The re-birth of art with social themes in Kenya

MASK founder Alla Tkachuk (right) with Visual category first prize winner Paula Karanja. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

What you need to know:

  • Visual artists turn local change agents through advocacy and livelihood programmes and significantly demystify their work while at it.

Art with a social message is not new to Nairobi. For decades local artists have been enlisted to create artworks that reflect social issues, ranging from family planning and HIV/Aids to the IDPs of the 2007-8 post-election violence, the endangered wildlife like elephants and rhinos, and even the plight of Palestinians.

One work of art that earned Kenyan graffiti artists worldwide attention was the city-block long mural that Swift Elegwa, Uhuru B Brown and Kevin ‘Bankslave’ Esendi spray-painted just before the 2013 General Election.

The graffiti art sent a highly critical message to the masses about a myriad of political grievances and the power of Kenyan people to dismiss greedy government officials by non-violent means, namely their vote.

Unfortunately, the artists remained anonymous due to concerns there might be a political backlash against them. So Boniface Mwangi who had facilitated the work took most of the credit for the mural’s creation and social content.

Most recently, an exhibition of Art against Human Trafficking has been travelling around the city aimed at raising awareness of the global problem of modern-day slavery.

The show didn’t garner a great deal of publicity but it began at the British Institute, then moved to Kobo Gallery where there was a multimedia opening featuring spoken word poets and painters like Onyis Martin at their easels demystifying the meaning of visual art.

Sophie Otiende, one of the exhibition organisers, says the exhibition will be travelling to various university campuses across the country soon.

The multi-talented visual artists whose works are part of the exhibition include painters like Longinos Nagila, and Nadia Wamunyu, sculptors like Gomba Otieno and Onyis Martin, photographers like Mutua Matheka and Murage Gichuku and installation artists like Wambui Kamiru and Xavier Verhoest.

One painting that went viral on social media recently and contributed immensely to eliminating a bogus ‘Kenya Pavilion’ at the current Venice Biennale was a portrait by Michael Soi of the Chinese painters who were supposedly representing Kenya in an event that has been deemed the ‘Olympics of Visual Arts’.

Soi’s painting sent so stirring yet satirical a social message that it ultimately led to Kenya’s normally quiescent Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts actually standing up at last for the country and the artists. Hassan Wario, the Culture minister, insisted the so-called Kenya Pavilion be shut down before the Biennale opened officially on May 9.

But exhibitions with a social mission undergirding them need not have global or even national implications. Recently, local artists rallied to donate their art in order to raise funds for young slum footballers from Mukuru in Nairobi who attend the South B United Sports Academy (S.U.S.A).

The exhibition was organised in haste since the team, South B United needs funds urgently to cover their air fare to a tournament they have been invited to in Sweden towards the end of this month. Once in the Scandinavia, all the team’s expenses will be covered.

Last weekend at Kuona Trust, artists like Patrick Mukabi, John Silver, Mike Kyalo, Adam Masava and many others donated their art for the cause of getting these children on board the Scandinavian flight in good time.

But with few people having known about the exhibition and the artists —many of whom are new to art marketing — setting their prices incredibly low, they did not meet the fund-raising target.

So the artists, headed by Masava who has been chief organiser of the project, decided drastic action was required. To ensure the young footballers don’t miss this opportunity of a lifetime, they opened a new Facebook page especially dedicated to a S.U.S.A, Fundraising Art Auction.

“A lot more artists are donating their work to the [S.U.S.A] art auction which you can now see on our Facebook page,” said Masava. “We have been adding new artists’ works to the [Facebook] page every day.”

So hopefully, the team will be able to make it to the sports tournament in Sweden.

One of the biggest youth empowerment art projects open to both individuals and schools country-wide is the MASK (Mobile Art School in Kenya) art competition which just held its annual awards ceremony at the Michael Joseph Centre in Nairobi.

In all, around Sh300,000 in donated funds (from UK and American benefactors) were awarded to schools and youth in two categories, the first to those under the age of 13 and second, to young artists under the age of 25.

MASK was founded by Alla Tkachuk, a Russian-born British artist who came to Kenya several years ago and was struck by the way art and creativity were not being taught in schools.

Seeing the craze among Kenyan youth for avenues and outlets for artistic expression, she started MASK on a small scale.

Since then she has taken Kenyan children’s art for exhibitions all the way to the United States Library of Congress in Washington, DC and the prestigious Saatchi Gallery in London.

This year, six schools were awarded for their overall contribution to their children’s art education. They included primary schools in Lamu, Naivasha and Nairobi. Allan Kiptoo, a four-year-old boy from Iten, won a first prize in the ‘Under 13’ category while Paula Karanja, 20, a Kenyatta University art student, won in the ‘Visual Art’ category.

Alla invited leading Kenyan artists like Peterson Kamwathi and Cyrus Kabiru to help her hand out the awards and Stephen Kariuki, the Mathare Member of Parliament, to talk about the value of having art reintroduced to the schools’ curriculum.

In addition, she made a compelling power point presentation to illustrate the point that educating young people in the arts and promoting creative expression was good for the child’s social and intellectual development as well as Kenya’s economic and political development.

This year, Alla also included music awards which went to an acoustical guitarist, Hanna Nebiyu, 16, and to the rap group, Crew Teflon, which also won the music award last year when it was inaugurated.

On Thursday evening and Friday, a multidisciplinary, multimedia arts ‘Climate Change Conversation’ dedicated to ralising awareness among Kenyans about the environmental phenomenon will be held simultaneously at both Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institute from 6 p.m.

Organised in advance of the next United Nations Climate Change Conference which will be held in Paris in several months, the ‘Climate Change Conversation’ will include a professional lights show by the Francophone lighting specialist, Jean Pierre Nepost (who previously provided the lighting for John SibiOkumu’s play, Elements a year ago) and input from the German installation artist, Eva Meyer Keller, who has been running workshops for Kenyans keen on the art. She will also present an illustration of her art during the ‘Conversation’

The event will also feature Kenyan artists involved in everything from theatrical and spoken word performances to live music directed by Heartstrings’ founder Sammy Mwangi and George Ndiritu, founder and producer of the musical group Sarabi.

The programme will focus on our environment, including the destructive things we human beings have been doing to Mother Earth and what we can do in future to save the planet.

It will be filmed and documented by the award-winning Kenyan videographer Khamis Ramadhan who, with support from UNESCO and the French-German Cultural Cooperation, will distribute his documentary film to schools all over Kenya to broaden the understanding of climate change among the youth.

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