Child Hood – The Real Event, The Royal Academy, London

Here is a story about a little girl… Her name is Alleycat. Perhaps you’ve seen her; she wanders the streets in a green hoodie with a little leopard who keeps her company. She sleeps in bushes and boiler rooms and hunts through supermarket bins for food. Her favourite is pizza, even if it’s mouldy. Alleycat has no home – what was meant to be her home was a source of violence and maltreatment. Instead, she curls up in the tumble-driers of drycleaners hoping someone will find her and take care of her. But again and again, she finds herself back on the streets with only Leopard to comfort her.

A maze-like sculpture maps out this past. Tiny figurines scatter a battered landscape and small hand-written signs point out an often shocking narrative. This is Alleycat’s piece, amongst the works of over 1000 other children and young people, exhibited in Child Hood – The Real Event at the Royal Academy. Works throughout this exhibition depict trauma and neglect through sound, text, bright paintings, colourful puppets, sculptures and costumes. Giant monsters in papier-mâché engulf entire rooms, creatures with lots of legs fly over imagined towns tickling people who are being violent and small athletes made using toilet roll tubes fall into a huge and tumultuous cardboard whirlpool. These might be fantastical and imaginary characters and creations, but what events, problems and difficulties have inspired them are more than real for the child artists exhibiting in Child Hood. Those involved are some of the 17,000 children and young people cared for by Kids Company, a charity founded in 1996 by Camila Batmanghelidjh, set up to provide emotional, practical and educational support to London’s most vulnerable children. In this collaboration with the Royal Academy, not only are the talents, honesty and skills of the children brought to the fore, but also, the incredible work of Kids Company and its achievements as a charity are celebrated. Alleycat’s piece is testimony to this: “I would like to thank Camilla and Kids Company” she writes in a letter attached to her sculpture.

Child Hood is the first exhibition at the Royal Academy where such a large amount of space has been dedicated to the artwork of children. The results are astounding, with works throughout being extremely well-executed, touching, thought-provoking, brave and powerful. The photograph of an intricately woven dress in brilliant colours is one exhibit, worn by the artist herself, 19-year-old Jessica. A beautiful face shines beneath her make-up, but a poem in the middle hints at a need to hide and cover up.

The children’s creations show us and welcome us into their worlds: worlds too often of unimaginable terror, where neglect, beatings, murders, stabbings and rapes are constant worries and realities. Each work is undeniably honest. Some employ text to express often heart-breaking confessions and thoughts. A large wreath made up of lots of leaves, each decorated by a different child depicts the hurdles they have each had to overcome in life. One leaf reads ‘Don’t kill humans – think first’ and another reads ‘There is always hope behind the stars.’ Next to a large, dark collaborative piece titled Brainbox Two, a child has worryingly written ‘I hate knives, I hate sharp things, I am scared of growing up’.

However, despite the tragedy, struggles and hurdles these children have been forced to face, many of them are able to take positive steps forwards, away from their troubled pasts. One artist is now studying for a degree at LSE, and Alleycat, through the support of Kids Company, is living in her own flat and has an unconditional offer to study English at university. A collaborative installation in the penultimate room is also triumphant. The young people involved are shown on film exclaiming positive statements about themselves. There is a sense of overcoming and moving forwards as they laugh, shouting out ‘I am relevant’, ‘I’m amazing’, ‘I’m beautiful’, ‘I can love’ and ‘I can be me’.

The final room reminds us, however, what many of the children in the exhibition have endured. Although the triumphs of Kids Company are many, there is of course still suffering. The Pink Room features a sculpture of a girl lying on a bed, her body cracked in places, beneath a hanging mobile decorated with mens’ shoes. This is a piece about rape, by young survivors of sexual abuse. It is difficult to digest. Along with the many other terrifying and heartbreaking sufferings in Child Hood, this is an image that lasts; her delicate body with her innocence stamped out remains ingrained in the memory long after leaving the exhibition.

Child Hood – The Real Event, 13/06/2012 until 22/07/2012, The Royal Academy of Arts, 6 Burlington Garden, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD.

The Tower of Cultural Mash Up
Photo: Susannah Ireland

Text: Claire Hazelton