No one is as greatly affected by the violence of war as children. The most vulnerable population, children absorb the physical, emotional and psychological traumas of war in unique ways. Brian McCarty’s exhibit WAR-TOYS: Israel, West Bank, and Gaza Strip, at the Woodbury Art Museum through March 16th, approaches this phenomenon from its own unique perspective, re-creating the drawings by Israeli and Palestinian children with toys that he bought or found in those areas.
Started in 2011, McCarty’s WAR-TOYS is a nonprofit humanitarian effort to bring awareness and help to those affected by the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Since the mid-20th century and the creation of Israel as a separate Jewish state, Israel and Palestine have been in near- constant conflict, the tensions especially heightened as Israel contains many sites sacred to both Jewish and Muslim communities. The conflict has led to millions of refugees, thousands of deaths, and military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, causing civilians in these areas to be worried of constant attack. For McCarty’s project, children from both countries were guided to a “safe room” with art therapists where they were given a simple request – to share a story about the world of violence they had experienced. The process functions both to help McCarty generate compositions, and acts as a therapeutic exercise to help children make sense of the horrible violence they have witnessed.
McCarty re-creates their compositions with toys shot in the same locations depicted in the drawings. Even though the pictures are of plastic toys, the photographs can be quite graphic, preserving the feelings of fear and powerlessness experienced by the child artists. Yet, McCarty also explores the idea of resilience that children, through their mechanisms of play, can come to terms with much deeper tragedy than adults. Quite a few of the children’s drawings feature flowers or figures that are smiling even as they are threatened by bombs and guns. The exhibit includes 22 archival C-prints of McCarty’s photography, 18 children’s drawings, various toys, and a “safe room” installation.
Some images may seem benign. The photograph “Unseen Al Aqsa”depicts a Fisher Price-like male figurine with brown hair and skin standing in front of a pool in which the Dome of the Rock mosque is reflected. The Palestinian child who drew the original sketch expressed the desire to go back to the Dome of the Rock, a sacred location for both Jews and Muslims that can be difficult for Palestinians to visit. The photograph is made striking, however, by the figure, which is eyeless. Missing facial features are common among toys in this Middle Eastern war zone — they are often defective toys sold at steeply discounted prices from manufacturers in China. This eyeless figure sends a message deeper than a commentary on the commercial difficulties of a land at war, however. It also highlights the helplessness experienced by children in war zones as they attempt to reconcile their situations and survive.
A child’s experience of war often reduces complicated experience to bare facts. McCarty points out that to children, “whoever is shooting at them is the ‘bad guy.’” Though he interviewed children on both sides of the conflict, their drawings are extremely similar, featuring Israeli and Palestinian soldiers in the same roles as aggressor and often in similar compositions. The children do not understand political rights or religion in the same way as adults, but they can identify who is a threat to their happiness and their family. In “Arms Long Enough,” McCarty re-creates the drawing of a boy whose greatest desire is to have arms long enough to catch the bombs that would fall on his house.
Though McCarty includes several types of toys found in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, the civilian toys are far outnumbered by the militaristic ones. In 1977, Abie Nathan launched a campaign against these “war toys,” to try to combat the culture of war in these two countries. His efforts, however, were unsuccessful and these toys are still the most prevalent and economic in Israel: bags of green army figures can be bought at local markets, stores, and found in abundance in abandoned areas.
Though McCarty’s WAR-TOYS relies on the firsthand accounts and drawings of Israeli and Palestinian children, the child artists themselves are left unnamed — reminding the viewer that feelings of fear and powerlessness are universal. And the use of toys familiar around the world — Cinderella, Playmobil© families, and green army figures — invites the viewer to reflect on their own experience with toys, fear, and childhood in a way as powerful and compelling as the horrific experiences of children in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
WAR-TOYS, photographs by Brian McCarty, Woodbury Art Museum, UVU, Orem, through March 16.
Hannah Sandorf Davis graduated with a degree in art history with a minor in visual arts from Brigham Young University.