From brutality to beauty: Syrian children take on the international art world

Logo-ContributoriaMay 2015

In the mountains of Iraq’s Kurdish region, a small NGO is using art to change the lives of young Syrian refugees living in a former prison, some of whom are survivors of the wave of recent migrant drownings in the Mediterranean, and rehumanise them in the eyes of the world.

Ola is strong-willed and smart. She’s usually the first of her friendship group to dive into the painting tent and organise all the others: mixing paint to perfect colours and bossing everybody around. To her teacher Lucy she’s a sweet, talented all-rounder who’s always at the heart of the action. But today she’s just not herself. She stays apart from the others, head drooping and little interest in the painting. Lucy is worried and elicits Lilian’s help in finding out what is wrong. Lilian comes back some time later and says that Ola is sad because she’s remembering her two brothers who died recently in a terrible accident.

Lucy Tyndall is the project manager of the pioneering Castle Art project at the Rise Foundation, a small NGO based in the Kurdish region of Iraq, Lilian is one of her local volunteer helpers and Ola is a young Syrian refugee. Every Friday morning, Tyndall and a handful of local and international volunteers pile into an old transit van at Rise Foundation’s base in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, and drive two hours through picturesque but barren plains and mountains to reach the small town of Akre.

Changing brutality to beauty

An otherwise unremarkable settlement, Akre became synonymous with terror when former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered the building of an imposing prison in the design of a castle, set prominently on a hill in the centre of the town. Built in the heartland of a region fighting against the dictator’s rule, the prison was designed for the detention and torture of political prisoners: a warning to all rebellious Kurds nearby.

When refugees from the Syrian civil war began to flow into the Kurdish region in greater numbers, Akre prison was turned into a refugee camp. It now houses around 1,400 people in its former cells, administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government and fed by the World Food Programme.

When Tom Robinson, director and co-founder of Rise Foundation, visited Akre with his team in early 2014 to help set up and stock a library at the camp, he found the atmosphere “so grim – it was not a nice place to be living in, with all the memories of a former totalitarian regime.” He and team member Nils Henrik came up with the idea of brightening the prison with the help of the camp’s younger refugees by painting murals on the walls. In October 2014 they brought in a new project manager, Tyndall, a former policy advisor to the New Zealand government with a passion for art that she has nurtured since her own school days.

Translating trauma into hope

The early days of the project were tough. The Rise team couldn’t communicate directly with the children until they found people to interpret for them. One of these was Kawther Ahmed. A refugee living in Akre herself, Kawther helps to run the UNICEF school in the camp and every Friday Rise Foundation employs her to help organise the group of around 25 children, mostly girls aged 10-14, who are the core of the Castle Art project.

Early on the children were given pieces of paper to draw what they wanted, in the hope that these could form the basis for murals. Fresh from war zones, however, most of the children’s first pictures were scenes of terrible violence.

“We are not professional art therapists,” says Robinson, “so we couldn’t delve into their trauma in this way.”

Neither were they suitable for murals whose purpose was to brighten up the camp.

Now, Tyndall works with the children to translate their pictures into something that retains their power and meaning, but gives hope and brightness to the community. “One day Hindreen came to me with a drawing of a bird crying in a cage,” says Tyndall. “We worked on it together and the final painting on the wall was of a cage with the door open and a bird flying out.”

In this way, Tyndall allows the children and the camp community to drive the direction of the project. “It’s important to give them a sense of ownership and control,” she says. “That gives them hope for the future and takes away some of their powerlessness.”

I ask Tyndall how she deals with it if children bring up traumatic experiences from the war. “I give them a hug and put a paintbrush in their hand. All I can do is to give them the means to process it themselves.”

One day Najar, one of Castle Art’s most promising students, came to Tyndall with a drawing depicting an explosion of music. “She told me that it was a heart exploding with all the things that can’t be expressed. She said that when she puts the paintbrush to the wall, she can say the things that she can’t say out loud.”

From art project to art programme

The remarkable thing about Castle Art, however, is that it hasn’t limited itself to being a one-off painting project, a bit of fun for underprivileged children. Tyndall has approached this as a sophisticated art programme that produces potent art works in a unique setting.

“I emailed my old art teacher the other day,” says Tyndall. “I wanted to thank her for the amazing education that I got, which inspired me to make art a part of my life. When I work with these girls, when I see their talent and desire, I just keep thinking that they should have been beside me in school. They should have been getting the same chances and same education as me. What I’m doing here is thinking back to what I was taught, and trying to pass that on.”

Tyndall has taken her cue from the ambition of the children in the group. “They all want to be doctors, lawyers, engineers,” she says. “There are some very talented and driven individuals and I want to show them what they are capable of.”

Each week Tyndall gives the students a project to work on during the week, usually with artist models. “When I was at school we were given examples of artists’ work. The idea is that you first emulate their style, then you appropriate it, taking from it what means something to you and developing your own style.”

“One week we looked at the work of Pablo Delgado. We cut out pictures of tiny scenes and pasted them around the camp walls. We had a cutout of a tiny man flying away with this umbrella next to an air conditioning unit and little birds sitting on cracks in the wall.”

Bringing in Banksy… fun, spray paint and irreverence

Recently, Tyndall has begun to focus more on street art with the girls, and has introduced spray painting and stencilling. Apart from having so much fun with the spray paint that only some of it ends up on the walls, Tyndall wants the children to connect with the wider background of the genre, rooted in irreverence, regeneration, beautification and rebellion.

Akre prison is a symbol of historical repression and torture: a prison now filled with victims, who are trapped there simply because they can’t go home. “It reminds me of the Berlin Wall,” says Tyndall. “I want to give the children ways of punching through the walls of their prison and retaking some control over their lives.”

It is also a huge canvas with plenty of potential to create for dramatic images. With its cracked, decaying walls and dark history, Tyndall believes that Akre prison is perfect for street art, both politically and aesthetically. “I believe that this is one of the most special art spaces in the world,” she says.

One of the most famous artist models she brought them recently was Banksy. She showed the children a picture of the artist’s work on a controversial separation wall in Gaza. The image was of two children with bucket and spade looking through a crack in the wall to a tropical beach beyond. In response one of her students, Newruz, drew bars across a crack in the wall of Akre. Out of the bars reached a pair of arms, as a bird flew away.

Tyndall often selects artist models because of their background. Stik, for example, is a street artist from the UK who experienced a long period of homelessness and used art to give him a sense of purpose and focus that helped him get his life back together. His stark stick figures suit the canvas of Akre prison, and are accessible for the children to emulate, but his story can also inspire them.

The endless battle for funding

Tyndall’s passion for the project is reflected in the children. “One of the kids told me she was always so excited about Friday afternoons that she can’t eat lunch that day.” But with so little funding she doesn’t know how long the project can continue.

“When the car bomb went off 200 metres from our house in Erbil last week, my first thought was that I hadn’t left enough paint for the children to continue by themselves if I had to leave the country,” says Tyndall.

Rise Foundation is a small NGO and faces a constant battle to raise money for its projects. “From month to month it’s unclear whether I will be able to support not only the refugees we work with, but my own staff,” says Robinson.

He sees their small size as an asset. “It enables us to react quickly and flexibly, unencumbered by some of the bureaucracy that slows down larger organisations.” But he does wish that they had a steadier stream of income.

The current budget of the Castle Art project is around $800-1,000 a month – mostly salaries for the artist and coordinator Rise employs from within the camp. I ask Tyndall what she would do if somebody gave her $10,000 to spend on the project. After a bit of incredulous laughter she begins to fire off her wish list.

“I could buy paint for a year. No, wait, three years… I could buy them so much paint. I want to give them a huge paint reserve, so that they can carry on if we have to leave.”

Then I asked what she would do with $500,000. This time she hit her stride. “I want to bring artists from the region and the world to work with the kids and employ more local artists to help them regularly. I want to spread the project to other camps. I want the children’s work and story to be featured in a gallery exhibition in the West. Hell, I want to take the children to be at their exhibition!”

Tyndall explains that the children very rarely leave the prison and that when they take them on occasional picnics in the surrounding area “they’re beside themselves, running around, jumping across streams and just playing like normal kids do. Can you imagine if I could take them to London? To see their own work on the wall and all these people looking at their work?”

Connecting the children with the world through art

Tyndall is very keen to connect the children with the international art scene. She sees this as a way of keeping their situation in the minds of the world. She wants to show not only their talent, but their humanity and individuality.

“These children are a wasted generation if their talents and humanity aren’t nurtured. They have the passion and drive to fix their own country. They never talk about fighting; they want to be pharmacists, artists, lawyers, doctors, engineers. All they want to do is go home.”

When Tyndall asked Newruz what she would do to rebuild Syria, she replied that she would paint all the walls of Damascus.

This strategy of engagement has had some success. One student, Diana, drew a picture of a heart with a flame shooting out of it. It was so like the work of Spanish artist Ricardo Cavolo that Tyndall gave her more of his work to explore. Then she tweeted the results directly to Cavolo, who responded enthusiastically.

Tyndall’s hope is that she can persuade more artists around the world to engage with the children and perhaps even to visit and work with them in Akre. She also hopes that their art work will give them a voice in a world that otherwise ignores them.

With the gradual drift of Europe towards the right, it has become acceptable for immigrants to bear the brunt of people’s frustration. In a continent that had the greatest displacement of people in the 20th century because of conflict and persecution, it has become acceptable to refer to this new wave of refugees as sub-human, vermin.

In this new narrative, Ola is a cockroach. Violence in Syria drove her family from their home and country. Her parents chose to try to get to Europe illegally, hoping to find somewhere safe to live and the opportunity for their children to make something of themselves. As they crossed the Mediterranean in an overcrowded boat there was a terrible accident and two of Ola’s brothers, aged 13 and 15, drowned.

The rest of the family were forced to turn back and seek sanctuary in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Now they live in a dark, damp, oppressive prison, where the only respite from the monotony of virtual captivity and the ghosts of the prison’s brutal past, are the splashes of colour and ideas that Tyndall and her team bring into their lives.

For three hours a week Ola’s passion and talent soar, and through her art she speaks to her community and to the world. Perhaps it’s only through her painting that the world can start to see her not as a feral human, or vermin, but as a child.

Find out more about the Castle Art Project by visiting their blog or emailing info@rise-foundation.

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