It wasn't until a conversation with final year MFA student, Amani AlThuwaini at her Goldsmiths University studio in London that I realised that views on marriage don't just form when you fall in love but actually happen long beforehand, sometimes decades earlier, in childhood. Little girls all over the world experience and observe the world around them and it is these cultural and environmental observations that evoke emotional responses that go on to shape attitudes towards identity, love and relationships.
Amani, a considerate, a softly spoken student explains as she showed me an array of her childhood drawings how she always loved drawing as a child. "I was a shy girl, drawing gave me a vehicle to express myself. I guess that transcended into adulthood and my decision to become and artist". As I look at Amani's childhood drawings I see much of the adult she became: the drawing of the little shy little girl on her own, the drawings of weddings, babies, beautiful colourful dresses, celebrations, family, joy. Amani has travelled extensively on her own, has recently married, loves fashion and adores her family. There is definitely an aspirational link.
Using these childhood drawings as a reference to inform her current work, she has created a series of beautiful prints and mixed media, peppered with embroidery; the golden thread connecting themes of childhood dreams and art. She hopes to go on to expand this project by looking at children's drawings from across the globe. Collectively the impact could be extraordinary in their revelations of respective societal values and influences.
Children are very transparent; they draw what they think, observe and feel. We laughed when I said that weddings never featured in any of my childhood drawings; they were always of animals. Amani went on to marry, I went on to get a dog! Amani's transgression of childhood drawings to adult choices did make me wonder, did the effect of my parents separation at an early age influence my drawing subject choices to reveal more than a cute bunny or cuddly cat?
Should teachers be more attune to childhood art in understanding and supporting their students, using art as a vehicle to deliver relationship education on the national curriculum at a much earlier age? Currently sex and relationship education starts at eleven, but if childhood drawings depict things such as the dream of marriage from the age of four or five it indicates such themes affect the psyche of much younger children and this ought to be addressed.
After all, it is from about this age little girls (and boys!) are subjected to the deluge of fairy stories and Disney cartoons depicting princesses being rescued by princes, rags to riches and happy ever after endings. The defining of gender roles and expectations also happens really early: girls are pretty, boys are strong etc and I'm not convinced it's healthy. Many little girls in the UK are encouraged to aspire to dress like princesses at parties, wear pink and like sparkles. Anything veering away from that is often frowned upon and can negatively impact on a child's self esteem. Little girls can be left disappointed and confused if they witness a contrast between the dream they are sold and their personal reality. Even in relatively happy households little girls can be left with unreal expectations in adulthood because of the dreams they were sold by Disney. Love doesn't come in a box with a pink ribbon. It cannot be bought with a pretty dress. What if a prince doesn't appear? What if Cinderella doesn't go to the ball? What if you look more like a frog than a princess? Where does that leave you as you are trying to navigate your first steps in identifying yourself as a young women and not just finding, but understanding love? I for one would like a refund.
I would have quite happily traded the dream of Disney for a more balanced and realistic story of compassion, understanding and the revelation that life and love are never perfect and that's OK; it doesn't come in packaging, it is a state of mind and an attitude towards yourself and others that reveals the truth. Fairytales are all very fine and good but they needed to be presented in a balanced way, alongside relationship education to truly equip children with the emotional tools to be well rounded adults who make healthy choices with understanding, patience, humility, respect, forgiveness and compassion towards themselves and others. That would be a dream worth aspiring to.