Drawing on their experiences

Artists Without Borders help kids show fear, hope

by Payal Kapadia

Orange flames shoot out from two black-and-white skyscrapers. Airplanes outlined in black head for the buildings from opposing directions. The street below is filled with red cars, sirens on top. Stick figures fall from windows high up; others on the ground wave their arms desperately. A text balloon above their heads says: “Help!”

“The Twin Towers Are Standing,” a display of children’s crayon drawings of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, is showing at The Pink Cow in Harajuku till April 30. The exhibition showcases works done by children aged 6-12 at workshops run by the charity organization Artists Without Borders.

“As an artist, I know that art is important,” says Hector Sierra, 38, the founder of AWB. “Especially for children who have lived through war and who have no other way to express themselves.”

AWB’s mission to New York in December was its first for child victims of terrorism, rather than war. The six missions before saw Sierra travel to war zones in the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Georgia, Abkhazia, Armenia and East Timor. In June, he is off again — to Afghanistan.

“For most organizations who work in war-torn areas, the priority is not to amuse the children, it’s to feed them,” says Sierra. “I wanted to bring relief to these children in the form of art and entertainment.”

Colombia-born Sierra was spurred to action by the bombing of Kosovo in January 1999. As a graduate in filmmaking, he was there researching a documentary on ethnic conflicts. “After Kosovo, I knew I had to do something more as an artist,” he says.

In collaboration with two artist friends — Web designer Shuichi Wada and visual designer Maki Tetsuma — Sierra’s Artists Without Borders came into being in April 1999.

In August that year, Sierra set off on AWB’s first mission, to the divided city of Kosovska-Mitrovitsa north of Kosovo. He spent two months shuttling between the Albanian camps in the south and the Serbian ones in the north, conducting five-day workshops for the children there.

Raising funds, Sierra says, has been the hardest part. “In Japan, people don’t understand the concept of fundraising,” he says. “There’s more a passive sort of compassion. People feel sorry, but few of them do anything about it.”

Last year, AWB had to cancel missions to Sri Lanka and Colombia after major airline carriers declined to fly 100 kg of art supplies for them.

However, there is a small and exceptional group of companies and individuals prepared to help out. A few Japanese corporations, who prefer to remain anonymous, provide AWB with art materials. And AWB’s 20 artist-members — 19 of whom are Japan-based — donate a portion of the proceeds from gallery showings of their work.

The December workshops in New York were similar to those of previous missions — even though the children there were witnesses to a terrorist attack, not refugees in a war zone. On Day 1, Sierra gave the children a theme — “My City” — for their first drawing. Sierra spent Day 2 showing the American schoolchildren artwork sent by their Japanese counterparts as an expression of goodwill. After two more days of drawing, Japanese calligraphy and origami, the workshop wound up on Day 5 with another themed drawing — “My Dream City.”

Without exception, the drawings from Day 1 depict the events of Sept. 11. What’s more surprising are those produced on Day 5. “My Dream City” was none other than New York — bathed in sunlight, and with the twin towers standing once more.

Sierra found the same desperate need to make sense of reality in the artwork of children in former Yugoslavia. “The Albanian kids would draw Serbian soldiers killing them, and the Serbian kids drew NATO forces bombing,” says Sierra. “They were living different wars.”

Even so, from one trouble spot to another, Sierra identifies common motifs in children’s artistic responses to conflict. In Kosovo, the sun was repeatedly painted as a black orb. In painting after painting, the children in New York painted the gleaming twin towers black.

On his return from New York, Sierra visited Kurihara-Kita Elementary School in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward. After showing the children street plans of Ground Zero, he asked them to sketch their ideas of what should be built there, and the current exhibition also showcases these works. In one memorable image, a mosque, a church and a temple stand together.

Also on display is a daruma doll decorated by Japanese children with postage stamps from all over the world. “When they filled in the first eye, they made a wish for peace,” says Sierra. “The daruma was continued by children in New York. It will be finished by children in Afghanistan only when the wish for peace has come true.”