open at the Vanderelli Room.
One of the 94 pieces of art on display in "Set Them Free," now open at the Vanderelli Room.Andy Downing

Esther Flores doesn’t want you to look away.

For more than seven years, Flores, a former nurse and the founder of 1DivineLine2Health (1DL2H), a charity that provides support for victims of human trafficking, has seen firsthand how people are ravaged by the sex trade, along with the deep physical and emotional scars those fortunate to emerge on the other side still have to overcome.

“Set Them Free,” a new exhibit opening at the Vanderelli Room today (Friday, March 10), asks visitors not to shy from these horrors. During an early March interview at the gallery, Flores showed me a series of photos she intended to display in the space that are meant to jar, including one of a gruesome leg wound attributed to xylazine, a powerful sedative that has increasingly turned up in the state’s drug supply. But far more importantly, the exhibit asks viewers to look beyond this often-harsh reality and toward the beauty, hope and promise that rests within each survivor.

“We need to stop judging people and try to meet them where they’re at, to find their humanity, to find their story,” Flores said. “But this society still has walls and barriers. … It treats our people like outcasts, like they’re the scum of the earth, the garbage, the dirt. But they’re mothers. They’re somebody’s child. They’re human beings. … People need to understand that the person that you see on the street has the potential to become whatever they want to be. They just need help.”

As a means of capturing this idea, the walls of the Franklinton gallery are filled with wildly diverse pieces reflecting the full range of humanity, from one of Lance Johnson’s graffiti-inspired paintings – part of an ongoing body of work created with the intention of helping Black youths awaken to their promise – to Blenkm Highben’s surrealist output, which find a twisted sort of beauty in universal chaos. There are also emotionally raw paintings by trans artists, playful illustrations from a creator of children’s books and watercolor cityscapes crafted by a retiree.

“That’s what human beings are; we’re a mosaic,” said Flores as she surveyed the 94 diverse, donated works that lined the walls of the Vanderelli Room, sales from which will directly benefit 1DL2H.

At another point in our conversation, Flores lingered on a large painting of a brain entwined with a heart, falling briefly silent before speaking. “We need to have a compassionate view, because we’re working with broken people who have broken hearts, broken minds,” Flores said. “It’s because of our hearts that things flow. And a lot of times, in my profession and in the work that I do, I have to guard it, because it’s evil what people do. We deal with so many people who die, who are brutally murdered, who are unaccounted for.”

A 16-minute documentary will also screen on a loop in the rear of the gallery during the exhibit, part of an ongoing public education that Flores has embraced as central to her mission. As one example, she walked me through the different shapes human trafficking can take, including its most pervasive current form, where a person becomes imprisoned, in a sense, by their addictions, trading their body as a means of erasing drug debts. 

“The new pimp, the new trafficker, is the dope man,” Flores said, noting that the trend is made worse by criminalization and the failed war on drugs. “Most of the women, most of the people I work with, they’re chained by the drug … and the power of control it has over them. … And that’s basically the case with 99.9 percent of the people we see, where they’re being trafficked by the dope boy.”

Flores said that art can be an important tool in assisting the people who do make their way to her organization’s drop-in shelter on Sullivant Avenue, not only in giving them something to sit and focus on, but also in helping them to begin to see their greater potential. 

“Even sitting down with gel pens for 15 minutes, they’re laughing, talking, getting that dopamine rush, which is a good feeling, and allows them to be grounded with love,” she said. “In our community, and in our city and in our society, we’re not giving these girls opportunities to be poets. We have a lot of poets, believe it or not, and they’ll freestyle. We have singers. We have painters. And all of this is art, and all of this is helping them feel validated. … When these women gather, and they’re in a safe space, that healing can begin. And that’s what art is: a part of the healing process."

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