Teen-agers at Friends NGO Discover a New Kind of Self-Expression

When he was asked to draw himself on paper, one boy at the NGO Mith Samlanh/Friends painted blood gushing out of his hands and forming a pool at his feet.

Another boy drew himself looking down a countryside scene with two tanks facing each other and a house burning in the background.

Emotions explode off the canvases during art classes at Friends. Works may show a dark reality or dreams of sun and beauty, but they rarely are just pictures.

Art workshops are one way Friends gives street children a voice. The NGO cares for children without homes in Phnom Penh. Some are orphans who either ran away from step-parents or became orphans due to AIDS, said Sebastien Marot, Friends’ coordinator.

Others work the street and help support relatives living as squatters; a number of them live with their families on the street. The NGO pays special attention to teen-agers older than 14, but the young people at Friends range from 3 to 20 years old, Marot said.

Speaking aloud about their feelings does not come easily to street children. “If they try to talk about their personal experiences, they splutter, harsh words coming out,” Marot said. Through paintings, the youths can show what they mean and, at the same time, develop skills and techniques they can be proud of, said Marot.

During the week of Oct 22, a visiting artist gave a one-week workshop at Friends. Kathy Manthei, whose exhibition “Journey Through Sacred Space” is currently hanging at Java Cafe and Gallery, is an artist from the US now living in Phuket, Thailand.

“I believe that everyone has a voice, but children’s voices–-especially those pushed towards the fringes of society–-are often not expressed and therefore never heard,” she said. “It is important that we, all of us, learn to listen.”

Manthei is a certified peer counselor, and has practiced art therapy with women victims of violence or rape and with at-risk youth groups. “I’ve also worked with a lot of mentally ill patients,” she said. “For those who were not able to speak, expression [through art] was tremendous.”

Culture and preconceived ideas can get in the way of self-expression. “A lot of people have fears regarding art,” said Manthei. For example, some children she teaches in Thailand are used to copying, but hesitate to create their own designs. It can take a while for people to allow themselves to create, she said.

Manthei was determined to make her workshop fun and allow students to feel free to “speak” the way they wanted on canvas. The week began with a tour of her exhibition. Pieces at Java Cafe are variations on classic Buddhist and apsara designs inspired by her trips throughout Asia, especially to Angkor.

Students were intrigued. “I have never seen such a strange picture before,” said Sok Cheat, looking at a stylized Buddha.

“I wonder how she mixes colors,” said Chem Khun.

“It’s mysterious how she puts the picture together. I want to paint like that but I don’t know how,” said Sok Chamroeun.

On the second day of the workshop, Manthei announced to the group of nearly 30 students, mostly teen-agers, that they would be given mirrors to study their faces and paint themselves. They would first draw on paper, complete the sketch in watercolor, if they wished, and paint it on canvas later.

Some students went to work without hesitation, while others felt like drawing anything but themselves. Kor Rung, who by all accounts is emerging as a truly talented artist, helped a few students by sketching the shape and main features of their faces.

Students were intent on their work, although there was talk and laughter. “I come to teach to make them happy,” said Chhorn Channavat, who served as interpreter and assistant to Manthei. A fourth-year student at the Faculty of Fine Art, he started teaching art at Friends as a volunteer seven months ago.

He said street children “need love, they need care and they need to receive a good education.”

As the week went by, joy and pain began to emerge in the sketches. One young girl painted huts on stilts in the country with a rice field nearby; her dream is to have a home, which she does not. A boy painted a face, half his own and the other half his mother’s, because the two of them are all that remains of their family.

By the end of the week, the students continued painting even after the half-day workshop was over. Each student was producing personal work in his own style. Skills varied, but every painting “spoke” in an individual way.

Friends holds dance and music classes in addition to painting, and welcomes artists who are willing to share their experience with students.

A few months ago, a member of the crew shooting the feature film “Under the Banyan Trees” in Cambodia gave a video workshop at the NGO. Students produced a 20-minute short feature that is being considered for screening at the Sundance Film Festival in the US, Marot said. A photo workshop led to an exhibit that has traveled to France, Germany and Hong Kong.

All this is part of Friends’ efforts to help street children start in life, Marot said. The NGO was launched in 1994 by Marot and three friends. Its staff of 125 works with approximately 1,600 children every day, he said.

Programs include a transitional home for street children; a training center for trades such as mechanics, carpentry, electronics, sewing and hairdressing; an educational center offering literacy classes, and an HIV/AIDS and drug awareness program. Friends’ restaurant is part of the domestic service and cooking program.

There also is a school for young children, which they attend until they have caught up and are ready join public schools, said Chanto Huot, who handles the education program. Marot said some of these programs may be eliminated if funding can‘t be found in the near future

The number of street children in Phnom Penh is estimated at more than 10,000, Marot said. As HIV/AIDS keeps claiming lives, it has been predicted the disease will have created 140,000 orphans by 2004. “No one [organization] can absorb that many children,” Marot said.

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