Because everyone starts out little
When Anthony Asael asked a class of schoolchildren in Colombia how they would represent the concept of freedom, one boy ran out the room, ripped off his shirt and jumped from a small jetty into the river, providing just one of the stunning images captured by Asael and his partner for their exhibition Art in All of Us, which opens next week in Antwerp after its recent run in Brussels.
Children from across the world bring messages about their lives in a colourful, engaging exhibition
Over a period of five years, Brussels-born Asael and Madagascan-born Stéphanie Rabemiafara visited 192 countries (all the ones recognised by the United Nations), 310 schools and 18,400 children, taking vivid photographs en route and commissioning the children to draw pictures and write poems about their lives.
Their mission was to create awareness through art from other cultures, thereby building a more tolerant world. The result is an eye-catching collection of photos, revealing words and colourful sketches. Comprising children's art from across the world, its purpose is to be understandable to children (and adults) everywhere.
"We wanted to give children an opportunity to communicate, to talk to us," says Asael. "They don't get much opportunity, and yet they have so much to say. Art is a universal language. You can show these pictures to any child anywhere in the world, and he or she will understand it."
As well as being about children, the exhibition is oriented towards them. Both colour and black and white, each photo and sketch has an explanation, but you have to lift a tag to discover which country it comes from. It's designed to stimulate questions, encourage imagination and fill children with a sense of curiosity about the world in which they live.
These smaller visitors to the exhibition, in fact, provide an insight into the way children perceive the world. We pause by a photograph from Afghanistan of a child walking past an exquisite mosaic wall, and Asael asks what questions come to my mind. Apparently, adults typically ask about the beautiful backdrop; children just want to know why the girl is walking barefoot.
Another shot taken in the Congo features a handful of children staring upwards with ecstatic smiles, prompting the question, "what are they looking at?". Asael reveals that he asked the children to imagine it was midnight and that they were looking at a star that represented their biggest dream.
The children's artwork, meanwhile, shows us their world through their eyes. " ‘Country' is an abstract notion for a child," explains Asael, adding that these pictures are more like presentations rather than representations.
The drawings are thought-provoking, indeed. I spend ages pondering who is who in a picture of a Qatar family until Asael explains that culture dictates older people must be drawn taller.
Particularly poignant was a sketch of a North Korean knee fight. This is a game relished by kids in the school yard where they have to hop about on one foot and try to knock each over. In a world where we had just learned about this country's attack on its South Korean neighbour, this was a sharp reminder that innocent children live there, too.
Reaching out to children in North Korea was also a logistic challenge for Asael and Rabemiafara. It took them two-and- a-half years to convince the authorities to allow them to bring their programme there. This forced them to apply the five principles (or Ps) they adopted for the trip: patience, passion, perseverance, people and positive.
Essential principles given that to embark on their whistle- stop tour, which eventually found some corporate sponsors, the couple sold everything they owned. Starting with a budget of just €7 per day, they slept at schools and orphanages and avoided flying except for inter-continental travel.
In a world that has witnessed several catastrophes affecting children in the last five years, not least the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods, I ask Asael if this was time and resources well spent. "Children don't need only food and water," he answers. "They need the dream, the hope, to smile, to create. Even in an emergency, our work is essential to raise the spirits of people."
To keep young visitors further engaged, Art in All of Us has a workspace where they can draw their own pictures and post them to children in other countries. They're also kept busy playing on a giant floor puzzle of the 27 EU member states with a super-size blackboard, and by photos that allow them to poke their heads through a hole and join a scene.
The exhibition just finished up at Brussels' Tour & Taxis and opens next week in Antwerp's Central Station. Asael promises that the bigger space will allow for even more activities. His hope is that, with sponsorship, his team can eventually take the exhibition to other cities.