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Peace through art? The International Child Art Foundation says yes!

by Jean Van't Hul
August 24, 2010

Ashfaq Ishaq

Ashfaq Ishaq
is the director of the International Child Art Foundation, an organization that nurtures children's creativity around the world and promotes peace through art. Join me in
learning more about how ICAF does this…

Ashfaq, will you tell us a bit about your background? What led you to
your current position as head of the International Child Art Foundation?

ASHFAQ:  I started my career at the World Bank where I
studied entrepreneurship development and later taught economics at George
Washington University where my research was primarily on productivity and
efficiency. It was not difficult connecting the dots to see the
importance of creativity for economic development and growth. From this
premise the significance of children's creative development arose.

At a certain
age in the creative lives of children, art is perhaps the most effective means
to foster imagination, ideation, and creativity. Hence our focus on children's
art.  Since no national child art organization then existed in the U.S.
nor an international one covering all countries, the case for founding the
International Child Art Foundation became compelling.

Mural making

According to your website, ICAF believes that children are innately
creative and empathic and that the world needs creativity and empathy to
survive and prosper. Can you talk about how you cultivate these qualities
through art?

ASHFAQ:  The power of the arts can be employed to nurture
individual creativity. Since art need not be structured, it sparks a
child's imagination. So art education aimed at children's creative development
can help a child overcome the socio-psychological constraints against
creativity.  But creativity is morally neutral. It can take us to Mars or it
can blow up our planet.  Empathy is the force (or the training) that can
lead to positive creativity.  The power of the arts can be employed for
the development of empathy like co-creation of art by children during the World Children's Festival (organized every four years in Washington DC by the
International Child Art Foundation).

Philippines (Bhea Vacio, age 11)  

(Bhea Vacio, age 11)

I understand that ICAF aims to promote world peace through children’s art. Can you tell us a little about why you believe peace can be achieved
through art? How is art so powerful that it can help the world overcome its
imbalances and prejudices?

ASHFAQ:  To build peace is the most serious business
in today's world.  Art can be deployed for peace-building strategically in
a structured program and only when the guns (which are far more powerful than
art) are silenced. Peace-through-art programs allow children to imagine
peaceful coexistence and to practice it in post-conflict situations. Through
art, empathy for the old or false enemy can be developed.  Only empathy
can counter the poison that has trickled into young heart from grandparents,
parents, and the media.  Children and young people can see that just like
artworks, peace can be co-created between former enemies.

World_mural co-created at 1999 WCF  

mural (co-created at 1999 WCF)

If you were given unlimited funds –whatever you needed for your work – what
would you or could you do (through children and their art) to make world peace

ASHFAQ:  My experience running the charity on a
shoestring budget since 1997 informs me that unlimited funds are a myth, not realistic especially in the current economic environment. If we had the support that we deserve, we could certainly expand our
Healing Art programs to remediate suffering, our Peace through Art programs to
end violence, our Arts Olympiad to grow imagination, and the World Children's Festival to develop global empathy. Since 1997, ICAF has touched, and perhaps
transformed, the lives of at least 5 million children world over.  But
there are 660 million 8- to 12-year-olds in the world and lots of hard work

Photo collage.20078 WCF  

I love the idea of your worldwide “Arts Olympiad” as well as the World
Children’s Festival that follows. Will you tell us a bit about these and how
you get children all over the world involved?

ASHFAQ:  The Arts Olympiad is launched every four
years and is modeled after the Olympics, but as a free program for any child on
the planet.  In the first year we develop structured lesson plans and
partnerships with school and school boards and PTAs in the U.S. and with
ministries of education, cultural institutions and art organizations in nearly
100 countries. The Arts Olympiad Lesson Plan is implemented in classrooms (as
well as orphanages and juvenile detention centers) and each entity selects the
most outstanding painting and digital art created on the Arts Olympiad

The work in the second year involves exhibitions of the art in
local communities dotting the globe and selection of U.S. and international
Arts Olympiad winners. 

In the third year these winners convene in
Washington DC at the World Children's Festival on The National Mall, where they
meet each other and develop a creative and empathic nexus for the future. We
exhibit their masterpieces in a pavilion set up right across from the National
Gallery of Art.

In the fourth and final year we take this exhibition to Olympic
venues. We have organized three Arts Olympiads and are currently working on the
fourth one.


The World Children's Festival, free and open to the public, will
take place on The National Mall on June 17-19, 2011.

Belarus (Katia Lazar, age 8)  

(Katia Lazar, age 8)

You see the artwork of children from all over the world. I would love to
hear your views on how art, art education, and the approach to art varies from
country to country, culture to culture. What differences and similarities do
you see?

ASHFAQ:  A child’s art is a window into his heart and
mind. It can be the most honest human expression. Since art and arts education
is not valued in countries where science and technology are perceived as the
only platforms for leaping into a prosperous future, the children in such
societies have difficulty freely expressing themselves in their art.  Some
do not have the basic supplies to produce a painting they would like or the
software and computers required for digital art.  On the other extreme,
children who live in luxury can unconsciously distort their expression if they
rely too deeply on images they see on TV, in video games and movies.

City of Our Dreams -mural by children at 2007 WCF  

City of our
Dreams (mural by children at the 2007 WCF)

Thank you, Ashfaq! You’ve really taken on an enormous and noble task –
cultivating children's creativity across the world and healing human relations through
art. I sure wish I really had the power to grant you those "unlimited funds" for your work. Since I don't, I'm going to share your message with as many people as I can through my blog.

Friends, there are many ways you can support the work of the International Child Art Foundation, from giving a tax-deductible donation, to subscribing to the quarterly ChildArt magazine, volunteering, or (if you live in Washington, D.C.) hosting an international participant during the World Children's Festival week.

Also, it would be lovely if you would pass this interview on, so to speak. Share it with your family and friends. Link to it on your blog or through facebook or twitter. This is important work that ICAF is doing. Idealistic perhaps, but isn't all the really important work somewhat idealistic? I'm glad that Ashfaq and ICAF have the vision to see the potential for art and creativity. As art therapists know, art can heal. Perhaps it can heal our world.

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