When I was seven years old, I took a class at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on masks, and on their role in traditional art and in history. As part of the curriculum, I painted a series of masks which were, fortunately, later chosen by the Institute to be displayed in a special exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
While my memory of the specifics of this episode are a bit hazy, I still can feel the enormous pride I felt as a child to have my artwork on display in a museum, a domain normally associated with accomplished adults. Since 2004, an Australian project called "Big Ones Little Ones" -- organized by an imaginative and resilient woman, Trish Amichi -- has marshaled the power of this feeling with a focus on special-needs children, the global community and a direct link to Aboriginal Australians in a way that has proven itself to be extraordinarily attractive for schools in many different countries around the world.
Under the "Big Ones Little Ones" exercise, children are provided a special paper from the Euraba Paper Aboriginal Company of Australia and are asked to draw a picture connected to a story they develop on a prompted topic. This year's topic, for display at the National Gallery in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei in late 2012, is "In My World."
The topic, with its personal demand, makes the children take the project seriously and reflect on their individuality and self-worth. Children's art is "moving" -- perhaps Cubist, naturally -- in expressing a child's direct experiences, linked to an unlimited imagination and creative license. The child will often naturally describe their image as a dynamic and shifting story, rather than as a static image too steeped in symbolic extrapolation. The image is a reflection of life as it is -- with physical activity and with direct and powerful emotional relationships between people. Trish Amichi commonly cites Picasso's famous quotation, embodied in his philosophy on painting, that "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."
The results are extraordinary, and adult visitors and helpers (the "big ones") are forced to recognize the limitations of the professional appropriation of art. In turn, the children (the "little ones") take satisfaction in their ability to communicate with adults on an equal level in prominent museums and national galleries -- an especially empowering experience for special-needs children (and, also, victims of war and natural disaster) whose intelligence and creativity are devalued in the forms of communication modern mass society elevates. When this element is linked to the shared commonalities between children globally, the simple display of paintings becomes a powerful statement promoting respect among cultures and a groundedness in our relations with children.
This year is the first year that an American school -- the Jamon Montessori Day School in Silver Spring, Maryland -- will participate in the project. All together 21 countries (Afghanistan, Australia, Bahrain, Brunei, China, Iceland, Indonesia, Iraq, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Oman, Philippines, South Africa, Syria, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates [Sharjah], the United States and the Western Sahara) will be represented in the upcoming display in Brunei. And, since it began in 2004, over 1,000 children from around 30 countries have made artwork on the special Aboriginal paper.
Trish Amichi has also been directly inspired by Arab-American writer Ameen Rihani (1876-1940) in her work. In the dedication for an past exhibition with the "Emirates Very Special Arts Group" under the Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services (made possible by Her Highness, Sheikha Jameela Bint Mohammed Al-Qasimi), Amichi echoed Rihani's statement: "When we go deep enough or high enough, we meet. It is only on the surface that we differ and sometimes clash. A common measure, irrespective of class or creed or race or color, is the pivot of the equality we uphold.... [I]t is the only safeguard to peace and progress." Rihani, in watching the effects of modernity upon the United States and the Arab world, further argued that creative expression might be the only collective force that could temper tendencies toward persistent conflict and toward alienation under runaway materialism and technological hyperactivity.
In valuing children's art at the highest level, we can all potentially reconnect with an innate and open humanness that provides guidance in times of uncertainty and chaos. In the book for the Sharjah exhibition -- entitled Together -- which focused on cultural identity, the exhibition repeated Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish's statement that, "There's only one way to bridge the divide, to live together... we have to find the light to guide us.... The light that allows you to see, to clear away the fog -- to find wisdom.... To find the light of truth, you have to talk, listen to, and respect each other."