Colouring pain

Colouring pain

Amira El-Noshokaty delves into a spontaneous yet harrowing world of imagination, and reality

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Painting their feelings, the first published works of street children


"I don’t dream of anything in particular. I just wish someone could take me off the street because I’m so fed up with it." Thus Hoda, 20, a street artist who paints whatever gives her "a feeling". She is one of many contributors to On the Street, an art book composed entirely of the work of street children. The colours are vivid, but the eyes of the faces depicted remain sad; and there are hints of unhappy grown-ups, a flower side by side with an expression of bitterness. Aimed as much at giving street children an opportunity as at enriching the contemporary art world, the book is the result of collaborative work by Huda Lutfi, Kamal Fahmi, Mustafa Hasnaoui, William Wells, Nabil Samak and Sherif Boraie, and it offers glimpses of the lives of its creators, the stories behind the paintings as well as the paintings themselves. Mustafa, 14, relates how he would sniff glue and imagine he had turned into a huge animal. Things have changed since he used to sleep in the cold and search piles of rubbish for food, he says, thanks to the reception centre of the NGO that offered him shelter. Nisrine, 13, speaks of the public garden where she lived as her home — a state of affairs constantly undermined by undercover policemen who would take her in. "at night, when I am alone, I sit and think what if I get sick? I do not know what I am doing on the street, I don’t know." Rami, 14, who put an end to beatings and torture sessions to which his father had subjected him by fleeing home, was particularly responsive to praise of his work.

Bolstering credibility, the proceeds of the book will go directly to the Art Fund for Street Children, administered by the Egyptian Association for Social Solidarity. It makes no secret of the fact that those children who created are but a lucky few; for the vast majority, it is rather a talent for survival that remains paramount, and the book bears harrowing evidence of the brutality they face. According to a UNICEF study on street children in Greater Cairo in 2007, out of 191 street boys and girls, 64 per cent of the boys and 39.3 per cent of the girls were abused at home by their fathers; 78.9 per cent of the boys have sex with people of the same sex; 61.7 per cent of boys and 58.6 per cent of girls sniff glue. Out of a total of 167 children, 48.6 per cent of the girls work as prostitutes. Dawlat, one of the children included in the study, fled her father’s abuse at the age of 12. At 16, she was married for two years to a convicted thief, using a urfi (unofficial) marriage contract. On leaving him, while staying with a friend, she begged at the threshold of a mosque and found clients among taxi drivers and passers- by. She gave birth to an illegitimate child, was on drugs while breastfeeding her infant who has no birth certificate; its father was apparently serving a jail sentence when it was born — and, having handed over her child to an adoptive parent, Dawlat, over 21 now, is still on the street, caught up in the vicious circle of shopping sprees, drugs, begging and prostitution.

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