Aid Through Art in China

China has already spent billions of dollars on material aid for Sichuan earthquake victims. Now a U.S.-based foundation wants to help survivors through art.

ChildenArts305.jpg Fadhil Ahmad Qamar, 14, Indonesia. Tsunami survivors.
Photo: ICAF

WASHINGTON—Art might seem an unusual sort of aid to send to China’s earthquake-stricken Sichuan province, but one U.S.-based organization believes it's essential.

“Art is cathartic,” Ashfaq Ishaq, founder and executive director of the Washington-based International Child Art Foundation (ICAF), said. “It transports us out of ourselves.”

“We have a lot of experience with natural disasters, conflicts, and wars,” he said. “Sometimes problems with recovery, on the psychological side, are suppressed for quite some time.”

“We have art therapy educators who want to work directly with the children and some who want to train other educators,” Ishaq said. “I would hope to send a first team sometime in October.”

The foundation has worked previously on an arts Olympiad competition in China in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and Shanghai Cultural Development Foundation. Now, Ishaq said, it’s time to go back.

“The aim of our Sichuan ‘healing arts’ program is to restore children’s faith in nature, which the earthquake shattered,” Ishaq said. “They should understand the tragedy and their reaction to it. Art is a powerful channel for them to express their unspoken thoughts and fears.”

“When they start feeling comfortable with what happened and with themselves, we [will] then request that they create ‘encouragement art’ for children in other parts of the world who are also suffering. Such expressions of empathy are also therapeutic.”

Born after the tsunami

Art and other creative therapies are beginning to emerge in China, with a second international conference on the subject attended by local practitioners and foreign experts in the southwestern province of Guangxi last year.

State-run media and Internet forums across China have reported how art therapy helped the children of Pakistan in the wake of the 2005 earthquake there, and China has announced funding to set up psychological help centers to monitor the recovery of victims in the areas worst-hit by the Sichuan quake.

The Chinese government has already spent 67 billion yuan (U.S. $9.73 billion) on relief and reconstruction in Sichuan. Domestic and foreign donations have meanwhile topped 59.31 billion yuan in cash and goods.

In 2004, after the devastating Asian tsunami, ICAF worked with teachers and psychologists to develop its “healing arts program,” which used art and art therapy to help children in Indonesia and Sri Lanka recover from trauma. “It wasn’t something we planned,” Ishaq said. “After the tsunami, our partners phoned up and said, ‘Can you help?’”

ICAF expanded that program to aid young victims of Hurricane Katrina and a severe earthquake in Pakistan. It then also worked with the World Bank on a project aimed at raising awareness of the toll taken by natural disasters.

After Katrina, Ishaq said, “We had the same therapists involved who worked with us after the tsunami. We introduced the children to the healing power of the arts…Some children released their anger by depicting Hurricane Katrina as a bad lady in their artwork.”

That’s the program Ishaq now hopes to expand to Sichuan, where a magnitude-8.0 earthquake on May 12 left some 70,000 people dead and 18,000 missing. A disproportionate number of victims were children, many of whose schools were poorly built and collapsed when the quake struck. Aftershocks have rocked Sichuan since.

Other projects

Ishaq, born in Pakistan and a former World Bank economist, left the world of spreadsheets to launch ICAF as a nonprofit foundation with his own money in 1997, with the mission of serving as the world’s art organization for children aged 8 to 12. The organization now has other funds from private donors and foundations, but its budget is small—never exceeding $700,000 annually.

In addition to offering technical support such as art curricula to schools around the world, ICAF hosts festivals and competitions, as well as a “peace through art” program that brings together children from different factions in ongoing conflicts—such as Greek and Turkish children living on Cyprus.

ICAF launched that program after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, which prompted children around the world to send the organization their unsolicited works depicting sadness and sympathy.

Expert assessment

Recent research has found broad and lasting benefits derive from exposing children to art.

A landmark 2004 study by the Rand Corp., titled Gifts from the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts, cited improved learning, behavior, health, and empathy among children involved in arts and arts education, as well as broader gains for communities.

Ishaq, writing in the British medical journal The Lancet in December 2006, argued that arts education plays a critical role in building a more peaceful world—perhaps by stimulating problem-solving skills that can be applied broadly, such as in conflict resolution.

“The arts can aid a child's holistic development, especially empathy,” he wrote. “Arts can forge social bonds while supporting identity formation and cultural transmission. The power of the group transcends the sum of individual efforts.”

“Creativity can be learned and applied; it is achieved and sustained not with words or declarations, but through encouragement and practice. As a dimension of children's education, creativity development can transform the way children embrace uncertainty, exploring, adapting to, and eventually anticipating a rapidly changing world.”

Reported by Sarah Jackson-Han in Washington. Edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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