As you enter the Bleecker Street gallery it smells faintly of fresh paint. But the sight that greets you is a floor strewn with a few beaten straw mats and ragged blankets. This is the physical detritus of living through one of Africa's longest, most treacherous wars.
The Parc Foundation gallery is currently hosting the non-profit Invisible Children's exhibit on the war in Uganda, and the organization's efforts to help the victims of the conflict. The "From Darkness To Sight" exhibit is more educational than artistic, but it offers by turns chilling and hopeful testimonials of the conflict.
For anyone unfamiliar with Invisible Children, it is an organization dedicated to helping the children caught up in the conflict raging in Northern Uganda and neighboring African countries between the notorious Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government, with the Acholi people caught in the crossfire.
I first heard of Invisible Children when earnest young volunteers were touring the country in 2005 with their first film also titled "Invisible Children," documenting the phenomenon of the night commuters. These children walked miles each night and day to sleep in large groups in order to avoid capture by the LRA rebels. The story of the filmmakers was equally compelling: three college kids (Bobby Bailey, Jason Russell, Laren Poole) armed with video equipment capturing evidence of some of the worst human rights atrocities of our age.
In the spring of 2006, I participated in their Global Night Commute with thousands of other urban high school and college kids, walking a few miles and sleeping outside to draw attention to the conflict. Since then, Invisible Children has been busy writing petitions, leading visits to Congress, and setting up systems to support former abducted children.
The exhibit at Parc Foundation is an eye-opener for anyone unfamiliar with the conflict. One video focuses on "The Commuted" -- throngs of young children, some barefoot, some smiling in the darkness, all walking together to sleep in town centers, sprawled on floors. The images are surreal: entire villages populated only with children, defenseless and fragile. Innocent, a young boy who is a night commuter, says, "I will keep walking until there is peace."
One of the more curious parts of the exhibit is a black circle drawn on the floor, about 10 feet in diameter. Its meaning remains mysterious until you find a small sign that says simply, "In this space lives a family of eight." Those are the conditions faced by the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), sometimes forcefully relocated by a paranoid government fighting Kony's rebels. The camps they are moved to are impoverished, with meager rations and not enough guards to protect them from attacks. One man says, "It is going to be the total destruction of the Acholi."
Large photographs line the room showing pre-pubescent boys standing casually, some smiling, armed with sticks and rifles. A small plaque says, "Boys of around 13 years are the ideal: large enough to hold a gun and travel through rugged terrain yet young enough to indoctrinate and break into submission." The statistics are mind-numbingly grim: 75,000 children abducted as either soldiers or sex slaves making up 90% of the LRA. Just when you cannot stand the gloom, the light from the next room streams in, with cheerful music.
This is where Invisible Children showcases their various efforts: Schools for Schools, the Bracelet Campaign, Visible Children Scholarship Fund and Mend. The Bracelet Campaign assists the jobless in Uganda by having them hand craft bracelets that consumers elsewhere can buy, with the money going towards efforts in Uganda. Similarly, Mend employs women who were formerly abducted by the LRA as tailors and bag makers. A short film playing on a television introduces these bag-making ladies bursting with personality and guileless humor, who sew their names onto each bag they produce.
Marie Havens, the Mend Director of Design, gave an e-mail update on the Schools for Schools program, saying, "[December 17th] is actually the final day of our S4S competition where high schools in the US compete to raise money for corresponding schools in Northern Uganda. We've raised over $620,000 in just one month alone and all donations go directly to rebuild schools on the ground. It's incredible."
As for the ladies of Mend, Havens said, "we prefer to take a slow and steady approach with expansion." Currently, the program includes 13 women. Mend has plans to add more women, but wants to couple "growth with the creation of mentorship opportunities." Ideally, "we plan to take the top women currently at the center and train them to be future mentors and leaders of the new group."
Unlike other exhibit gift shops, the table selling Invisible Children merchandise feels oddly guiltless, offering those same bags made by the ladies at Mend, and awareness raising DVDs and T-shirts with proceeds going back to the organization.
In 2010, look for the feature film by Invisible Children to be released. The organization will also continue its programs, including those listed above, and the Visible Scholarship Program and the Teacher Exchange Program.
Though the situation seems a desperate one, who are we to be discouraged when the children in Uganda can still smile and dance? See the exhibit, visit the website, watch the movie, get involved.
The Parc Foundation exhibit is going on until Jan. 10, 2010, with teachers from Uganda visiting on Jan. 1.