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‘Safe?’: Beautiful images, a tough question

It’s a big room, streaming with sun from skylights and sliding glass doors and Robert Markey’s large portraits of children fill the space with shy smiles, curious gazes and laughing eyes. Most of the children are Cambodian, a few are Indian, and Markey has rendered them on large canvases in bold, almost primary colors. The effect, at first, is elating. What could be better on a cold winter day than to be surrounded by such innocence and beauty?

But the exhibit, on display now through Feb. 20 at Greenfield’s Stoneleigh-Burnham School carries a message that is deeply disturbing.

The question mark at the end of the show’s title — “Safe?” — hints at the unease that is later nailed down firmly by a panel on the far wall that states: “These kids are probably safe but 2 million kids just like them will be trafficked into the human sex and slave labor industry within the next 12 months.”

Markey distilled this powerful statement from the many books he read on the topic of human trafficking and slavery. The first book he encountered, a memoir, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” was by Cambodian human rights activist Somaly Mam, who was sold into prostitution at 14.

Markey and his wife, Julie Orfirer, whose color photographs complete the exhibit, hope their work spreads awareness of the problem of human trafficking. The Ashfield couple learned of the issue in 2011 while creating mosaics with poverty-stricken children through an organization called M’Lop Tapang that offers medical care, art and educational programs and “childsafe activities” to street children in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

Markey said that poor families are often tricked into giving up their girl children to be “waitresses” in big city restaurants or sometimes children are kidnapped as they play in the streets. In the U.S., he said, most girls who end up in the sex trade begin as runaways.

“The Mall of America in Minneapolis, that is the major place for pimps to find new girls because that’s where they go to hang out,” Markey said.

People are not aware of the severity of the problem, Markey said. Even the phrase “teenage prostitute,” shows an ignorance of the brutality of human trafficking, he said. “There is no such thing as a teenage prostitute,” Markey insisted. “She’s a human sex slave. She’s been raped, she’s been beaten, she’s been drugged, and then she gets arrested, put in jail. Something’s wrong here.”

An organization like M’Lop Tapang tries to help by offering safe alternatives. Markey pointed to a portrait of a young man in a white shirt on a deep blue background. “He was one of the first boys they worked with,” he said. “He was on drugs, he was on the street; he was done for. Now ... ” Markey is visibly moved and his voice drops to almost a whisper as he relates the unbelievable good news: “He just graduated from high school and he’s going to college.”

The work that Markey and Orfirer were doing in Cambodia was an outgrowth of work they had begun in Brazil in 2004, where they taught children and teens to create broken tile mosaics on public walls. Often these projects were financed by organizations, such as Brazil’s Environmental Police, that sought to provide positive experiences for at-risk children. Since, the couple has brought similar projects to youth in Springfield, Shelburne Falls, Sri Lanka and India, as well as Cambodia.

The curious can see mosaics Markey helped students create on the walls of Mohawk Regional High School in Buckland. A little father afield, in Springfield, dancers formed from shards of broken mirror light up the dark space under the railroad trestle on Dwight Street between Frank B. Murray and Lyman streets; and, on a pawn shop wall at Dwight and Worthington streets, climbers scale toward a flock of rising birds.

In addition, a copy of Markey and Orfirer’s book, “Cool! Kids Making Mosaics in Brazil,” which documents five projects in four cities in Mato Grosso do Sul, is on display at Stoneleigh-Burnham. Through her camera’s lens, Orfirer’s compassionate vision captures the kids at work and proudly posing with some of the large mosaics.

It was a project such as this that the couple had been asked to discuss with another Cambodian organization, Riverkids, a group that works to prevent the sale and exploitation of children in Phnom Penh’s worst slums.

“We walked around,” Markey said, “And one of my senses was, ‘They don’t need mosaics. They need food.’ It was too soon.”

Markey had never seen such extreme poverty. Many parents had more children than they could feed, he said, and so grasped at the false opportunities that barely disguised the slavery trade because they had no other options.

Troubled by what he had seen, Markey began to research human trafficking. “At some point, I realized I needed to do something,” he said. It took a while for the idea of painting the children’s portraits to take shape.

“I’ve done political work in the past and sometimes you knock someone over the head with it,” Markey said. One sculpture, created for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, depicted a Native American impaled on a spike. Work that is that explicit says, in effect, “Here look, it’s horrible,” Markey said. “My idea here is that people come in, they look at the kids, the kids are beautiful ...” He smiled as he gestured around the room at the vibrant faces. “And then they see that ...” said Markey, pointing at the informational placard. “And by that point, the heart is open and they have to take it in.”

Orfirer, a nurse practitioner, worked with medical personnel in many of the countries they visited, doing some educational work on diabetes. As she collaborated on the mosaic projects, she began to document them and to photograph the kids. The “Safe?” exhibit marks the first time she has publicly shown her work, Orfirer said.

The lower ceilings of the gallery’s lounge area create a more intimate space for viewing Orfirer’s photographs. Many show children smiling or gazing right into the camera in poses similar to those in Markey’s paintings. Markey, in fact, worked from many of Orfirer’s photographs to make his portraits. There are also some fun group shots of children mugging for the camera, a few street scenes and some beautiful images taken during a children’s dance rehearsal. Both Orfirer and Markey are soft spoken and quick to smile; perhaps these qualities helped to gain them the children’s trust. And perhaps it was also the nature of the mosaic projects themselves, which asked children to work together to create something large and beautiful and visible in their communities.

“There’s something about the arts that is profoundly important for kids,” Markey said. “If they’re starving, they just need food. They need food, safety and medical — they need that. But if they’re trying to get an education, if they’re trying to make a difference, the arts gives them a piece ... I don’t know if I can put it in words.”

Through the arts, children can come to understand themselves better, Markey said. “They can understand the world better. It gives them more ...”

“Confidence,” Orfirer said. During the mosaic projects in Brazil, she said, “What we saw in working with the kids was them trying to do something they didn’t even know anything about and just working away at it and doing it and being really proud of this thing that they did that is now in the community. It’s right there, on the walls across from the soccer stadium. It’s part of their environment. It touches their lives.”

At the end of February, Markey and Orfirer are returning to Cambodia to continue their work with M’Lop Tapang. They hope to pursue some new possibilities in Brazil in the future.

“Safe?” is on view at the Geissler Gallery at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, 574 Bernardston Road, Greenfield, through Feb. 20. Hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to
5 p.m. For more information, call 413-774-2711 or www.sbschool.org.

See more of Markey’s work at: http://rmarkey.blue-fox.com.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com

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