WORCESTER — The eye is drawn to what’s unusual. With that truism in mind, consider a smallish space at the Worcester Art Museum. It’s dominated by nine large photographs and a slide show. The images are both arresting and unsettling. They show former child soldiers from the Central African Republic and Liberia. Yet what first catches the eye is something else entirely: a tiny flintlock rifle in a display case.
Simply as a piece of handicraft, the object is striking. It’s exceedingly handsome, made of wood and steel, with bits of horn and silver and some gilding and bluing. Yet make no mistake: The gun was for use as no less than show. Catherine the Great had her court gunsmith fashion it in the late 18th century. Yes, it’s child-sized. Yes, it looks like a toy. Yes, it’s beautifully wrought. But it is a gun, not a facsimile. It’s a weapon that can be loaded and fired and used to kill.
The flintlock is part of “Africa’s Children of Arms,” an exhibition of 30 photographs (nine of them hanging, the rest in the slide show) by the photojournalists Marcus Bleasdale, Robin Hammond, and Andre Lambertson. The show, which is a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, runs at the museum through May 31.
The gun serves as a thematic transition from an adjacent exhibition, “Knights!” That show is drawn from the Higgins Armory collection, now part of WAM’s holdings. The sheer gleaming gorgeousness of the many blades and gun barrels and suits of armor in “Knights!” can’t help but glamorize the weaponry — and what weaponry is capable of.
As with “Guns Without Borders in Mexico and Central America,” the previous pendant show to “Knights!,” the idea is to remind viewers of the real-world consequences of all this display-case beauty. Does that sound didactic? Of course it does. But such a pairing of exhibitions can equally well be seen as purely aesthetic. It’s wholly in keeping with one of the defining artistic principles of the modern era: Form follows function.
There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers worldwide. “Africa’s Children of Arms” is about the children, not the arms. This emphasis is brought home to heartbreaking effect in Hammond’s portraits of former child soldiers striking a pose, with fingers or sticks or planks as pretend guns. It was their idea, not Hammond’s, to be shown this way. “They all wanted to be depicted as soldiers,” he explains.
In a Lambertson photograph from 2000, the weapons are real and belong to adults — adults whose military presence is, for once, welcome. They’re UN peacekeepers. A boy (or is he a young man?) looks at the soldiers through a window in an International Rescue Committee center. We can’t see the expression on his face. Perhaps that’s just as well.
The facial expression of the subject is central to an untitled photograph from Bleasdale’s 2008 series “The Rape of a Nation.” A boy stares at the camera. The look on his face is equal parts proud, mocking, and exuberant. He also points a gun at the camera. Is it the expression one notices most or the gun? On the principle of the eye being drawn to what’s unusual, the answer is obvious. Except that in this context, it’s not.