RA Magazine Summer 2012
Issue Number: 115
Child Hood – the Real Event
Across London the charity Kids Company is helping deprived children create art in projects that can make a crucial difference to their lives. Rosie Boycott meets its founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, as the RA mounts an exhibition of their work in its space at 6 Burlington Gardens
‘There are different types of heroics, different types of heroes,’ says Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, the charity that helps children living on the extreme margins of society. ‘There is jumping over hurdles, and there is the heroism of surviving the desperate childhoods our children endure. They deserve medals too: all the children who have created this exhibition are heroes to me and they should be heroes to all of us.’
Camila Batmanghelidjh at the Kids Company head office in south London. Photo Judy Leigh-Reed.
Inspired by the Olympics, ‘Child Hood – The Real Event’ is an extraordinary exhibition in the RA that celebrates the small heroic acts of the children who have benefited from Kids Company and its longstanding relationship with the Academy. The show is moving, surprising and emotive and it represents a triumph both for Batmanghelidjh and for Kids Company, the charity she founded in 1996. These are kids with addicted, violent, abusive parents: kids with addiction problems of their own; kids with nowhere to live; kids who’ve been chucked out of every school they’ve entered. Kids on whom society has turned its back, who nobody wants.
Kids Company gives them all a home. Some 17,000 children in London receive support, therapy, food and counselling via schools’ projects or Kids Company centres. And not just the kids, their parents too. Batmanghelidjh, who was born in Iran – her father was arrested during the 1979 revolution – and who was educated at Sherborne, raises all the money herself. In her flamboyant, multi-coloured dresses and trademark turban she is a distinctive figure who never takes no for an answer.
Art is the most formidable tool in Batmanghelidjh’s therapy kit and this exhibition is the result of several years of input from therapists and artists, as well as of forging a close partnership with the RA’s Learning Department. ‘Children experience different forms of damage’, she says. ‘Kids Company kids have usually had a double whammy: not just absent parenting, but they’ve been terrorised too. Living in a state of terror, with adrenalin coursing through the body, alters brain function. These kids can’t settle down, can’t concentrate, can’t sleep. The trauma they have endured remains frozen in the brain. If the child has been battered, every detail is memorised and banked.’
These traumatic memories acquire a life of their own. They repeat themselves through nightmares and can be triggered by events which remind the child of the assault: someone tall, standing over them, can bring back the situation surrounding a sexual assault and the child will then lash out in defence. Their actions, Batmanghelidjh says, are wholly unconscious, directed from the part of the brain where the trauma has been stored. ‘Such children are extremely difficult to teach or help with conventional therapy. It can be impossible for them to articulate their trauma in words because describing the events to a therapist shames them all over again.’ But convert the experience into a piece of art and the focus is on that, not on the child. ‘It is quite astonishing what can be revealed – and once revealed, then it can be healed,’ says Batmanghelidjh.
The RA Learning Department has been working closely with Kids Company for the past four years, running art programmes for them at their centres, as well as special workshops at the RA for the children and their families. For example, the children have explored art through portraiture, as a way to address self-identity, expressing themselves through sculpture and painting. Many children have formed close relationships with the RA’s workshop leaders, who are professional artists, and volunteers, who work one to one with each child. This helps the children feel at ease and enables them to express themselves honestly through their art. This kind of collaboration has helped some of the children to apply for, and receive, individual Arts Awards. For children who have never received distinctions before, this success is a very important step for their confidence and sense of self-worth. The RA is committed to carrying this partnership forward.
Fungai Benhura, 'Landscape I', 2011.
‘The fact that this exhibition is at the RA is supremely important,’ she continues. ‘These are children who feel worthless. Places like this are usually closed to them, so this show is both empowering and embracing and all 400 children taking part now feel an allegiance to the RA. That is an enormous step. The RA’s Learning Department has been working step by step with the children: it’s not easy. The kids don’t like control, they don’t like being told what to do.’
That is why the RA’s workshop leaders (who are all practising artists) come to the Kids Company sites to meet the children and learn about them. The children and the artists get to know each other, one to one, which helps make the children feel welcome when they visit the RA for workshops or tours. And these events are tailored to meet the needs of the children, to make them feel comfortable and encourage them to explore art materials, ideas and feelings.
The RA understands that building these relationships takes time. ‘You cannot simply shove a blank piece of paper in front of a traumatised child,’ says Batmanghelidjh. ‘That can be terrifying. A loose framework is needed.’
To reflect the RA’s continuing commitment to Kids Company, the Academy has given the charity free use of the galleries at 6 Burlington Gardens to mount the exhibition. One part of the show displays puppets that were made after the children had visited the Summer Exhibition in 2011. Another extraordinary exhibit is Shoebox Living, which comprises 125 shoeboxes assembled in rows built up to 7ft high. In each shoebox a child has recreated their bedroom and then written a sentence or two about their room. One child created a scrupulous, unnaturally tidy room, a sign that there is domestic violence in the home and that the child will do everything not to provoke trouble. One in six boxes gave rise to concern. Kids Company followed up them all.
‘It took a long time to get a home visit to the “tidy room”,’ says Jane Caldwell, Creative Director of Kids Company. ‘No one wants to admit it. The mother is terrified the children will be taken away. But we did get there and now we are supporting them all.’ None of this would have come to light without the shoebox project. Art allows a child to externalise their biggest anxieties – and joys. Once you make a shoebox or a puppet or a painting, the trauma begins to leave. Other people become a witness to what you have been through, and it makes the child less isolated, less afraid.
‘If you don’t deal with trauma it acts like a time bomb in the brain,’ says Batmanghelidjh. ‘Art provides a safe way to release things. The places that artists go, and the places where children go, are similar. Both deal with the dark and dangerous, but both also know how to respond with childlike joy.’
- 'Child Hood – The Real Event',
6 Burlington Gardens, 8 June–22 July. Kids Company in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Arts.
- Camila Batmanghelidjh takes part in ‘Redefining Heroism’, a panel discussion on 28 June. Kids Company, www.kidsco.org.uk.
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