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When Utah artist Trent Alvey visited the Asayo's Wish orphanage in terror-torn northern Uganda, she had only one question in mind: "How do people with such a terrible history and bleak future get up every day?"
The 150 children at the center were orphaned near the end of more than two decades of horrific violence under Joseph Kony and The Lord's Resistance Army. They had seen their families tortured and killed during Kony's campaign that enslaved tens of thousands of children. Alvey, a well-known Salt Lake City artist, fears she will carry a lifelong burden simply from having heard their stories.
She set out for the orphanage last year with a vague idea for an art project and a huge "black hole" bag stuffed with scraps of cloth, scissors and needle and thread. She had little planned other than the idea of turning the bag's contents over to the children and seeing what happened.
What followed gave her hope for far more than her impromptu project. The children organized themselves into work groups. Small hands took Alvey's scraps and began stitching and binding them together with raw local materials taro root, sticks, scraps of foam rubber from discarded mattresses to create tiny figurines that Alvey calls fetish dolls.
"They loved getting their hands on raw materials," she says. "They got it. No second guessing, just pure creative innovation."
Those dolls, created as a collaboration among many of the children, are the basis of "Touched by Fireflies," an exhibit opening Friday, April 15, at the 15th Street Gallery. The show also will include work by seven Utah artists, including Alvey, exploring the power of children to restore hope against Uganda's backdrop of seemingly boundless brutality and evil.
Horror lurks in the shadows • During an interview, Alvey holds the Barbie-size fetish dolls up against her series of large paintings the children's art inspired.
"My idea was to capture the gesture," the artist said of a doll with its twig arm arching upward. "Look at the gesture. It's fabulous. It captures the hope and optimism of these kids."
Sarah Asayo, whose family fled Uganda when she was a child, joined with two friends to found the orphanage five years ago. Alvey's simple project had a therapeutic impact on the kids, she says.
"The children poured their souls into the art that they created," Asayo says. "And it is something the children love. It helps the children emotionally."
But Alvey also notes that the dolls bound with twine and wire, some with the stumps of twigs poking through the ragged material, others with macabre masklike faces also carry a chilling element of horror, perhaps a memory of the brutality the children witnessed. Alvey calls this hint of darkness "the primal element."
Their families were the victims of The Lord's Resistance Army, a bizarre Christian sect that raged through northern Uganda beginning in the late 1980s, murdering and torturing adults and enslaving children, many to fight as child soldiers, the girls for sex slaves. Kony is now in hiding, but his legacy lives on in northern Uganda through the mutilated survivors, widows and orphans. The Asayo's Wish orphanage cares for 150 of the 60,000 children left orphaned by the LRA.
Endless tragedy • Most of the proceeds of "Fireflies" will go to the Asayo's Wish Foundation in Uganda, with direct donations to the child artists, and to meet a goal of making the orphanage self-sufficient. The children already have formed after-school clubs that raise chickens to generate income.
When confronted by a world torn with endless violence and tragedy, Alvey acknowledges that Americans are often paralyzed about how to help. "It's overwhelming," she said. "It makes you afraid to jump in. Certainly, there's not much one person can do."
Asayo says the impact may seem small, but it's important to individuals. "I don't have any misconceptions that I'll change the world, but it will make a difference to these kids. And I know where every dime goes. It's like a microloan project."
Alvey expected to return from Uganda overwhelmed, but says instead she feels optimistic. "After what those children have gone through, their joy is intact."
Fetish Doll Project
Exhibit and fundraiser for Asayo's Wish Foundation. The work of seven Utah artists will also be on display: Trent Alvey, John Sproul, Susan Beck, Jenevieve Hubbard, Lenka Konopasek, Steven Larson and Justin Diggle.
When • Opening reception Friday, April 15, 6-9 p.m. during Salt Lake Gallery Stroll; hangs through May 15.
Where • 15th Street Gallery, 1519 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Exhibit information • http://www.15thstreetgallery.com
Orphanage information • http://www.asayoswish.com
More local arts and activism projects • The Mondo Art Project teams with schools and organizations to give children a voice through art in Uganda, Cambodia, Nepal, Thailand and Peru. Future trips include Colombia and the Navajo Nation.
Information • http://www.mondofineart.com/mondo-art-project