‘This Kind of Blue’ highlights travails of displaced Kachin children
“Some children say that thanks to the conflict they got the chance to paint,” says Kaw Seng, the organiser of an upcoming exhibit of paintings created by children living in internally displaced people (IDP) camps along the Myanmar-China border.
The exhibtion called This Kind of Blue will be on display at the Goethe-Institute Villa daily from December 7 to 18.
The exhibit is a stark reminder of the tens of thousands of people displaced by armed conflict after the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Myanmar military in June 2011.
As of November 2018, there are 105,500 displaced people living in 177 IDP camps across Kachin and northern Shan states, according to Ja Nu, Humanitarian Coordinator with the Metta Development Foundation. This protracted displacement has been particularly damaging for children.
“Children confront many challenges, one of the most visible is the lack of educational opportunities,” says Ja Nu, adding, “the lack of opportunities to do supplementary activities, such as sports, music or arts is limiting the full development of children’s capacities.”
Exhibited in Yangon for the first time, the paintings were all created since 2016 as part of an art therapy programme supported by the Airavati Foundation. The exhibit is organised into six thematic chapters: Flowers and Bullets; Holes for Hiding; Fingerprints of Survival; The Marks of Moon; Wild Grass; and This Kind of Blue.
The paintings displayed in each chapter are representative of the children’s responses to the six specific issues tackled by Airavati’s recent work in the IDP camp schools. The themes were developed through discussion with the children about their daily routines, fears and hopes.
The artistic sounding chapter titles actually point to difficult realities facing children displaced by armed conflict. Fingerprints of Survival is in reference the fingerprint signatures children give in return for basic food aid and school supplies. This Kind of Blue, on the other hand, is about the particular hue of fresh blue tarp roofs that signal the arrival of newly displaced people in a camp. Holes for Hiding references the roughly dug holes that serve as makeshift bomb shelters where IDPs duck from mortar attacks.
“After going through seven years of unimaginably hard experiences, these children are learning to deal with the trauma and express themselves through painting,” says Kaw Seng.
The aim of the exhibit is to transport the children’s voices outside of their isolated IDP camps, and to encourage the audience in Yangon to empathise with them. “It’s difficult but important to feel and understand what others feel. We need to be touched, be sad, be angry, and to see and feel others,” muses Kaw Seng, adding, “Every day of the exhibit is an opportunity to touch someone, and thus to impact the world.”
The Airavati Foundation established its art therapy initiative in 2014 to respond to the needs of children affected by the renewed armed conflict in Kachin and northern Shan states.
As the conflict entered its third year and temporary IDP camp schools became increasingly permanent, it was evident that displaced children were lacking a way to process the emotional and psychological impacts of their displacement.
The art therapy initiative has helped to address the emerging psychosocial needs of displaced children and their teachers.
Active in 19 IDP camp schools along the Myanmar-China border, over 3,500 children have participated in the Airavati initiative. To date, over 17,000 paintings have been produced. The symbolic, and physical, weight of this archive compels people to seriously question the ways that children’s lives are fundamentally disrupted by armed conflict.
The artworks represent a living history of the displaced children’s conflict-induced trauma and their hopes for a return to peace. Paintings from the archive have been exhibited in Myanmar, Thailand, and Spain.
Artist and art teacher Kaw Seng is a driving force behind the initiative. Hailing from the Kachin community in China, referred to there as the Jingpo ethnic minority, Kaw Seng grew-up in Yunnan province close to the Myanmar-China border.
She studied anthropology at university in Beijing, where her research project focused on socio-cultural change and psychological issues in the Jingpo / Kachin communities in China’s border areas. After graduating in the mid-2000s, she returned to Yunnan province and began doing art therapy work with children and teenagers who had been affected by drug abuse and HIV/AIDS.
In 2014, Kaw Seng began working with children living in IDP camps on the Myanmar-side of the border. “I met so many displaced children who have been trapped in the camps trying to grow up with trauma, fear and pain which are hard for them to express,” she recalled. “I decided to work with them and have been with them until now.”
Many of the child artists featured in the exhibit have been displaced since 2011, some have experienced displacement multiple times during that period. In the IDP camps, children and their families are forced to depend on dwindling humanitarian aid for their basic survival. But the aid cannot free them from the pain of losing loved ones and the fear of new violence.
The work of Kaw Seng and the Airavati Foundation aims to teach children to use art as a survival tool and as a source of joy. She explains the deep meaning of this exhibit for the children artists, “Instead of being marked as displaced and vulnerable people waiting for aid, through painting the children express themselves as equal individuals who have their own feelings and thoughts about peace and the future.”
Seven children artists and three teachers from the IDP camps will attend the This Kind of Blue vernissage. The event starts at 7pm on December 7 at the Goethe-Institute Villa (corner of Kabar Aye Pagoada Road and Nat Mauk Street, Bahan Township). The exhibit runs daily from December 7 to 18. Entry is free.