This case study uses the example of Darfur to explore how child victims’ drawings can directly impact a conflict situation and its aftermath. In 2003, the Darfur region of Sudan became engulfed in a guerrilla conflict targeted at civilians. International agencies came to the region with a purpose of recording adult testimonies and, as a distraction, gave the children the serendipitous opportunity to make drawings with implements they rarely had. Yet the unintended result turned out to be more important and impactful: the children rendered graphic depictions of the beatings, rapes, bombings, burnings, and murders that they had witnessed. The drawings are not part of a coherent artistic project; rather, over 1,000 children’s renderings of the Darfur atrocities were collected and disseminated by two humanitarian organisations working independently in the region.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) was one of the first humanitarian organisations to begin investigating Darfur when, in 2005, their researchers visited regional camps. They kept the children in the camps occupied and entertained with drawing materials they had chanced to bring – until they took notice of the orange scribbled fires and red crayoned blood. HRW’s research quickly shifted to incorporate young voices as they encouraged the children to free-draw and explain their pictures. Abd al-Rahman drew AK-47’s and helicopters with the exactitude of experience. Nine-year-old Leila rendered a sideways stick figure with a red face “because she has been shot in the face.” The illustrations corroborated adult reports with the strikingly innocent visual lexicon of children’s artwork. Waging Peace, a British organisation that also collected artwork from Darfuri children, tells a similar story. Their researcher interviewed women about sexual violence, but the women encouraged her to include the children. When she asked young refugees to draw both their memories and their hopes for the future, they created illustrations littered with images of death and destruction.
The powerful images inspired each organisation to undertake an international awareness and grass-roots activism campaign. This was unprecedented for HRW, whose mandate is to conduct policy-focused research and advocacy. Both organisations curated exhibitions of drawings and testimonies that toured internationally and the drawings quickly became a sensation. Waging Peace even founded a programme called ‘Drawing Inspiration,’ which allowed global audiences to directly respond to the Darfuri refugee community by sending back their own drawings of hope and solidarity.
In some ways, these two projects recall the conflict and disaster-relief work of UNICEF. UNICEF often partners with local aid organisations to establish ‘psychosocial support centres’ where drawing, theatre, storytelling, and sport are used to help traumatized children express their feelings and boost their self-esteem. The organisation has established programmes worldwide, including in Darfur, Sudan. Yet unlike HRW and Waging Peace, UNICEF rarely publicises the artwork produced in their programmes.
The drawings became a successful tool for informing the global public and inciting activism. Human Rights Watch and Waging Peace’s exhibitions travelled throughout North America, Europe, and South Africa. The images proliferated across the internet and were reported on by hundreds of media outlets, such as The New York Times, The Independent, The Times, Slate Magazine, Le Monde, BBC, CNN, Public Broadcasting Service [US], and National Public Radio [US], and thus drew the largest media appeal in the history of HRW. The renderings also became key visuals in the greater “Save Darfur” movement as they were used in advocacy efforts and fundraising campaigns. Children’s drawings furthermore allowed aid organisations to side-step the common issue of using potentially demeaning imagery of so-called victims. Instead of campaigning with voyeuristic photos of suffering individuals, the drawings allowed the Darfuri children to have agency and communicate their own situation.
The story of the drawings also exemplifies art’s healing capacity. Though HRW and Waging Peace did not set out to establish rehabilitative programs like UNICEF had done, both organisations acknowledged that drawing had a therapeutic effect on the children. In addition to confronting their experiences, Waging Peace’s ‘Drawing Inspiration’ letter exchange made the children feel as if they had a voice and had support coming from others around the globe. Moreover, the children were told how their illustrations became part of international awareness campaigns and the International Criminal Court proceedings. After being victimized, homeless, and stateless, the knowledge of what their drawings had achieved re-empowered the children with a sense of accomplishment.
Finally, the Darfur drawings pose an interesting question of the legitimacy of art as legal evidence. Waging Peace submitted their dossier of drawings as evidence during the International Criminal Court’s investigation and prosecution of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and other government officials. Thus far, the drawings have been limited to contextual evidence. Ultimately, the numerous ways that the Darfuri children’s drawings have influenced the larger conflict informs us on how ‘victim art’ can be strategically utilised in future conflict situations.
by Julia Guren, Culture+Conflict
BBC – Related Article
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Human Rights Watch – Darfur Drawn Website
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New York Times – Related Article
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) – Related Article
Slate Magazine – Related Article
Waging Peace – Drawings from Darfur
Waging Peace – Drawing Inspiration Education Pack
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