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Statue in Cleveland’s Public Square draws attention to human trafficking

Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz's "Let the Oppressed Go Free" depicts people who he says are the faces of human trafficking.
Community West Foundation
Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz's "Let the Oppressed Go Free" is his latest statue on a social justice subject to land in Cleveland.

In late September, about 160 people were arrested in Ohio as part of an anti-human trafficking operation. At the same time, a 5-ton statue was delivered to Public Square in Cleveland to create awareness of that very issue.

“I remember the Sunday when I finished the final details on the sculpture, and I couldn't just dust my clothes off and leave that subject matter behind,” said Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz.

His latest statue is now on view on Public Square, adjacent to the monument to early 20th century Mayor Tom Johnson. “Let the Oppressed Go Free” depicts what he calls the faces of human, labor, and sex trafficking.

“Historically in our society, for thousands of years, sculpture or statues have been used to bring an auspicious spotlight to someone,” he said. “To bring it to human trafficking... it gives that respect and dignity to these people by having the auspicious process of creating a sculpture of them.”

The piece was commissioned by the Vatican, to raise awareness of trafficking. Schmalz included in the design a tribute to the 19th-century slave who he calls “the patron saint of human trafficking.”

“I have a representation of St. Bakhita opening up the ground and letting the modern-day slaves free,” he said. “What this does is makes the invisible visible.”

Schmalz said he feels the 5 ton, 23-foot bronze statue have a greater impact than asking someone to watch a documentary on the subject.

“The beautiful thing about sculpture is that it's permanent," he said. "It demands your eyes for a couple moments. It doesn't necessarily demand two hours.”

The silhouette of “Let the Oppressed Go Free” is similar to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial depicting a flag raising at Iwo Jima. Schmalz said that was not intentional, but the two pieces share similarities.

“There is that movement, and there is that hope and victory and the planting of the American flag – that success,” he said. “The success within this sculpture is the victims of modern-day slavery are being free.”

After working for a year on the "dark, dark subject matter," Schmalz said he plans to revisit the subject in a future work.

“It's easy not to think about it,” he said. “Kudos to Cleveland for placing the sculpture in the center of their city to bring awareness of what is very uncomfortable to become aware of.”

This is not the first time that Schmalz’s art has brought a controversial subject to Northeast Ohio. In 2020, his realistic depiction of a homeless person sleeping on a bench led to aresident making a report to Bay Village police. “Homeless Jesus” had been purchased by the Cleveland nonprofit Community West Foundation in 2017, which worked with LAND Studio to place it and five additional Schmalz statues around Ohio City. When Community West CEO Marty Uhle found out that the artist’s new work was being installed in Schio, Italy, a copy was requested for Cleveland. Uhle said the statues all speak to his organization’s mission.

“We give grants for… homelessness and food insecurity and immigration and people coming out of prison,” he said. “We never made the connection to human trafficking, but people that are vulnerable are very vulnerable to being trafficked. They’re in such a terrible place.”

“Let the Oppressed Go Free” will be in Public Square until late March. An official unveiling with public officials and anti-human trafficking advocates is slated for later this month.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.