Prizes up for grabs in youth art competition

Alla Tkachuk shows villagers how to paint with water colours and brushes. Photo/Alla Tkachuk
Alla Tkachuk shows villagers how to paint with water colours and brushes. Photo/Alla Tkachuk 

What kind of incentive could inspire Kenyan schools to start teaching art irrespective of the fact that the subject was taken out of the national curriculum in 2003?

That was the question Alla Tkachuk, founding director of the Mobile Art Schools in Kenya, MASK, asked of several teachers she met while running one of her art workshops for Kenyan youth in the Rift Valley.

“Cash incentives,” they all replied. “We want to see a national art competition held that has cash prizes for our students and prizes for our schools as well.”

That is how Tkachuk says the 013 MASK Art Prize, a Kenyan Art Competition was born.

It took her some time to organise the funding and get friends like the Saatchi Gallery in London and the Nairobi National Museum to agree to serve as venues where the winning artwork will be exhibited once the winners are announced on June 11 this year.

The competition is open to all young Kenyans (including those in the diaspora) who are 25 years old or younger. And the prizes include three cash prizes worth Sh55,000 each, plus one winning school will receive a year’s supply of art materials worth Sh100,000.

The first prize winner will also get a trip to London to visit art galleries, museums and art schools where he or she will meet artists from all over the UK and the world.

All of the submissions by Kenyan youth must be sent to the Elsemere Centre in Naivasha by May 1st. Further details may be found at the MASK website,­art-prize.

The MASK Art Prize isn’t Tkachuk’s first initiative to promote art among Kenyan youth. She has been running her Mobile Art School project since 2006.

Initially, sharing her artistic skills with Kenyan children was just a spontaneous gesture to repay Maasai elders who had allowed her to stay and paint in their village for several weeks.

A professional artist who has exhibited in places like London’s National Portrait Gallery prior to coming to Kenya with a specific agenda in mind, Tkachuk initially just wanted a chance to paint portraits of the nomadic peoples of Kenya, specifically the Maasai, Samburu and Turkana.

But upon being received so warmly by the Maasai, she realised the one thing she could share as a way of reciprocating their kindness was to show their children how to paint.

But what actually inspired her to set up her Mobile Art School in 2006 was the discovery that there was no art education in Kenya’s state schools.

“Knowing how important an early exposure to the arts can be for children, I felt I had to do something,” said Tkuchak who feels keenly that there is a direct correlation between children’s art education and the cultivation of creativity, imagination and critical, independent thinking among youth.

Appalled that Kenya’s national curriculum doesn’t share her view that “art is fundamental to human development,” she started MASK by going to rural schools and offering to give day or half-day art workshops to students.

“Invariably, I got a positive response and an invitation to come back anytime,” she says.

But her workshops were rather ad hoc until she got introduced to Professor Frances Apolis, director of the Center for Conflict Resolution. After that, her mobile art school got more focused on the theme of ‘peace-building through art.’

Dr Apolis encouraged her to work in what she calls ‘conflict prone areas’ such that she now teaches mainly in rural Rift Valley schools in and around Laikipia.

The initiative has paid off in the sense that she’s managed to take Kenyan children’s art for exhibitions everywhere from Paris and the UNESCO headquarters to the Kenyan Embassy in Washington, DC.

Tkachuk’s hope is the MASK Art Prize will not just inspire Kenyan youth to get involved. “I also hope the prize will wake the government up to the value of promoting art education in state schools.”