With its sanguine tonality and spectral figures, Paula Rego’s Crate (2008) is an exquisitely-rendered image of human suffering. Four dishevelled, forlorn women occupy the foreground of the composition; the eldest hangs limp from a shipping crate, draped across the beams in a pose evocative of the crucifixion. A man hovers in the background, holding what Rego describes as ‘a flower with a dong—it could be a phallus—to try to inspire the women’ (P. Rego, quoted in ‘Artists’ Studios: Paula Rego’, The Guardian, 9 May 2008). The work stems from the artist’s Human Cargo series, which explores the emotional distress endured by women who are transported across countries to be sold into sex slavery. Rego, who draws from a rich visual archive, incorporates source material related to her Portuguese and English heritage. The ‘fat blind sister’ – as the artist puts it – behind the two women in the foreground refers to the Portuguese myth of a blind women shunned outside by her jealous sister to endure the tempestuous environmental elements (P. Rego, quoted in ‘Artists’ Studios: Paula Rego’, The Guardian, 9 May 2008). Having lived in Britain intermittently for the past sixty-four years, the subject of Rego’s work is derived from the human trafficking epidemic covered by the English press. London, undergoing a period of unprecedented immigration, was particularly susceptible to such organized crime – a phenomenon that resonated deeply with the artist. As she laments, ‘the girls on the streets are the lucky ones. Most of them are kept indoors, literal slaves’ (P. Rego, quoted in J. McEwen, Paula Rego Behind the Scenes, London 2008, p. 204).
Rego works from direct observation, integrating human and mannequin figures to create surreal assemblages. Drawing upon a variety of influences – from Edgar Degas and Jean Dubuffet to Walt Disney – her works are defined by a lyrical command of colour and line. As Marco Livingstone has written, ‘One believes in the human realities offered by these pictures not just because the stories they convey are so affecting, but also because the pictorial language through which they are told draws us mesmerizingly into their velvety haunting darkness’ (M. Livingstone, Paula Rego, Human Cargo, exh. cat., Marlborough Gallery, New York, 2008, p. 7). In the present work, Rego’s deft technical precision is held in tension with a profound sense of psychological unease, affirming her status as one of the foremost figurative artists of the twentieth century.