Terry Grimley reviews a disturbing exhibition reflecting the impact of modern warfare on children.
Four children who stopped to watch the reconstruction of a bridge became victims of a bomb attack in Afghanistan the other day. They were just the latest in an appalling toll of children who have been killed, injured or had their lives made miserable by modern warfare in some part of our planet.
The exhibition Children in Conflict, now showing at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, staged in association with Christian Aid, shows some reactions through art to the suffering of children in war, built around a commission for the specialist war painter John Keane.
Having previously occupied the peculiarly British role of official war artist in the first Gulf War, Keane now turns his attention to Angola. This is a country which has recently emerged from more than 40 years of war (the war of independence from 1961 to 1974 was almost immediately followed by civil war from 1975 to 2002) and is now suffering the aftermath of poverty and underdevelopment, along with the daily hazard of unexploded mines.
Moving on from his previous sketchy expressive painting style, Keane now combines oil paint and inkjet printing to produce monumental images of women and children juxtaposed with a famished land. The scarcity of water and education provide two subjects, while Keane makes ironic pattern-making play with the richly colourful fabrics in the women's costume, as well as the Arsenal T-shirt worn by one of a group of small boys.
He makes further use of decorative elements in a pair of portraits of Luis Samacumbi, a prominent aid worker who was in Wolverhampton last week to open the exhibition, and his elder brother Amaral.
The brothers have a strange story. As young boys, they were kidnapped by opposing sides in the civil war and became child solders, eventually being reunited 30 years later.
From an aesthetic point of view these paintings seem to me to have a problematic relationship with photography, having more the character of illustrations than fully-fledged works of art.
But such quibbles seem trivial alongside what they are showing us. Angola has a population of 15.5 million, of whom nearly half are aged below 16. Life expectancy is 41 and one child in four dies before the age of five.
Such prospects are depressingly widespread across the globe. From another continent, the death of one particular child, a refugee from Burma in a camp in Thailand, inspired Emma
Summers' Anatomy of Exile, perhaps the most moving exhibit here.
At first appearance, it seems to consist of 21 muddy babygrows hanging on the wall.
It's only on very close inspection that they are revealed as actually being ceramic sculptures. There's something about the contradiction between the rigid and permanent medium and the fragility of the subject that adds an emotional power to this mute and pathetic piece.
Photographer Guy Tillim's black-and-white portrait of eight children and young people undergoing camouflaged military training finds an unexpected counterpart in Monika Oeschler's video Strip, in which girls are seen stripping guns blindfold to the accompaniment of a nursery rhyme on the soundtrack.
The video was made at a British gun club where membership is open to children as young as eight years old. I had no idea that this would be legal.
Most of the exhibits in this show are relatively recent, dating from the late 1990s. But there is also American artist Martha Rosler's series of late 1960s-early 1970s
photomontages, Bringing the War Home: The House Beautiful Series, in which news images from the Vietnam War intrude in a hallucina-tory way into, luxurious domestic interiors.
There is an uncanny sense of presence, too, in Laura Ford's sculpture, Sleepwalkers, in which a line of five small children (though children with disturbingly elongated animals' feet) are swathed from ankle to head in pyjamas.
Finally, the subject of Anthony Haughey's projection, Class of '73, could be described as a found object. In a former Albanian primary school in Kosovo which had been occupied by Serb forces, the artist found a class photograph in which the face of each child and their teacher had been meticulously scored out: a chilling metaphor for ethnic cleansing direct from the hand, not of the artist, but of the perpetrators themselves.
* Children in Conflict is at Wolverhampton Art Gallery until February 16, Mon-Sat 10am-5pm. Admission free.