By Mbuthia Maina

Art reflects the conditions of its time not through the explicit and deliberate use of new techniques or technologies, or through relevant subject matter, but at a deeper level, through transformations in practice that may as well be unconscious as far as the artists themselves are concerned. 

Christiane Paul, Curating New Media

There is a 1980s film starred by Richard Prior (or maybe it isn’t him at all!) in which a dozen or so members of an African tribe (this term was not yet banned from cultural and artistic discourses) are captured by Arab slave traders and are transported north on foot (their captors most times ride daintily on camels) over the Sahara desert to be sold in Saudi Arabia. After a very frightful and bloody beginning, the film rides on the well worn path of foiled escapes, repeated gang rape of the beautiful girl, sodomy of the young boys, starvation, and vultures on the prawl-a constantly reminding everyone not to get injured and not to dare play dead. Aged twenty, this film became for me almost the truth about modern slavery.

Then in the last decade or so thousands of young men and women began being airlifted legally to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to work as domestic servants in private homes, cleaning and service staff in hotels and manual labour in factories-in many cases for a fraction of what workers from other regions were earning. It is a well known fact that real physical work in the gulf countries is done not by the citizens or expatriates from rich countries but by an army of “third –country nationals”. In 2006, a Pentagon investigation found that T.C.N.s are often subjected to abuses, “some of them considered widespread.” In addition to “substantial living conditions” and illegal confiscation of their passports, many workers have had to deal with “deceptive” hiring practices. T.C.N.’s seeking employment have been forced to pay large “recruitment fees” which are deducted from their future earnings. The effect is to reduce them to a state of “involuntary servitude” (The People vs. the Profiteers, David Rose, Vanity Fair, November 2007). Then cases of mistreatment of several girls in private homes- many times it was criminal assault otherwise why would they bring it the pages of our main newspapers and our TV screens? There have been cases of young female domestic workers being thrown off balconies to their deaths by irate employers or simply jumping to ‘freedom’ to escape torture.

The thousands that opt to migrate to Europe in search of greener pasture do not fare better. Many end up trapped in the sex and drugs trade. Having arrived there by legal means and overstayed, they have no recourse to the law and they for years work and live in slave-like conditions.

There is, too, an ubiquitous cadre of slaves that don’t travel that far. Every year a small army of young uneducated boys and girls leave their rural homes and education opportunities for the promise of a job in Kenyan towns and cities. Even if working for close relatives they work long hours for little or no pay; are denied education and other basic human rights; and are never are allowed visitation rights to kin and family. In the poorer areas of cities, it is common to find young girls aged ten to sixteen doing domestic chores for the whole family all day or selling illegal alcohol (chang’aa) in congested domestic surroundings. They also have to contend with verbal as well as physical and sexual abuse. It is all too easy for artists and their support systems to not recognize the plight of these ‘little people’ that are denied basic human rights right under our noses in our homes and the homes of friends and acquaintances.

What can the artists do in such a desperate situation? For sure art cannot end slavery. The few illustrations above have revealed that slavery is a monster that evolves constantly in a multitude of ways. Well meaning international and local organizations, human rights researchers and think tanks are having to spending all their time and resources proving that this versatile phenomena is forever regenerating.

Toni Morrison once argued in an interview that the African subjects that experienced capture, theft, abduction, mutilation, and slavery were the first moderns. They underwent real conditions of existential homelessness, alienation, dislocation, and dehumanization that philosophers like Nietzsche would later define as quintessentially modern. Instead of civilizing African subjects, the forced dislocation and commodification that constituted the Middle Passage meant that modernity was rendered forever suspect. Ongoing disputes over reparation indicate that these traumas continue to shape the contemporary era. It is never a matter of forgetting what it took so long to remember. Rather, the vigilance that is necessary to indict imperial modernity must be extended into the field of the future.

Such vigilance is the artists’ role in ending modern slavery.


  1. Review for The Shadows Took Shape Studio Museum in Harlem
  2. Interview with Toni Morrison, Paul Gilroy Small Acts (an anthology),1999.