A book of drawings curated by Ben Quilty shows the hope and terror of children from Syria.
“This was the worst moment of my life. It is too hard to draw.” This is how Youssef Mhanna, aged 7, captions his artwork in Home: drawings by Syrian children. The caption accompanies a text piece rendered in bright coloured pencils; it is one of the more than 250 drawings curated by Ben Quilty for Home. Under the banners of Threat, Light, Dark, Dream, Tears and Home, the children’s experiences, terrors and hopes come to life in watercolour, texta and pencil.
Cedra, 11 years old: “This is my last day at school. We hid in the basement the whole day.”
Aya Ali, 13 years old: “Syria is bleeding and the world is watching.”
Safaa Saleh Al Jasem, 10 years old: “I drew my house in Deir ez-Zor, Syria. I drew my duck and roses around our house.”
Home has been published at cost by Penguin Random House, with all proceeds going to World Vision’s programs for Syrian children, displaced and distressed by conflict. Home is dedicated to Heba, 6, one of the first children whom artist Ben Quilty met on his travels with author Richard Flanagan through the Middle East and Europe.
“Richard and I met [Heba and her little sister] in Serbia at a transit station where a convoy of buses would stop to let people have a toilet break and a little bit of food,” says Quilty. The girls and their family were on their way to Germany. Quilty began drawing with the children as Flanagan interviewed their parents.
“On that day, I asked Heba through a translator to draw her home for me – and she drew a helicopter gun ship with three little barrel bombs, a destroyed house and two bloody corpses next to the house. That’s when I realised that there was a big story to tell. I hadn’t seen a more poignant way of describing the horror of what the Syrian people had been through.”
Quilty returned home with nearly 600 drawings. With the support of World Vision and other partners and NGOs, Quilty returned to the Middle East to run workshops with Syrian kids. He and Connie Lenneberg (World Vision) developed guidelines for these workshops so they could be run in Quilty’s absence, and high-quality materials were provided to the children so they could produce their best work. The project amassed thousands of drawings.
“There were some places, like northern Iraq, where it was physically impossible to get materials in,” Quilty says. “We did get drawings out, but they were literally smuggled out, because the parents were terrified that if ISIS found coloured pencil drawings, retribution would be swift and horrific. And so there are no names attached to some of those drawings from northern Iraq.”
Drawings were being smuggled out of not only Iraq; Quilty received drawings from children locked in Australia’s offshore detention centres (none of these drawings appear in Home). Australia’s attitude towards the world’s vulnerable people infuriates the artist.
“I’m very driven by the sense of injustice that I feel for the way we are treating our fellow human beings at the moment. We currently give 0.23 percent [of GNI] in foreign aid. That’s 23 cents for every hundred dollars to the rest of the world when we are such a profoundly wealthy country. It is just the most ugly, ugly thing. It’s shortsighted and it’s greedy and it’s ugly.
“And if I hear another politician say we’re not a racist country, I’ll vomit. It’s just absurd to say we’re not racist. The ease with which we cut things like the foreign budget is directly linked to the way we deal with different people from different parts of the world.”
Quilty, who will launch Home in Adelaide on October 23, hopes the book will end up in the hands of those who need it most. “I think the most important thing is that people buy the book and give it to the people that are dubious about Syrian people, Muslim people or Middle Eastern people,” he says.
“I wanted to find a way to add a positive dimension to the debate in Australia and more broadly around the world. And it was about trying to humanise these people. There’s a little girl who’s drawn for this book, who now lives in western Sydney – and if anyone could see that beautiful little girl – that bubbly, jumping, happy, tiny little spirit – if they were to look in the face of that person, that tiny person, there’s no way that anyone in this country would continue to implement the harrowing, unjust, disturbing policies that we currently employ against the poorest of the poor on the planet.”
Home: Drawings by Syrian Children
Edited by Ben Quilty, with a foreword by Richard Flanagan
Ben Quilty in conversation with Lisa Slade
Norwood Concert Hall
Tuesday, October 23, 6.30 pm
Images by Egon Bérnhard