'I want to show what I think about the world'

27th February 2009 at 00:00
Art contest gives teens opportunity to express their identity - and their feelings about 21st-century life

Self-definition is notoriously tricky for teenagers: it is the motive behind countless adolescent door-slammings and tear-filled tantrums.

But a new scheme hopes to help secondary pupils to express their own identity while at the same time examining their place in the world.

The Young Brits at Art competition asks them to create self-portraits that capture what it is to be a teenager at the turn of the 21st century. Like the time-capsules that past generations of pupils filled with personal effects and then buried, the aim is to provide a snapshot of their lives.

Pupils at Bitterne Park Secondary School in Southampton are among those attempting to capture their lives on canvas. "I want to express the world we're growing up in and how our lives take place within it," said Katie Knight, 14. "I brought in lots of pictures of my animals and my family. I aspire to be a vet when I grow up, and my family is helping me to get there. It's about trying to achieve the best you can."

The competition, which is being run by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to mark the 10th anniversary of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, hopes to emphasise a changing Britain. One in five British pupils is now from an ethnic-minority background. And children are six times more likely to be of mixed heritage than adults.

As part of the project, pupils are given a one-day workshop with a professional artist. Bitterne Park pupils spent the day with Janice Rider, an artist who draws on her marriage to an Egyptian film-maker to examine the differences between East and West.

She encouraged pupils to think about issues of equality and human rights that affect their lives. "Art gives them a freedom that maybe they don't have in other subjects," she said.

"They can bring outside interests and family life into their work."

Harry Fox, 14, agreed. "I've seen people experience violence, like gangs picking on someone," he said. "Will that violence affect how I grow up? I want to show people what I think about the world."

But Harry's Year 10 classmate, Corrine Toyn, 14, intends to show a broader sweep of 21st-century life. "I'm telling about the good and the bad things in life at the moment," she said. "Things like the credit crunch and the war over in - I've forgotten, where's that war again? Iraq, but also ... Gaza. So, whole current events."

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, hopes that the project will enable pupils to see the way that current events entwine with their personal lives.

"We want to inspire young people to see self-portraiture as a powerful way to tell us about who they are," he said. "We want them to reveal a little to us about how the next generation is starting to define itself."

Russell Tucker, Bitterne Park head of art, agreed. "It's a chance to reflect about who they are, what's important to them," he said. "Art gives them visual means to show their vision, their ideas, their influence. It's a time capsule: a huge bank of cultural, visual information to show what's happening in Britain today."

The competition closing date is March 25. Winning entries will be displayed at a London gallery this summer.


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