Six months, 100 paintings: How one survivor of modern slavery used art to process trauma

*Name changed to protect identities

“I’m so overwhelmed,” Trini says, her eyes brimming with tears as she sees her painting, entitled Mixed Emotions, on display for the first time. The piece is one of several of her creations lining the walls of Art Is Freedom’, an exhibition curated by survivors of modern slavery that is currently sitting in Paternoster Square, central London. St. Paul’s Cathedral towers above, but today it is merely a backdrop.

Over the summer, Trini joined other survivors in workshops facilitated by Hestia, and lead by professional artists and photographers. They provided an opportunity for individuals to try a new skill, one that would enable them to creatively express themselves. For Trini, though, creating art wasn’t a new experience, rather one that had come back into her life when she needed it most.

“I grew up in a creative den,” Trini says. Her father was a carver, her younger sister a frequent painter. As a child back in Trinidad, Trini, who is now 43, studied art at school. She hadn’t touched a paintbrush in more than 25 years until she arrived at one of Hestia’s safe houses for survivors of modern slavery in January this year. “I picked it up when I moved to Hestia’s house, where I found peace there and I felt safer,” she says.

Trini looks at Mixed Emotions, one of her early works, at the Art Is Freedom exhibition

Trini was struggling with the trauma of her experience but couldn’t access therapy due to the pandemic. She asked her keyworker for help in getting art supplies, and in April, she started creating. Now, if she can’t sleep, she will often head to her kitchen counter and paint through the night. “I just can’t explain how I feel when I'm there sitting at the table,” she says. “Sometimes when I get up from the table, I was like oh my god, it's been five hours!”

Mixed Emotions is a 3-D painting, one of Trini’s earlier works. Explosions of reds collide with flecks of green and blues swirl around white, each colour battling to take prominence. She explains that each dab of paint holds meaning: “I had to do layers upon layers because that's what I was feeling, layers upon layers of emotion.” The conflicting colours are symbolic, too. “The white is there for me to rewrite; rewrite what I've been through, turn it around,” she says. “But then the darkness - it depicts another part of me that I don't want but is there”.

Trinis painting, Mixed Emotions, at Art Is Freedom

Mixed Emotions in Paternoster Square

Trini asks me what I see in one section of the painting. I see a flower. “I see a fairy, and I see wings,” she says. Another part makes me hungry, I say, because it reminds me of a cake I made when I was younger, covered in blue peppermint icing. She belly laughs. “I like to create my art in a way where it relates to everyone. I see different, you see different, because that's what makes the world beautiful,” she says.

At times, creating the piece was tough. “I was going through so much mentally I couldn't really comprehend it,” she says.

Trini came to London from Trinidad almost ten years ago, following the death of her husband. Here, she experienced exploitation. While street homeless last Christmas, she was put up in a hotel by a homeless charity. However, she couldn’t stay for long, and was soon told she needed to find somewhere else to stay. In a frantic panic the day before she was due to leave the hotel, she found a contact number for The Salvation Army. On the phone, she burst into tears and told the call handler everything. She was referred to Hestia. The next morning, she was arranging to move into one of Hestia’s safe houses.

“I like to create my art in a way where it relates to everyone. I see different, you see different, because that's what makes the world beautiful."

“When they said to me it's modern slavery, I was mad because I said I've never been enslaved, because I didn't understand the terminology, you know?” Trini says. When modern slavery was explained to her, she realised she had experienced it. Creating Mixed Emotions was a way of processing what she now knew.

Art Is Freedom at Paternoster Square

The Art Is Freedom exhibition stands in Paternoster Square, with St.Paul's Cathedral towering above

She stares at the painting on display, taking in every streak, and pauses. “I'm no longer in this emotion anymore,” she says. She’s planning to create a sister piece for it, to reflect the emotions she feels today. “That's why it's so lovely to look at it now.”

Trini also put pen to paper during the first few months at Hestia’s safe house. She started writing poetry and songs, sometimes to accompany her paintings. She sings me a line from one, a song she wrote to sit beside a painting of a phoenix: “I’m the phoenix emerging from fire, and I’m way up high, so catch me if you can.”

A poem she wrote, entitled Hope, is blown up two-metres high at ‘Art Is Freedom’. She wrote it during the summer workshops, after meeting another survivor supported by Hestia. He was miserable, she says, worried that he would never be able to get back into education. Trini went home and immediately put her thoughts down: “Embrace the light, for your future is bright, without fear or doubt, the time is now,” the poem reads. “Be whatever you want, nothing is out of reach, for with hope we all shall overcome.”

Listen to Trini read her poem, Hope, now

Trini reads her poem, Hope

Trini reads her poem, Hope

“I had to do it for him,” she says. “Hope is all that we have. And if you get rid of hope, there is nothing. Life ends.”

She holds onto that hope for her own future. Trini is currently awaiting a Conclusive Ground decision, to find out whether the Home Office will formally identify her as a survivor of modern slavery (for people supported by Hestia, the average wait for this decision is almost two years. In the meantime, Trini, a chef by profession, cannot legally work). If she gets a Positive Conclusive Grounds decision, she will then need to wait to see if she has the right to remain in the UK.

“I wish I can give people the hope that I have. You know, I'm not focused on the past. I'm so focused on where I'm going. I'm not even focused on [my] immigration [status] to be truthful, because I get it or don't get it - you still have to live.”

London is Trini’s home, though. “There's so much I've been through in this country that I always say that here has been my battle ground and it is here I shall find my victory,” she says.

In September, she started attending college. Initially, she signed up to a social sciences course. She didn’t think she would be accepted to study art. On the way to meet the social science course leaders, she stumbled across the art department. She showed the professor photos of her artwork and was instantly given an offer.

“Hope is all that we have. And if you get rid of hope, there is nothing. Life ends.”

She felt intimidated at first (her classmates are all teenagers), but that feeling has since passed. “They [her classmates] think I’m like 28, so I’ve just left them to think I’m 28,” she says. “They don’t know I’m 43! So I’m like, OK, I’m 28!” She is now eight weeks into her fine art and design course, and things are going well.

I ask Trini what she hopes to do once she finishes her college course. There are many things; she wants to go to university, she wants to finish creating a poetry and art book that she’s started, and she wants to open ‘Composition of Arts’, a public space where people can come to dance and sing, read poetry and craft pottery. She wants to work, to own a house, to be independent. Above all, though: “I want the world to hear me. I want to bring each and every one of my experiences to that forefront, not hide in it anymore.”

Her mother, who phones her from Trinidad every day, believes she will be heard. She loves her daughter’s work and has put photos of it up around the house. Recently, on one of their daily calls, her mother relayed a dream she’d had about Trini’s art. “She said to me: ‘very soon, the world is gonna know about you’,” Trini tells me. “And I said: ‘what do you mean?’, and she said: ‘your artwork is going to take you far’.”

Trinis other art was also on display at Art Is Freedom

Trini's other art pieces, Orbit and Petals, at Art Is Freedom

It has been six months since Trini revived her passion for art. That passion is evidently visceral. Some days, she will sit at her kitchen table, and create three or four paintings in one go. The total number of pieces she’s created is “close to a hundred”. She’s painted vibrant orange flowers and bright yellow birds, leaves that have ended up as dragons, and unsettling, black and white landscapes. She has no plans to slow down.

“I feel energetic when I paint. I feel like I can do anything!” she says with a joyous squeal. Getting lost in her work has allowed her to move beyond her experiences and let go of the past. “It's therapy,” she says. “Because you sit there, and it's just the paint, you and the canvas. No one else. Everything is shut out from your head. Nothing else matters.”

“I feel energetic when I paint. I feel like I can do anything!”

I ask her what art, and her creativity, means to her. “It is freedom. No matter how you look at it, it is freedom. It is that freeness to be whatever you want to be."

She takes another look at Mixed Emotions and the other pieces facing Paternoster Square. An office worker, coffee in one hand, briefcase in the other, is reading her poem. A group of builders are admiring one piece from afar. Two young women point at another painting, smiling, discussing.

“I'm seeing it now…” Trini says, trailing off briefly. “It's really overwhelming. It's beautiful. It gives me more hope.”

Art Is Freedom is free and open to the public at Paternoster Square, St.Paul's, until 25 Oct 2021.

Find out more about Art Is Freedom