Socialist Worker

Children whose lives are caught in a vice

A new exhibition asks important questions about the way children are treated, writes Nicola Field

Issue No. 1934

The Train of Crime is one of the exhibits in Shrinking Childhoods

The Train of Crime is one of the exhibits in Shrinking Childhoods

THERE’S A bedroom. A cosy bed, storybooks, toys, pretty curtains, birthday cards. Look closer. The effigy of a little girl on the bed. Is she dead? Unable to move? Above her men’s shoes dangle.

In the doll’s house, figures are grotesquely intertwined. Posters explain that over 25 percent of all reported rapes are of under-16s. Shrinking Childhoods is housed in temporary buildings at the back of the Tate Modern, and is so badly signposted you find yourself lost in hedges and bicycle racks.

But persevere. When you arrive you will discover a condemnation of modern capitalist society—and a breathtaking artistic experience to boot.

Shrinking Childhoods consists of sculptures, installations, paintings, drawings, poems and stories by 1,000 children and young people, aged four to 21, in contact with Kids Company. This is a frontline charity set up in 1996 to help children in crisis from neglect.

Many of the children live without basic necessities such as food and bedding.

Some of them have been sexually abused, or forced to become prostitutes or drug couriers. Some are in “care” or have been in prison. You reach the “Crack Den” through a beaded curtain. Bottles, rubbish, dirty saucepans are strewn about. A man is slumped across a filthy bed. A vicious dog bares its teeth. Two children cringe.

Notices explain that children with drug-using parents are often given drugs to sedate them. When a radio journalist recently accused one of the artists of being “sensationalist”, she replied, “This is how I lived for years.”

Even if you set aside a couple of hours to visit this show you may still not take in its hundreds of details. I particularly liked the glass brains displaying wires, spiders and tiny obscured objects.

The works express traumatised states of mind, but as well as fear there is hope. Sparkling mini-worlds show figures at rest surrounded by trees and animals and a happy figure splashing in a swimming pool.

Lampshades beam with artists’ ambitions. There is compassion, dignity and a desire to survive and thrive and make the world a better place.

Many artists speak out on behalf of themselves and others. “This is art, no less than anything in the main gallery,” says Yinka, an alternative therapy practitioner with Kids Company. “The concepts are the issues. They are truths needing telling.”

Responses from visitors scrawled on the walls express shock and political rage. Disgustingly, Kids Company gets less than 10 percent of its funding from public sources.

Founder Camila Batmanghelidjh says, “The parents of these children were not long ago themselves such children.

“It’s no good being moralistic. The government needs to take realistic action. There is no one solution. Children need adults outside the home who will call the system to account. Anti-Social Behaviour Orders are like putting a plaster on a wound so you don’t see it. Children are criminalised before they are protected.

“A trip to the cinema for an adult and child is £10. That’s out of reach for a mother on £52.50 benefit a week.”

For my money, Camila and her colleagues and clients are the type of people who should be in charge of policy and decision-making on care for children. In any decent society they would be.

I urge anyone who can to visit Shrinking Childhoods, and discuss its contents far and wide. With an election looming, and a chance to expose the hypocrisy of the three main parties, we can and should take its message to the heart of our political campaigning.

Shrinking Childhoods is a free exhibition in the grounds of the Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 until 17 February. Go to

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Sat 15 Jan 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1934
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