“How Many Slaves Do You Own? Art and the economies of exploitation past and present” is a weekend-long event that was born out of artist and activist Devora Neumark’s research into the history of slavery. The series of performances, which features the work of a large number of multidisciplinary artists, will take place at the Montréal, Arts Interculturels (MAI) this coming weekend, and aims to paint a detailed picture of the different systems of exploitation and coercive economies that are voraciously alive in the present day.
Neumark, co-director of Engrenage Noir/Levier, a community organization that fosters art and activism, describes the group’s work as an “invitation to create art that interrupts, that addresses, that somehow critiques the systemic forces that lead to poverty… that impact people’s capacities to live well.” Systems of oppression are constantly evolving, taking on appearances that become increasingly masked to the public. In response to this ever-changing process, Engrenage Noir Levier has commissioned a breadth of artists, performing in many different forms, to create art that exposes the multiple ways in which traditional slavery and coercive economies are constructed.
Multidisciplinary artist Naila Keleta Mae, who will perform a show called On Love next weekend, comments on the multiplicity of ways in which oppression reveals itself, but also highlights a kind of strength that may come out of it. “I think that the ways our bodies are read changes,” noted Keleta Mae, “so I’m interested in the transformative possibilities too of being in this body…. Of course there’s the violence of oppression…but there’s also a real wealth of information, and knowledge, and creativity, and imagination, and resilience that comes as a result.”
Performances in a variety of mediums, including street art and dance, allow audience members the opportunity to evaluate their own role in prolonging exploitation.
“There’s a whole host of ways in which our very current society, our entire capitalist, consumer culture perpetuates economies of coercion,” said Neumark.
We have a tendency to place the stories of slavery behind us, as a legacy long gone; doing so, however, devalues the fact that economies of exploitation still prosper today. The collection of art performances presented over the course of the weekend will examine how global oppression still persists in structures like the international sex trade and the subjugation of migrant and domestic workers.
Performance artist Eric Létourneau is interested in personal relationships to global structures. His work, which he refers to as a “micro-sociological study and a socio-aesthetic study,” examines the role of small-scale, individual consumption in allowing exploitation to continue. Létourneau states that his piece, How many slaves do you own?, will look at “how people perceive their relationship with the global economy, [and] more specifically…as consumers, their relationship with the people who make the goods.”
Caroline Hudon also creates art that looks at exploitation on a small scale. Her work addresses the deprivation and challenges that individuals face as a result of the prison industrial complex, a structure that allows for the perpetuation of violence and isolation in prison systems. “It’s about how prisoners feel about the dehumanizing treatment of incarceration and…how they feel when freed,” stated Hudon.
The wide array of mediums that are on display in this three-day event embody the intricacies and layers that exist in current economies of exploitation. The strength of these artistic interpretations is that many of them come from lived experiences, evoking a sense of sincerity and realness. Their stories reaffirm the notion that coercive economies still thrive today, while also providing inspiration to change this reality.