A century ago, the idea that children could create art worthy of public exhibition would have been ridiculed. Today, increased understanding of child development and psychology is helping adults take seriously the art of the young, and appreciate the window it provides on their world.
In many ways, children's artistic expression is remarkably similar in different countries and cultures. From the first crayon put to paper at around age two, an artistic journey begins. At three or four, most children start to form circles and other geometric designs, which lead to progressively more intricate patterns and renditions of objects and scenes that are familiar to the child: parents, school, home and homeland. But the flowering doesn't always last: Arqund age nine, free-wheeling expression often begins to give way to concern for precision and realism, with a resulting loss of the flexibility of earlier works. But each phase can be savored for its own distinctive flavor.
For the past 16 years, Saudi Aramco has sponsored a nationwide children's art contest, one of the first such events in the Arab world. "Muslims were once famous all over the world for their contributions to art, and we want to enhance our children's abilities in this field," said Ismail I. Nawwab, former General Manager of Saudi Aramco Public Affairs and founder of the competition. "The aim of the contest is to encourage our youth to continue that artistic journey, climbing new peaks of beauty, imagination and creativity." The contest is open to all children in the kingdom, regardless of nationality.
For people outside the Saudi kingdom, of course, the more than 67,000 young artists aged four to 14 who have taken part in the contest up to now provide a view of the country that is difficult to obtain from other sources. Using crayons, oils, acrylics, watercolor, silk, felt, beads and even rocks, they have depicted an enormous range of vibrant imagery of people, folklore, modern industry, desert life, traditional markets and calligraphy. Contemporary events—such as the war in Bosnia and the 1991 Gulf War—evoke especially intense emotions that show clearly in the artwork.
But the children's "vivid and positive works reflect their optimism even in the darkest moments," notes Muhammad Tahlawi, head of Saudi Aramco Publications. "Another striking aspect is the abundance of traditional themes in their art."
In a country that is modernizing at unprecedented speed, where children deal with home computers and fiber-optic communication systems while their parents remember the first direct-dial telephones, "the importance of preserving traditions soon becomes vital," Tahlawi explains. "At home and at school, children are encouraged to explore, recall and value their heritage and traditions, so scenes of life in the desert, images of old-fashioned craftsmen and representations of traditional architecture are more interesting to them than images of modern-day Saudi Arabia."
A nationwide advertising campaign announces the start of the contest each year. Teachers, parents, schoolchildren and preschoolers get to work in homes and schools across the kingdom. "The contest started because this type of art leads to an enjoyment of nature and pleasure in its beauty," says Sa'id Attiyah Abu Ali, former general director of education in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. "It has also given the kingdom's children a chance for healthy competition."
The contest is judged by a different panel of three internationally known artists or prominent teachers each year. Past judges have come from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria and the United States. They select winners in age categories based on originality, quality, composition, use of color and interpretation of the subject.
Each year, an exhibit of winning entries tours Saudi Arabia. Saudi Aramco is now cataloging all 16 years' worth of entries in an archive that will trace children's changing perceptions of the world around them. The company has reproduced prize-winning works on greeting cards and a wall calendar. Others have appeared in Saudi Aramco publications distributed worldwide. Permanent exhibitions have been set up in the Saudi embassies in Washington, D.C. and London, and temporary exhibitions in schools and galleries have attracted many local viewers.
Sharing the collection invites an international audience to join in celebrating one of art's most universal and creative forms: the child's vision.
Ni'mah Isma'il Nawwab writes on Arabian history, customs and crafts from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.