February 26, 2020
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An Ideal Of Innocence

Portraits of dictators as young boys force us to confront the question Malala Yousafzai posed in her recent speech at the United Nations: What kind of world will we pass onto our children?

An Ideal Of Innocence
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It is not often that the painting of a child startles the viewer. But this is exactly the effect that Annie Kevans 30 paintings of various dictators as children have. The simple water-colours which are part of an exhibition called 'Paper' depicting faces (some actual, some invented) of dictators as children—apart from Adolph Hitler, Nicolae Ceausescu and Saddam Hussein, the paintings use real archival material.

The portraits are exhibited in a simple rectangular space in the Saatchi Gallery and except for a list of the names of the subjects of the paintings in the corner, a veritable list of some of the world's most vile men, the room was devoid of any other clutter. Initially I backtracked out of the room and went to ask one of the staff members where the 'dictators' paintings' were, to which he replied 'oh you mean the boys,' and then pointed me back towards the room. This encounter in itself spoke volumes about the assumptions I had made before even setting eyes on the works of art.

All the water colours are very simply painted and it is almost uncomfortable to stare into the eyes of a youthful Idi Amin, an adolescent Saddam, a young Hitler, a teenage Stalin, a childish Pol Pot and a prepubescent Slobodan Milosovic. The collection is not so much about making faithful representations of some of the world's most feared tyrants but rather about the innocence of childhood. It is of course the viewer’s gaze that imposes onto each of the paintings a history, replete with gruesome and horrific detail. To stare into the eyes of these children is to almost stare into the future and at least for me it was disconcerting to hold the gaze for too long. Questions abound about what made these innocent young faces do the terrible things they did as grown-ups and one cannot help but wonder how one would have interacted with these children, knowing their future, if one had met them. With revulsion? With trepidation? With fear? With a desire to change them? With anger? With hate? With concern? People have of course always been concerned with the innocence of childhood.

The paintings reminded me of a photograph of the three young Portuguese children from the village of Fatima who saw an apparition of Lady Mary while they were out tending their flock. While visiting the immense complex that has sprung up in the town, I was handed a brochure with a black and white photograph from 1917 of three innocent and serious looking children, two girls and one boy. As I went through the line up of Kevans' paintings I could not help but notice that they were all of men. For me, perhaps the most important realisation of going through this set of paintings was the profound responsibility we have in nurturing, creating and moulding the environment in which our children are raised. Of course what these children did as adults was evil but the acknowledgment of evil as a cause is simply not enough. In fact it is irresponsible to talk solely of some abstract idea of evil because through this we devolve responsibility from ourselves onto others. Today, violent images of the children who are victims of various conflicts abound in newspapers, on television and the internet and in trying to understand these brutal realities we often look to the past without also keeping an eye on the future. No mother will want their child to inherit suffering and no one will dispute that in all the conflicts there are mothers on both sides. Is this not a starting point? The one thing this requires is that we shift the focus from ourselves onto the next generation. In other words ask the simple question: what kind of world will we pass onto our children? A question that was put to the world by a young Malala Yousafzai while making a speech at the United Nations.

The most powerful effect that Kevans' art has is of making the viewers aware of their own gaze. Of course the gaze is omnipresent but in confronting the stark reality of a dictator as a child, one is forced to interrogate the projection of one's owns views onto the painting. As the news of Trayvon Martin’s case becomes more and more discussed I cannot help but remember an encounter I had some time ago with an American gentleman who, I can safety vouch, does not have a bigoted bone in his body. During dinner he admitted that because of the way in which he was brought up he always saw African American people primarily through their colour, without of course holding any ill-will or prejudice against them. He first and foremost saw a black person. Having become conscious of this he tried to raise his children so that they did not view a human being through the colour of their skin. When his children were adults he asked them whether they saw a person of a different colour when they saw a black person and when their reply was no, he was satisfied that he had done part of his duty as a responsible parent and a conscientious human being. 

We all harbour prejudices, consciously or unconsciously and it is our duty to prevent these passing onto future generations. In his book I and Thou, the great Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber, raises the question of imposing our 'I' onto others. In other words he suggests that one should not view relationships with others as I and Thou but also view the latter as an ‘I.’ In today's world, what Buber calls the I-it relationship is most common, where “it” is something to be utilised, there are readily available pegs to hang all our problems on but it would be wise to peer inwards too.

Seeing the paintings of the young children reminded me of this verse by Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor who was also an accomplished poet:

naa thii haal ki jab hameN apnii khabar
rahe dekhte auroN ke 'aib-o-hunar
paRii apni buraaiioN par jo nazar
to nigaah meN koii buraa naa rahaa 

When we were unaware of ourselves,
We always looked for faults in others.
But when we saw our own shortcomings
Then we could no longer label others bad.


Ali Khan Mahmudabad is a PhD student in History at the University of Cambridge who writes a fortnightly column for the Urdu Daily Inqilab

Photos courtesy Annie Kevans and Saatchi Gallery. Click here for photos of the rest of the paintings in the exhibition.

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