The Catholic Register
September 17, 2023
Human Trafficking

Sculptor makes visible trafficking’s scourge

Renowned artist’s sculpture unmasks the invisible

Sculptor makes visible trafficking’s scourge

Timothy Schmalz’s Let the Oppressed Go Free in Schio, Italy. He also unveiled the piece at Toronto’s Regis College this summer.

(Photo courtesy Timothy Schmalz)

  • avatar
    Quinton Amundson
    The Catholic Register

“The whole of my life has been God’s gift.”

Without knowing the context of the speaker, this remark reads as a nice and simple expression of gratitude for existence on Earth.

Considering this sentiment was expressed by St. Josephine Bakhita, a human trafficking survivor who for 12 years in the late 1800s was enslaved, this life-affirming quotation is astonishingly powerful.

Canadian Catholic sculptor Timothy Schmalz has immortalized the inspirational life of Bakhita, the patron saint of human trafficking survivors, with a special bronze statue that was unveiled this summer in Toronto at Regis College, and near the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Schio, Italy, close to Bakhita’s burial site.

Schmalz was commissioned to render the sculpture — Let the Oppressed Go Free — by Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, the Vatican’s prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The six-metre artistic work depicts trafficking survivors of diverse backgrounds emerging from a trapdoor opened by Bakhita.

“By her lifting the ground and letting the oppressed go free, I thought this was a beautiful positioning of St. Bakhita,” said Schmalz, a product of St. Jacob’s Ont. “(Here is) a slave from a previous century releasing the modern slaves of today. It is a nice position to have her there as the hero. She’s not just a typical plaster of a saint with hands in prayer — she’s doing something. Hopefully the inspiration of that action will encourage us as a collective society to spark that movement towards change.”

The piece’s title is inspired by Isiah 58:6, which reads: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”

A quote from Pope Francis was also on Schmalz’s mind during the one year he poured his considerable artistic talent into this monument. Paraphrasing, the pontiff said human trafficking would always exist if kept underground and out of the public consciousness.

“Unlike a painting or a poster in an airport, this sculpture takes up three dimensions of space,” said Schmalz. “You can’t avoid it. It brings those suffering victims into the status of being shown in a bronze sculpture. Oftentimes bronze sculptures are done of famous politicians or famous historical heroes, but now we are using this art form for the people who are invisible.”

St. Bakhita was one of those who was invisible. Her story is one of pain, but has a happier ending than most who have been shackled and chained throughout the world’s history of slavery. The native of Sudan was first abducted as a child of seven or eight years old by Arab slave traders. A captive Bakhita was sold twice during a 960-kilometre barefoot trek to El-Obeid, the capital city of the North Kordofan Sudanese state. After her arrival, she was involved in three more transactions before attaining her freedom.

Bakhita was not the surname given by her parents at birth. One of her traders labelled her Bakhita, an Arabic word meaning “lucky” or “fortunate.”

During her years of enslavement, Bakhita was forced to practise Islam, she was badly abused and one of her oppressors “branded” her with 140 patterns carved into her breasts, torso and arms.

Her final owners, Augusto and Marina Turina Michieli, took Bakhita to reside with them near Venice in modern-day Italy. She was tasked to serve as nanny to the Michieli’s daughter Alice, also known as Mimmina. In late 1888, Bakhita was exposed to Christianity when she and Mimmina were both left in the care of the Catholic Canossian Sisters for a time. She would later say, “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”

So transformed by her experience with the Canossian Sisters, she contested against the Michielis in court for her freedom. She secured emancipation in late 1889. She entered the order and over the next 45 years transformed lives in Schio as a Canossian Sister. She would cook, serve as church sacristan and minister in the streets.

Researching the uncomfortable horrors of modern human trafficking, and being inspired by the strength of Bakhita and others who have survived these atrocities, has made it clear to Schmalz that his future professional creative output will include more sculptures that will shine a spotlight on trafficking.

Schmalz said Catholics, and people in general, can be a part of the solution by “not sticking your head in the sand.” He added that one of the religious sisters who participates in Talita Kum, an international network of consecrated servants speaking out against the scourge, told him “that we all, whether we like to admit it or not, participate in this, in a sense, if we remain ignorant.”

Subscribe to our email newsletter