Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage – the trauma of child abuse

Published: Insight Magazine, Namibia, August 2007

She’s putting the last touches of paint on a canvas in her small studio in Swakopmund, when I arrive. The walls and floors of the studio are covered with finished paintings, and the smell of oil paint and turpentine fills the air.

I am greeted by images of desolated and sombre playgrounds and am immediately overcome by a gloomy feeling. An abandoned swing seems to move silently in the cold south-easterly wind, while muted colours outline a forgotten seesaw that has somehow lost its playful appeal…

Rites of Passage is the title of the exhibition on which Namibian artist Silke Berens is working when I meet up with her. She informed me on the phone that she hoped the works would raise awareness of child abuse. They are an interpretation of Berens’ personal experiences with a group of children she worked with in the Erongo House of Safety over a two-year period. Silke is setting a positive example by becoming actively and openheartedly involved, proving that individuals in Namibia care and can and do make a difference.

So where are these children now, I wonder. Are the large images of the deserted playgrounds a bad omen? Further into the room, I discover a series of smaller paintings depicting strange and distorted beings that either look up as if confronting me or self-consciously hide their faces. I suspect that these are the children who are missing from the playground images. Instead of sliding happily down a slide or swinging high up into the blue sky, they now are pressed into cold, sterile rooms and their movements appear to be paralysed by my gaze. Even when painted in groups, they look lonely and isolated, scared and aggressive at the same time.

Silke puts down her brush and gives her work another critical look, before we sit down for a cup of tea at her dining-room table. I’m still trying to clear my head of the disturbing and powerful images that I’ve just seen, and am wondering how I can possibly write about this exhibition.

As if reading my thoughts, Silke gives me a clue. “My art is me. You cannot separate me from my works.” I trust that if I find out more about her, I will understand her work better, and understand how this attractive, young mother can come up with such dramatic and troubling images.

“It started four years ago,” says Silke, who has a Diploma in Fine Art and has since worked and exhibited as a professional artist. “I became interested in art therapy and completed a basic counselling course. After that, I volunteered my time and resources to give weekly art classes for the children at the Erongo House of Safety, an institution that provides a safe haven for abused children.”

“Although they have a safe home, nobody addresses their emotional trauma,” she observes. “I thought I could make a small difference by giving my time and personal attention, and allow the children to express themselves in an artistic and playful manner.” After two years she feels exhausted and overwhelmed. The children have no real access to the counselling they require. It is hard for an overburdened staff to provide affection and personal care. As time went by, Silke felt increasingly responsible for the children, and less and less able to detach her emotions. She felt that because she was not a trained psychologist, she couldn’t do these children justice with her limited knowledge and time.

Her involvement with the children, ranging from toddlers to teenagers, stirred up many questions and doubts for her. Faced with the traumatic physical and emotional wounds inflicted on the young and innocent children by their own families in a widely dysfunctional society, she felt overcome by feelings of helplessness. Not only does she question the general situation of abused, neglected and molested children, but also her personal role in this society and as a mother to her own child. She has become so much more aware of her own failings in the raising of her son.

She says: “My duty as an artist is to question what I see and feel, and to pass on those questions to the public. We should consciously question our role and responsibilities towards our own children and our community and act in a more loving and caring way!”

The young children in her paintings were forced to go through various traumas, which Silke sees as forced and violent rites of passage. They have lost their childhood and have nobody to help them understand and cope with this on an emotional or psychological level. They are forced to grow up and fend for themselves, while not having positive role models to guide them. Because the children have been stripped of their self-respect and trust in others, they often act aggressively. This, sadly, is the only way they know how to behave. Without proper help and support, they may never learn that the world can be a different and beautiful place, so when they are adults they have difficulties to relate to other people. If this cycle is not stopped, they may well become abusive later in their lives.

An alarming increase in serious child-abuse cases has been shaking Namibia in recent years and people are starting to address the problem publicly, like in the recent National Conference on Gender-Based Violence in June 2007. Hopefully Silke’s exhibition will further invite people to contemplate this issue. “We have to start looking at our own actions and our own families. How often do we act in abusive ways towards each other? Many seemingly inconsequential actions towards your child could be considered abusive. How easily we sometimes overstep the very thin and elusive border without noticing it?” she asks, contemplating her own life critically.

Silke concludes that there is no quick fix. Although money does help to provide material necessities for these children, she thinks people should rather give some of their time and love, starting with their own families.

© Imke Rust

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