On one of the walls of the Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) in downtown Oakland, there is a drawing of the Tigris River running red, a crude picture of a young girl next to a map of Iraq with the word “why” as the heading, and a colorful picture of a helicopter gunship and tank shooting at a field of flowers, with the misspelled statement, “We are not gilty.”
The “we” is clearly not meant to refer to the soldiers operating the helicopter gunship and the tank.
The drawings don’t create the same kind of initial shock as the graphic images of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners, but in their quiet, stark way, the children’s art is equally powerful.
The images were drawn by Iraqi school children at Al-Assail Primary School outside Baghdad, one month after the U.S invasion last year. Filled with battle scenes, flying flags, and death, the drawings are the depiction of the war as seen through the eyes of children living in a city that was hit with over 32,000 bombs during the initial American-led invasion.
Seventy-six in total, the drawings were commissioned by Carl Rosenstein, who runs New York’s Puffin Room gallery, and have been turned into a gallery show called “Shocked and Awed.”
In New York at the Puffin Room since September, the images and are now on the road. As part of a multi-city tour they made their first stop in Oakland, opening at the MOCHA this month.
Rosenstein, whose gallery is well-known for promoting art with a progressive edge, originally commissioned the show to Patrick Dillon, a documentary filmmaker, just before Dillon returned to Iraq last year. Dillon was working on a documentary called Raining Planes about the invasion last year and subsequent occupation.
“I wanted to be ringside for the extermination of civilization,” said the filmmaker, who had been kicked out of Iraq on his first trip after being detained several times by American soldiers and Iraqi secret police for filming the bombings and, at one point, around the Abu Ghraib prison. Dillon was in New York attempting to raise money for a return trip when he ran into Rosenstein.
Rosenstein thought of the idea to collect children’s drawings on Dillon’s next trip because he had commissioned a show several years back that displayed work by children from Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia alongside drawings by children who became refugees during the Spanish Civil war of the 1930s.
Rosenstein said he knew children’s art could produce an uncensored message about war.
“It was an attempt to humanize the Iraqi people,” he explained. “And children are less likely to be indoctrinated.”
Before Dillon returned to Iraq, he and Rosenstein went to an art supply store and stocked up on paper, crayons, markers and other art material. When he got to Iraq, Dillon went to the Al-Assail Primary School but found that the children were initially hesitant about drawing anything, fearful of reprisal by the Americans, or the Iraqis. But with the help of a translator, Dillon was able to warm up to the students and teachers and ended up spending the next month filming and watching the young artists as they created the images.
“Those children were ready to not be shocked and awed forever,” said Dillon. “They were so playful and alive, even though they were afraid because [they were] used to keeping their real feelings very close to the vest.”
While most of the children produced drawings that documented the horror of war, with reoccurring themes of guns, tanks, soldiers and planes, there were others that were more hopeful, and others that were almost humorous.
One that is a particular favorite of Rosenstein’s, and hangs at the front of the show, is a two-panel drawing done in crayon. On the one side is a tank. On the other, divided by a line down the middle of the paper, is a young boy sleeping, dreaming about a dove and a swan.
Another, done on a piece of lined notebook paper, shows a blond American television reporter standing next to an SUV. The woman, whose clothing, hand bag and extra large hat might suit her better in Beverly Hills, looks lost.
“These children, they know the deal and they were able to very expressively put their artistic skills to work,” said Dillon. “These children are extremely sophisticated. Its like a generation of 4,000 years of established geniuses.”
Since the opening in New York, the images have received quite a bit of media attention. The first article, which ran in the Agence France Presse, was picked up around the world and subsequently, the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN have run stories.
Both Rosenstein and Dillon said the media coverage has been great because they’ve been able to slip the message of the images under the radar of the media establishment and help show the true face of the war in Iraq.
“This is the real war in Iraq as opposed to the fantasy war that Fox and other propagandists have been pouring out for people,” said Dillon.
“Shocked an Awed” runs from May 2 to June 6 at MOCHA, 538 Ninth St., Oakland. The show is free. For more information contact MOCHA at www.mocha.org or 465-8770. For more information on the show visit www.puffinroom.org.