Having the Life of Our Times: A Community Response to Children, War & the Possibilities for Peace

A child has a view the moment she or he enters the world, and, as the British art and cultural critic Jon Berger points out:

Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight. (Ways of Seeing, 1972)

Every day, all around the world– in the global south and in the north, in the east and in the west–parents, teachers, therapists, social and humanitarian aid workers give children art materials, with no particular instructions. We encourage children to paint and draw, cut, paste and sculpt for the sheer pleasure of it. But beyond that, we recognize art as an important, powerful and expressive language of childhood, one that gives children and youth a voice and helps them organize and understand the oftentimes baffling world around them. Some would say that children can express themselves and their ideas more fully, and with more meaningful details using pencil, crayon, paint and paper than they can in conversation. If you want a window onto a child’s life, offer them art materials.

Parents, teachers and policy makers have come to understand and appreciate the importance of including children and youth in a wide range of deliberations and decisions, both big and small. International treaties and human rights documents guarantee children and youth the right to be heard, and to have their views taken seriously. How can this happen, realistically, when “the matter” is a national or global concern, or as in our case an international conflict. Art, a universal language, a tangible and enduring document, offers a meaningful way for children and youth to participate in these critical conversations and it offers adults a meaningful way to include them.

The Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange has been initiating and supporting art-inspired projects with Iraqi and American children and youth for ten years. In 2007 ICAE joined the Art Miles Mural Project, an international project that emerged in support of the UNESCO Decade of Peace and Non-violence Among Children of the World: 2000-2010. Working with the guidance and inspiration of US and Iraqi artists, we expanded into the wonderful world of community art, painting with groups of children/youth on large canvases with the working title: How Will They Know Us? We painted in Baghdad and Amman, Jordan and in eight U.S. communities including the Bay Area in California, Normal, Illinois, Salisbury, North Carolina and Northampton, Massachusetts. The murals were created in partnership with churches, independent media centers, international NGOs, art galleries, museums, and community organizations.

Our goal was to engage participants in a thoughtful, creative dialogue, inviting them to define themselves and their communities, to establish their own personal and collective identity in conscious consideration of — and in relationship to –the “other side”. The projects gave Iraqi and American children/ youth a unique opportunity to tell us who they are, to speak on their own behalf, to reflect and comment on their lives in their particular moment in history.

The fifteen murals will be installed June 22-24 in the ballroom of the Northampton Center for the Arts, the visual and cultural backdrop for film, theater, music, dance, readings, spoken word performances and the intellectual focus for scholarly presentations and reflection. Having the Life of Our Times: A community response to Children, War & the Possibilities for Peace is a fusion of Iraqi and American current events and ancient history, youth, performing and visual arts, activism , human rights, history and psychology.

We ask who we are in this particular historical moment, and how we define ourselves in relation to “others.” We wonder how Iraqis and Americans can begin to know and understand our individual and collective experiences across the gap of culture, language and politics. We will engage both creatively and intellectually with the “others” in an effort to rebuild and repair our human connection after years of conflict and war.

Author: Claudia Lefko

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