Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Color, image and symbol: memory recalling the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait through drawings

Yvonne Pepin-Wakefield



In 2004 I was hired by Kuwait University to teach at its College for Women in the Middle East state of Kuwait. In addition to teaching studio arts, I grappled with the idea of how a shared traumatic event might affect the development of Kuwaiti youth who had experienced the invasion as young children. This inquiry was prompted by an exercise I gave to a beginning drawing class: to draw their favorite cartoon character or popular image. Several of the students in this all-women college drew Popeye the Sailor Man. When asked why, they responded by saying that as children they believed if they ate enough spinach like the cartoon character (who immediately gained super-hero strength by popping open and eating the contents of a can of spinach), they would be strong enough to force the Iraqis out of Kuwait.

Over the course of one year, I collected drawings by my female students that addressed three questions related to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait: What is your first memory of color, what is your first memory, and what objects do you remember being surrounded by during the invasion? The resulting drawings, done outside of the classroom by young women in their early 20s, were collected and analyzed. Visual results from this study revealed color, image, and symbol (CIS) patterns in drawings that represent a select population’s response to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. A report on that work was published in the International Journal of Art and Design Education (Pepin-Wakefield 2008). Based on the results of that inquiry, I turned my attention to studying how young Kuwaiti men would respond to the same questions asked of the original women studied.

Most of the male participants in this inquiry, now in their mid- to late-20s, would have been between the ages of 4 and 7 during the August 1990 Iraqi invasion and February 1991 liberation of Kuwait. How did these young men view this period of time; and how would they, as young adults, recall an experience that occurred during a time in their life when they lacked sufficient verbal and reasoning skills to communicate?

The use of projective drawing tasks is common in psychoanalytic and art therapy, but I am not an art therapist, and the research was not intended to employ the therapeutic use of art. I proceeded in my investigation by asking study participants to draw or mix a color representing how they remembered the invasion; draw their first memory of the invasion; and draw the objects around them. The original study design, which called for me to meet with groups of young men in a controlled and timed environment, was not successful. The main obstacles included familial obligations on the weekends, unfamiliarity with volunteer activities, fear that their drawings would be judged artistically, and a lack of support from the educational system. Compounding the difficulties was that I, an American woman, was attempting to communicate directly with young men in a segregated Arab culture. So I was forced to broaden the scope and change the means and method of data collection. Art kits were developed for use in the field, and distributed by the Principal Investigator (PI), assistant researchers, and acquaintances.

Media were provided inside clear 10 x 12 inch plastic packets, and included three 9 x 12 inch watercolor papers, colored markers, quality crayons, a black indelible ink pen, a pencil with an eraser and a pencil sharpener. Also included in each kit were three forms in both English and Arabic: an outline of the drawing tasks, a study consent form, and a consent form for use of images produced in the study.

Fig. 1 – Blended colors. Fig. 2 – Separate colors.



Analysis of the data indicated that the dominant memory color in the male population was black (59%), followed by red (41%) and yellow (26%). Grey, orange, and blue ranked 18% respectively, with smaller percentiles given to other hues. Additionally, some respondents created a “no color” category symbolizing the absence of life because “the invasion killed all life.” One respondent also said: “I don’t want to remember it [the invasion].”

Some respondents used only one marker or crayon as their color. Others created colors by blending together two or more hues (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2). Some respondents wrote brief explanations: “Everything was black back then. It was a never ending night. I don’t recall a clear sunny day.” Others combined colors or used more than one. There was a consensus that black “represented all of the negative feelings that we Kuwaitis had [at] that point of life. Yellow was actually the color used to represent all of the captives that were held and tormented by Saddam and his men. Red was associated with all kind of pain . . . physically and emotionally.” Black as a dominant memory color was most probably related to the environmental disaster created by retreating Iraqi troops. Toward the end of the occupation, 788 oil wells were sabotaged or set on fire. Approximately two to three million barrels of crude oil, burned and unburned, were emitted daily during the war for over 300 days (KFAS 1998, 13). Respondents recalled not being able to tell day from night, because the air was choked with acrid smoke. Ironically, the last of these oil fires was extinguished in 2008, the year this study began.

Fig. 3 – Military equipment and personnel.


The participants were instructed to draw a picture of their first memory of the invasion and, if possible, to write on the back of the paper to describe this memory. Males ranked military equipment and personnel (Fig. 3) very high, even drawing Saddam Hussein (Fig. 4). While all respondents indicated that they had had direct contact with military equipment and personnel, several also pointed out that they had received additional exposure from television (Fig. 5). Analysis of the data indicated that the dominant memory images in the male study were as follows: 22% tanks; 18% respectively of the following—roads, buildings, children (playing outside); 15% respectively—Kuwaiti flag, soldiers, basements, cars; 11% respectively—fire, guns, or rifles, symbolic Kuwaiti flag, followed by smaller percentiles of images related to the invasion.


Fig. 4 – Saddam Hussein
Fig. 5 – Television exposure



Fig. 6 – Compartmentalized drawings

In the third task, participants were directed to draw the objects they remembered being surrounded by during the invasion. Male respondents often compartmentalized their drawn responses (Fig. 6).

Geography also played a significant role in participants’ recall. Those living near ministry complexes, government buildings or Al-Sabah (the ruling family) palaces or residences witnessed more military action than respondents who lived in areas of less importance to the Iraqi forces. This relation to proximity is noted in quadrant number one in Fig. 6: “The Jabryia Police Station — was across [from] our house and we watched the resistance and heard gun fire and bombs.”

Analysis of the data indicated that the dominant memory symbols in the male study were as follows: 48% included hand weapons; 15% respectively of Iraqi soldiers, cars, tanks, families or people; 11% bread, followed by smaller percentiles representing a wide-range of war-related symbols.

The Kuwaiti resistance forces are also mentioned in memories and as objects, and are depicted along with drawings of televisions. On the back of the drawing in Fig. 7 was written in Arabic:

The baby is me watching “Laila Wldeep” (old Kuwaiti play). Iraqi soldiers come into the house and watch this show. I see the Iraqi soldiers first as normal people. Now, I see all Iraqi people as ugly, mean. When I think about the Kuwaiti resistance I think about an old man with a beard, holding a long gun, and how all the Kuwaiti people were ready for Iraqis.

Fig. 7 – Baby watching TV in the midst of Iraqi soldiers

Other respondents remembered watching television whenever they had electricity and seeing images of the war as they were recorded. In many instances, the airways were commandeered by Iraqi forces to promote their regime. Ironically, one Iraqi document claimed that:

Within the context of the unfair media campaign against our country, the Saudi TV displayed two films shot in Kuwait. The first was shot from within a car. These are being used for purpose of propaganda against our country (Khalifouh 1994, 265).

What some Kuwaiti children were seeing either firsthand or on television was not supposed to exist, according to Iraqi chroniclers of that country’s invasion of Kuwait.

One major characteristic of the preoperational stage of development is the use of objects and images to represent words. The drawings particular to the male study portray a reality that they would, as adults, symbolize through drawings of events in their country that the Iraqi militia deemed propaganda.



In the majority of the male drawings, the males depicted themselves as being outside their homes during the occupation. The drawing in Fig. 8 is of a food line. In a follow-up interview, the participant explained that food distribution centers were set up during the occupation, and that for each child you took to the food line, you received extra rations for the family. Note that the pencil figure in the center is angry because, being childless, he/she received a smaller ration.

The caption in the drawing in Fig. 9 reads “Mother who’s happy about her son finally coming back—but she doesn’t know what she’s going to face.” On the back of this drawing is written:

Saddam usually fooled the captive and after torchering [torturing] them to the highest limit, using everything one mankind would ever think of . . . they would actually leave those captives to go back to their parents and before allowing the mother to [get to] her child . . . Saddam in person would set a bullet right through his head . . . killing them in front of their mother’s eye!

On the back of this drawing, the subject also scrawled, “In my heart I carry all respect and am proud about this history even though what happened wasn’t something delightful. . . . (I) am proud in being Kuwaiti (As we withstand all pain).”

Fig. 8 – Waiting in food lines. Fig. 9 – Saddam killing a child in front of the child’s mother.


Several written descriptions on the backs of the drawings also referred to the brutal practice of kidnapping a family member, usually male, and then bringing him back and executing him in front of family and friends. This particular Kuwaiti recollection is substantiated by an entry from the [Iraqi] 65th Special Forces Brigade records dated September 15, 1990 (Document No.65), which notes that a,

. . . government car carrying a group of security elements [intelligence], escorted by three other cars took a citizen to where his house stands and shot him dead in front of his family and neighbors. Incidents such as this were common throughout the duration of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait (Khalifouh 1994, 176).

Another document indicates that a group of Iraqis in cars and trucks “arrested a man wearing civilian clothes. . . . They shot him dead in front of his own house (Khalifouh 1994, 190).



The CIS patterns in my study deal with childhood memories of war and may provide clues into understanding the psychosocial development of a generation that witnessed a collective traumatic experience. A major theme emerging from a collectively experienced trauma is a shared sense of shock, horror, and endurance. Such shock and horror are revealed realistically in the drawings. The prevalence of guns and military equipment may be symbolic of the desired male abilities to endure hardship through the aid of weapons.



  1. KFAS. An Environmental Assessment of Kuwait Seven Years after the Gulf War. (Kuwait: Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences, Research Projects Directorate, 1998).
  2. Khalifouh, Ali Abdul-Lateef. Kuwaiti Resistance as Revealed by Iraqi Documents. (Kuwait: Center for Research and Studies on Kuwait, 1994).
  3. Pepin-Wakefield, Yvonne. “The Use of Projective Drawings to Determine Visual Themes in Young Kuwaiti Women Impacted by the Iraqi Invasion.” International Journal of Art and Design Education 27 (2008): 70-82.



DR. YVONNE PEPIN-WAKEFIELD is a practicing fine artist and Assistant Professor at Kuwait University’s College for Women. Her art work is exhibited and collected internationally. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Memorial Scholarship and her on-going research in the arts, psychology, and health care uses qualitative and quantative methods to present findings. She is also a regional editor (Africa and Middle East) for Arts & Health: An International Journal for Research, Policy and Practice. Visit her website at: www.yvonnepepinwakefield.com


Highlighted in Frontispiece Summer 2009- Volume 1, Issue 4

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