x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Young artists' brush with realism on show in the UAE

Every picture tells a secret story. And a new collection of art by young people from across the globe - some from war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq - shows a maturity, complexity and raw talent.

Artwork by children from Iraq on display in the Sharjah International Biennial for Children's Arts at the emirate's Art Museum. Pawan Singh / The National
Artwork by children from Iraq on display in the Sharjah International Biennial for Children's Arts at the emirate's Art Museum. Pawan Singh / The National

Every picture tells a secret story. And a new collection of art by young people from across the globe - some from war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq - shows a maturity, complexity and raw talent that holds a unique mirror to the 21st century child.

Almost every child scribbles, paints and draws a piece of art but often their creations are not taken seriously. They end up displayed for a limited audience in some corner of their schools or held by magnets on a fridge at home.

But if one is to look at these works seriously, one discovers a rare insight into what children believe and how they interpret current events in their lives.

"Children's art is as important if not more important than adult art as they are the present and the future," says Dr Mohamed Abouelnaga, a renowned Egyptian artist and the curator of the 3rd Sharjah International Biennial for Children's Arts.

Spanning more than 61 countries, the biennial at the Sharjah Art Museum is an impressive collection of international dialogue through expressions in various forms, from 2D to 3D to collages, videos, photos and computer graphics, as well as sculpturing and printmaking.

"They are getting the same treatment professional adult art would get," says Dr Abouelnaga. "And they deserve it."

Art arriving from war-ravaged areas such as Iraq and Syria, and from within refugee camps, is more mature in subject than the rest. It seems the children are "robbed" of their childhood.

For instance, a teenager in Iraq drew and cut a red skull-like face screaming with another black head inside the mouth, a piece Dr Abouelnaga compared with Edvard Munch's famous The Scream.

A teenager in Syria captured three Syrian boys in three photos mimicking the "see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil" hand gestures. A Palestinian child in a refugee camp in Lebanon drew the sacred Dome of the Rock mosque in bright kaleidoscopic colours, while several others from the same camp drew birds with a tiny, human-like figure clinging to the featured creature or watching it fly away without them.

Every piece tells the story of the child and the country.

Selected from more than 5,000 entries, the exhibition under the patronage of Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, the wife of the Ruler of Sharjah and the chairwoman of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs, has 3,197 pieces - 676 from the Arab world, 1,050 from other countries, 127 by special-needs children and 889 by group projects.

Open to the public for free until January 25, there are top winning pieces in different age groups but, the organisers maintain, all the pieces on display are special and winners in their own right.

"You can do a whole study on these pieces," says Dr Abouelnaga. "You can find out through art the psychological, the social and the political state of the young and how the environment in which they are is influencing and changing them."

Called Restart, the international art project called on children and youth from the UAE and around the world to reboot and start from zero, to express themselves without any strings or limits.

As a result, the pieces mirror the child of the 21st century, a generation of children living between different civilisations and cultures. Questions of identity, religious values and what a home looks like are explored in almost every piece at the exhibition.

"There are trends. Arts pieces from Italy, Czech, Netherlands, for instance, are very bright and full of rainbows and colours compared to art pieces from Syria, Iraq and Senegal, where they are less colourful," says Dr Abouelnaga. The pieces by the special-needs children stand out, reflecting a sense of innocence and a completely different view of the world. Often animals and a home are dominant themes in their pieces.

A winning piece by a 17-year-old special-needs Kuwaiti is a beautiful mosaic of coloured sewed pieces of cloth and stitches, with messages throughout, like a black cut-out hand reaching out near a house made of floral print.

Meanwhile, works from the United States have patriotic themes, with the American flag or its colours a common feature, as well as the dove of peace. Pieces from Eastern Europe have a distinct "mystical" feel to many of their creations, with elf-like creatures, princesses and witches, and many fairytale-like creatures making an appearance with a modern twist.

The smart phone, robots, aliens and outer space also showed up in various pieces from across the world, including the UAE, with several depictions of the Burj Khalifa as a monument that can be seen from space. From the Gulf countries, themes related to national identity and heritage, such as forts, camels, and traditional dress, were drawn in many pieces.

At the same time, a group project at one of the children's centres in Sharjah put together by expatriates and Emiratis is a mural spanning three walls and depicting violence and war, with drops of blood and even ambulances carrying away the wounded. There are also men in army uniforms drawn pointing guns at children.

"They see violence on TV or lived it if they have escaped a conflict area. People undermine the intelligence and the observations of a child," says Dr Abouelnaga.

Contributions from Arab Spring countries have been limited this year due to a shift in priorities and a lack of means of sending pieces of art. However, the most common object across all the countries, the mischievous cat, shows up in the strangest colours and positions, whether drawn with a bright red tail by an Egyptian child, or mystical-like by a child from Poland, or as a cartoon by a child in South Korea. In several pieces from Japan and Iran, the cat was given a special spot at the family table.

Besides venues in Sharjah, there are several initiatives related to children's art across the UAE, such as Abu Dhabi's Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation and the Dubai International Art Centre. Most social clubs provide courses and space for children's art.

The art of expression is so important that specialists argue it may well be the best way to understand and help a child. "Drawing is a natural language for children," says Dr Anita Sunil, a clinical psychologist and therapist at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.

"When we have children with trauma, the complexity of what they are going through is easily expressed through art."

Besides understanding what a child might be thinking, it is an insight into a child's development and cognitive level.

"Verbally interviewing a child is often unsuccessful, so we use artwork. Just giving them a piece of paper and pencil is enough to encourage them to express themselves," Dr Sunil says.

"When they draw, they are opening their boundaries to you. So parents should pay close attention to what their children are drawing. It is a message."

However, as many studies have shown, it is not just children that are helped by art. "Art promotes healing. For instance, many human trafficking victims here have been saved and helped through art. Some open up and feel better after engaging in something as simple as connecting dots."

With more than two decades of work dedicated to children, Dr Sunil noticed that even the simple act of "exhibiting" a child's piece of work can have a lasting effect on his or her development.

"It builds their self esteem. It gives them confidence and a feeling that they matter," she says. "While it is a cliche, there is great truth to the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words."

rghazal@thenational.ae

For more information on timings and workshops held during the children's biennial, please contact 06 556 6002 or visit www.sharjahmuseums.ae