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Articles > Art providing income and therapy for Cambodian children

Oct 3, 2009
posted by Sean-Kirkpatrick

Updated October 2, 2009 12:11:26

In the fight against poverty and crime in Cambodia, a grassroots non-government organisation has taken up a very colourful approach.

With brushes, pots of paint and canvasses big and small, hundreds of children are literally painting against poverty. The children's artistic creations are being exhibited around Australia.

Presenter: Esther Han
Speakers: Felix Brooks-Church, director, Cambodian Children's Painting Project; Justine Carter, art exhibit attendee; Sakal, art exhibit attendee

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ESTHER HAN: For the children of a small port city in Cambodia, the idea of having their art displayed on the walls of hip art galleries around Australia may seem a bit far-fetched.

But that's the reality for more than a hundred children who are part of the Cambodian Children's Painting Project, which is based in Sihanoukville.

It's launched the paintings roadshow to boost awareness and funds.

Felix Brooks-Church is the Project's director.

FELIX BROOKS-CHURCH: Our whole focus is to use art as therapy and also as a means to get them off the beach, alternative income, and in schools with full sponsorships. And now we have 120 children in school.

ESTHER HAN: The subjects of the paintings range from elephants to monks walking in the rain to the very abstract.

It's also obvious the paintings reflect the children's thoughts and experiences.

FELIX BROOKS-CHURCH: A lot of them come from such extreme conditions and abusive households and so art is a way for them to get out their emotions. 

So in the beginning they paint a lot of very dark, scary pictures. Some of the ones we were looking at, they look like a skeleton boy with a smile, but just shrouded by darkness and another one with a face crumbling. I mean this is a child's impression of life or impression of themselves, who knows. 

But this is the beginning and you can actually look at the stages over the course of a year and the child might be painting that dark, kind of ominous picture, and in the next painting, beautiful flourishing colours of his culture or really how he feels. 

It's all about creative outlets; it's all about reconnecting them with their social peer group.

ESTHER HAN: When you set up this project, did you have any idea that 15-year-olds, 12-year-olds could achieve a painting like this?

FELIX BROOKS-CHURCH: Not only are they so talented, but they're self-taught, they teach each other.

Boh Siningh, just a little kid working on the beach, collecting cans, begging, and now he's a flourishing artist. He's one of the biggest breadwinners in his family by selling art. A nd not only that, he's taken it upon himself to teach some of the younger kids art, teach them English, he also initiated a bicycle workshop.

ESTHER HAN: A painting that is a stand out is by a boy named Sok Piset.

FELIX BROOKS-CHURCH: His style if very much like Jackson Pollock, pouring the paint all over. At first you think it's random, but if you look closely, it is a design and it is expressing how he feels.

What's remarkable about this piece and more so the artist is Sok Piset is 15-years-old but he is extremely, mentally handicapped. Probably learning and acting like a five-year-old. But he is able to create these works of art that surpasses, as far as abstract and impressionism, surpasses any other children.

ESTHER HAN: The Painting Project not only helps children be less vulnerable to exploitation, but it also gives mentally disabled children a new lease on life.

FELIX BROOKS-CHURCH: Unfortunately their situation's very dire, there's no mental health facilities, there's so safety net for children like this. 

A lot of times they're kind of thrown to the waste, they don't get a proper education and they actually become a burden to family that is already struggling because of poverty. And so they're often outcasts and some of the most poorest beggars are mentally handicapped. 

But what's impressive about him, he's actually the breadwinner of his family. We've switched it, and through this project, not only does he have an income but he has an income enough to support his entire family and he's an amazing, amazing strong individual.

ESTHER HAN: It's his painting that's the show stopper.

JUSTINE CARTER: What drew me to this was the light and shade of the colour. There's just a texture to it, and the shapes and the colours and the background is just, it's absolutely awesome, there's a life to it.

ESTHER HAN: And the paintings were even more meaningful for Sakal, who was born and raised in Cambodia.

SAKAL: You see some of these really, really good pictures painted by 10-year-olds, 12-year-olds and its beautiful paintings, sort of reflects my own story in Cambodia. And it's a good thing now that we can help these children out because I myself also an orphan through the Khmer Rouge regime as well.