In July, around 250 children and young people at 11 NGOs in Phnom Penh were asked by art educators Setareh Masoumbeiki and Amanda Mithers to draw or photograph what peace means to them, what makes them feel safe and happy.
Although these youngsters—orphaned or from poor neighborhoods, rescued from human trafficking or physically disabled—already know hardship in one form or another, the peaceful world they devised is filled with light and color, elephants and butterflies, rivers bursting with fish and a train choo-chooing across the countryside.
The exhibition of their artworks, on display at Meta House through this weekend, was named “Imagine Peace” as Masoumbeiki and Mithers had asked them to do during the project.
The 23-year-old Masoumbeiki from Iran and 26-year-old Mithers from the US have been teaching art at NGOs in Cambodia for three years. However recently, Mithers said, “I did not feel that what I was doing was really meaningful for the kids. So we decided to do something for them—not for art’s sake, not for the NGOs, but for the kids—that would be meaningful to them and make them feel good about themselves.”
Masoumbeiki and Mithers came up with the idea of having all their students work on a common project and then meet to look at each other’s pieces. The idea of using peace as the theme grew out of their workshop on non-violence during which they used art forms for youngsters to talk about violence, how it affects their lives and how to get rid of it, Masoumbeiki said.
So their students went about expressing peace. “The kids just got it: It was peace through imagination, creativity and art,” Masoumbeiki said.
A group of disabled students, 16 to 21 years old, painted their silhouettes—one of them in a wheelchair—then filled them with shapes and objects they find peaceful, in an array of colors, from sky blue to forest green.
“Some of them were too disabled to do more than color—but they all loved it,” Mithers said.
To show happy village life, 5-to-16-year-olds at a community center filled the board with nature at its most bountiful: lush green trees and a blue lake, birds and fish in abundance, ample sun and rain.
Young women in a shelter, about 12 to 23 years old, painted circles, starting with one circle in the middle and expanding into others to show that things are all connected, Mithers said.
“Some people think they can’t draw, but they all can do circles,” she said. In between their circles, the young women put suns, flowers and trees.
Youngsters at an orphanage for 6-to-18-year-olds who used to work at the municipal garbage dump stitched their own concepts of peace symbols—a hand here, a heart there—on squares of fabric. Their individual squares were then sewn into a quilt now on exhibit.
Children 6 to 7 years old at an orphanage were asked to place items in jars that made them feel happy. “A girl said it was water from the sea, so we put water in her jar,” Mithers said.
A number of youngsters also produced individual artworks. San Sohour, a teenage boy from a community center, wrote, next to his photograph of pens and notebooks, “When we are all educated, then we will understand how important it is to have peace. We will hate wars, violence, censorship and corruption, and then the world will become a peaceful place.”
Khiev So Phos, another teenage boy from the community center, photographed a radio/cassette player, saying that radio and television are opportunities to learn about other countries and cultures and to keep informed on events in Cambodia. “Education, health, development and other things. After knowing all these things, we can join to help develop our country,” he wrote beside his work.
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