Sweet Briar’s fall semester begins with a powerful and unusual collection of art. “Views From a Distance: Contemporary Afghanistan Through the Eyes of Children” will open with a reception at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, in the vaulted gallery in Mary Helen Cochran Library.
The exhibition features 26 watercolors by Afghan children who are reflecting on their war-torn birth country while sharing aspirations for the future. Each painting is accompanied by a photograph of the young artist and a brief description of their interests, background and motivations.
“The combination of these photographs, texts and paintings allows a lens into the experience of growing up in Afghanistan and into the particular experiences of each student,” explains Annie Labatt, newly hired associate professor of visual arts and director of galleries and museums at Sweet Briar. “It is almost impossible to imagine what it is like to live without access to the basics, both those that are biological necessities — clean water, readily available food — and those that are humanitarian necessities — peace, stability, education, art. These paintings allow us to glimpse the joyfulness and optimism of the youthful gaze.”
There are graduations, landmark political moments and the hope for peace. But then there are also these: scenes of domestic violence and suicide bombings. “The darker reflections by these youthful artists are pervasive and potent,” Labatt admits.
The collection is on loan from Richard C. Colton, son of Sweet Briar alumna Margaret Howell Lykes Colton ’38 and brother of Keenan Colton Kelsey ’66, and was shipped to Sweet Briar from New Orleans. This is the first time this exhibit has been displayed to the public, and Colton wanted Sweet Briar to be the premiere exhibition location. Inspired by the success of his “Women of the World” exhibit, Colton laid the groundwork for this show when he co-founded the first formal art school in Kabul in 2004: the Center for Contemporary Art Afghanistan. It all began with the instruction of about 30 women and their children, he writes in the foreword to the catalog that accompanies “Views from a Distance.” Soon, transportation provided by the CCAA allowed many more children from local schools to attend the center.
Today, the school hosts workshops, discussions, presentations and seminars led by national and international artists. It’s important work, Labatt says, especially considering a recent UNICEF study reported in the New York Times, which revealed that the percentage of Afghan children who don’t attend school has increased from 40 to 44 percent in the last few years. Sixty percent of those out-of-school children are girls.
“As a military veteran, a philanthropist and an art collector, I find the content within each of these children’s artworks universally compelling,” Colton writes. “Nestled between their personal aspirations and dreams for their country lies a heart-wrenching desire for what many first-world dwellers consider ‘normal’ rights: access to education, equality between men and women, and a nurturing environment safe from violence and war.”
The exhibition will include a pamphlet containing an interview with Colton, a graduate of Washington and Lee University, as well as a suggested list of related readings, Labatt says. In her third week at Sweet Briar, Labatt is building on the work of Dean Lynn Rainville and Professor of English and Creative Writing Carrie Brown, who is also director of the Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts. A key component of the process was “finding the best venue for this moving and unique exhibition,” Brown says.
As soon as students walk into Mary Helen Cochran Library — a popular spot on campus — they’ll be drawn into the brand-new gallery just off the entrance.
“This exhibition will allow us to pause and consider the tragedies happening in Afghanistan,” Labatt adds. “It will allow us to consider the opportunities that the CCAA has allowed these young people — a chance to reflect, in a safe haven, upon the difficulties of their war-torn world, one which may feel far away from the sanctuary of Sweet Briar, but is actually very much part of our world and deserves our attention.”
Regular library hours are 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, 1-6 p.m. Saturday and 2 to 11 p.m. Sunday. For more information, email Labatt at email@example.com.