Snapshots of a different childhood

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

Sometimes, all it takes to build a house is a square, a triangle, and a couple rectangles – and a paintbrush or pencil of course. But for the children whose artwork is currently on display at the Rawabet gallery in downtown Cairo, those nostalgic images of childhood are mostly trapped within the confines of a piece of paper.

The children behind the current exhibition, “Clouds . An Art Exhibition by Children in Street Situations, are drawn from among the estimated 200,000 to 1,000,000 said to live on the streets of Egypt.

Unlike many of their less fortunate peers, these particular kids are lucky enough to have received the attention of five NGOs whose aim is to care for homeless children. These organizations are in turn supported by UNICEF, which played a significant role in the planning of the event.

The exhibit, which started on June 23 and will end on June 27, is the product of the interactive workshops in which kids have worked with artists, such as Shayma Kamel or Mariam Sobhi. The exhibit features the daily artworks produced in these projects, which take place at the gallery itself.

On opening day, Al-Mawa association, along with members of Caritas organization, were the first to proudly display the fruit of their labors and test the waters of these interactive workshops.

It’s practically impossible to categorize “Clouds. Many of the drawings and paintings are as varied as the child artists behind them. The art is a lens through which visitors to the gallery can gain insight into the kaleidoscopic experiences of every child who, for some reason or another, must live on the street for a certain amount of time.

Every corner of the warehouse-like space is an exhibit in itself. In one corner, we can find intricate jewelry work and weaving made by the children under the supervision of Mariam Sobhi from Caritas.

In another corner, the stage is populated with an extensive cast of puppets.

The stage is also to be the setting for a series of skits that will take place every night at 7pm under the supervision of Nada Sabet, an independent consultant for NGOs dealing with children.

Taking a moment to look at a painting done by one of the kids is a meaningful experience in itself. It’s the children behind the art that render these paintings exceptional – and taking the time to get past the often two-dimensional image that is portrayed of them.

Each child has a different story; some were forced to leave home after being subjected to abuse from their stepmothers, while some, such as Nadia, haven’t in fact left at all.

Nadia, 11, still lives with her mother and goes to lessons at Caritas every day. After hearing about Caritas through a friend, she decided to attend the lessons offered at the center for children. She discovered a love for computers.

Today, Nadia is set to enter into a private school, and plans to become a doctor or a manager.

The kids earnestly and enthusiastically take credit for their work, proudly posing next to their drawings and paintings for pictures with a wide grin across their faces.

Moustafa, who got involved in the exhibit through Al-Mawa, is eager to explain his painting while enthusiastically selling an array of postcards designed by his peers.

His painting features a yellow car making its way across a bright pink landscape, lined with hearts. One of the hearts, with an arrow piercing it, has an M on one end of the arrow, an N on the other, and an H at the bottom.

Moustafa says these are the initials of his siblings, Nour and Hoda.

The workshops, and the art that is a product of them, are part of what UNICEF Chief of Communication Hala Abu Khatwa calls social-psychotherapy, part of the overall rehabilitation process.

“The point is not to display what the children are doing – the focus is not that the children do art. It’s part of a rehabilitation program, opening a window of expression, Abu Khatwa said, noting that this window of expression has opened up a kaleidoscope of artwork, from vibrant colors to slightly more “gloomy pieces.

“It’s also good for other people visiting to see them as kids in a colorful context. People are somewhat reluctant to go to shelters, she says.

Shayma Kamel, one of the artists working with the children, stressed the importance of a peaceful setting for the children: “People outside treat them as if they’re dangerous, but if you put them in a peaceful environment, they will be like other children. If they’re involved in a gallery like here, we’re giving them a feeling of doing something important.

Artist Mahmoud Hanafy, who worked with the children at Al-Mawa for three months to coordinate the event, said, “They think that the only work they can do is hard work. I want to open the horizons.

Cairo is not a place where the streets are lined with vibrant colors, Hanafy points out. “When they put the colors on the page, something changes.

In addition, many of the photographs lining the wall of the gallery were taken by the children themselves, according to Hanafy, who is proud to say he has taken only three of the many photos

The children have already accomplished something rare – building a direct, intimate connection with the viewer. This exhibit is definitely not a place where you can look at these paintings passively, from a distance.

Catch “Clouds at Rawabet gallery, 3 Hussien El Maamar Street, Downtown, Cairo from 12 – 8 pm. Tel: 010 551 9208, 010 145 4617.

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