The Sovereign Art Foundation, a Hong Kong-based art foundation that works to help Asia’s most disadvantaged children via the arts, is a rather unique organization in that it believes first and foremost in the power of creative expression as a method of healing. Since 2003, it has used art as therapy, healing and rehabilitation with children whose lives have been torn apart by human right abuses such as hard labour, human trafficking and sexual abuse.

Just last week The Sovereign Art Foundation flew two Hong Kong-based artists to Phnom Penh, Cambodia with its team to facilitate a four day arts workshop for the children of Hagar Cambodia – another non-profit working to restore broken lives to fullness. Every day, it works holistically with some of Cambodia’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable children – those who have experienced human trafficking, sexual abuse, drug abuse, or violence. It provides protection, recovery, education, economic empowerment and reintegration. But there is one particular aspect of a child’s healing that is just as important as the rest and is, unfortunately, often underfunded in charities and children’s recovery programs – that of creative expression and healing via art. The Sovereign Art Foundation seeks to change this.

The students were captivated by artists Tanya Bennett and Marc Standing, two Hong Kong based artists who led the workshop
A young boy working on his mask
A group of young girls decorating their masks


As part of the workshop, Zimbabwe-born multi-disciplinary artist Marc Standing and Tanya Bennett, a Hong Kong-based illustrator, spent the four days teaching the children about the essential processes involved in creating an artwork – from conception, to planning to execution – and explaining why it is vital to an artist’s practice.

The children created and decorated their own papier mâché mask, using a beautiful palette of fuchsias, pale pinks and turquoise blues. The conceptual phase involved the children thinking about the types of personalities they wished to embody in their masks, and they were then guided through the process of building the masks, painting them, and embellishing them, using materials readily available to those on a frugal budget in Cambodia. It’s a rare occasion in Cambodia for a child to be encouraged to freely create ‘art’ as the rest of the world knows it. Typically, the art taught and produced in South East Asian countries is traditional art or ‘imitation art’. Rarely is a young artist encouraged to ‘go wild’ and create as they feel, without taking into account the aesthetics or salability of an artwork. It was refreshing for the children to be given free range over what they were able to create – and we were pleased to see the children wholeheartedly embrace the project.

The children also collaboratively painted a large canvas featuring 18 empty masks, one for each child in the class. This was used as a colourful backdrop in the final photo shoot, and the activity was also designed to teach the children about the process behind creating art.


All the children wearing their new masks
One rather happy young artist at the end of Day 1 of  the Workshop
One rather happy young artist at the end of Day 1 of the Workshop


Once everything was completed, we invited the children to get comfortable behind their mask by playing freely in the schoolyard. The monkey bars, swing sets, and rustic play equipment provided a truly unique visual when contrasted with the colourful masks. Playing a local rendition of ‘Simon Says’ helped loosen the children up and bring out their playful nature, too.

A professional photographer was on hand to capture the children in their element, playing as children do, openly and innocently. The product was a fascinating series of bold, colourful, powerful photographs depicting vulnerable children who, with the help of a mask, were able to truly come out of their shell.

The children played some traditional Cambodian games to get in character for the photography shoot
Photographer Tim Downing capturing the personality of each mask

The photographs will be printed and sold at a fundraising exhibition in Hong Kong, with all proceeds to feed back to the Hagar International arts and music program. It’s a wonderful method whereby we use art to fund the arts – here’s to seeing the method replicated in impoverished countries worldwide!

For more information on The Sovereign Art Foundation and its projects visit