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"For child soldiers, a chance to wield brushes, not arms"

Posted: Thursday, 21 May 2009, New York | UNODC

"Welcome to Gulu" project.

"Welcome to Gulu", an exhibition curated by acclaimed American artist Ross Bleckner on behalf of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Criminal Court's Trust Fund for Victims opened at the prestigious Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York on Friday, 15 May and will be running until Saturday, 13 June.

Lehmann Maupin Gallery is located at 540 West 26th Street in Manhattan, and gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10 am to 6pm. The exhibition is made up of over 100 paintings created by former child soldiers and abducted girls from Gulu, Uganda.

The New York Times has described the paintings as "luminous" (see "For Child Soldiers, a Chance to Wield Brushes, Not Arms," by Randy Kennedy, New York Times, 28 April 2009). Proceeds raised by the sale of the children's paintings, as well as portraits taken by Bleckner, will benefit former child soldiers and abducted girls.

In recent years, Gulu and other areas of Northern Uganda have been plagued by rebel groups abducting, recruiting and conscripting thousands of children, forcing boys to be killers and girls to be sexual slaves.

"Welcome to Gulu" project.


In January 2009, Bleckner joined UNODC and the International Criminal Court Trust Fund for Victims on an official mission to Gulu, assisting in the rehabilitation of former child soldiers and abducted girls through art therapy.

Bleckner conducted a workshop for the children, many of them orphans, encouraging them to come to terms with their past through artistic expression. On 23 May, thirty of the children's paintings will be exhibited for one month at renowned fashion designer Donna Karan's Urban Zen Foundation shop in Sag Harbor, New York, after which it goes on display in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.

"Welcome to Gulu", was first unveiled on 12 May at UN Headquarters, as a one night only show, where Academy Award winning actor Nicolas Cage, and a host of celebrities, including Donna Karan, Alec Baldwin, Calvin Klein, Famke Janssen, Joy Behar, joined Secretary-General BAN Ki-Moon and Under-Secretary-General Costa in honouring Mr. Bleckner.

Ross Bleckner with kids painting during the UNODC Gulu Mission (Credit: Anna Rosario Kennedy | UNODC)

Mr. Bleckner was recently appointed UNODC Goodwill Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking, marking the first time that the honour has been bestowed on an artist. As a UNODC Goodwill Ambassador, Bleckner's duties include advocacy on behalf of victims of human trafficking and other crimes.

Ross Bleckner first came to international prominence in the 1980's with his abstract paintings. His work has been exhibited in esteemed collections throughout the world, including: The Guggenheim, MoMA, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

For the past 20 years, he has taught Studio Art at leading institutions (currently at New York University's Steinhardt School). An early supporter of AIDS research, Bleckner has been a board member of ACRIA (AIDS Community Research Initiative of America) since its founding, and spent more than a decade as its President.


The project

The "Welcome to Gulu" project was organized and directed by Simone Monasebian, Chief of UNODC's New York Office, and assisted by UNODC New York Office Criminal Justice Officer Anna Rosario Kennedy.

"Welcome to Gulu" project.

The initiative is one of several projects undertaken by the UNODC's office in New York. In September 2007, the office in partnership with the NGO, "Equality Now," brought "Trade", the first feature film to premiere at the UN, to UN Headquarters.

The office commissioned technicians from Robert De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival to build a one night only movie theatre in the Trusteeship Council Chamber for the premiere. Starring Academy award winning actor Kevin Kline, "Trade" featured a human trafficking storyline.

In October 2007, UNODC's New York Office brought a photographic exhibition on human trafficking featuring the work of Howard G. Buffett to the Visitor's Gallery, and in September this year, the UNODC's New York Office will bring Academy Award Emma Thompson's virtual sex trafficking experience, "The Journey", to the entrance of Manhattan's Central Park.

"Welcome to Gulu" project.

"Publicity is the very soul of justice", reflects Ms. Monasebian, quoting British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Ms. Monasebian, a former journalist and UN war crimes prosecutor, told iSeek that in her first UN posting at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, she became deeply acquainted with the unique power of the media to incite crime. In her current post, she employs the media whenever possible, as an instrument to prevent crime and promote healing.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is the lead UN agency fighting all forms of human trafficking including: child soldiers, sex slaves, forced labour, illegal adoption, and illegal organ transfers. UNODC works with governments, NGOs, the private sector, foundations, the arts and media community, academia and think-tanks to combat human trafficking by raising public awareness, engaging in preventative efforts and enhancing the capacity and skills of criminal justice professionals and policymakers.


For further information, including on how to make donations, please write to monasebian@un.org.


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