The Star (Nairobi)

31 January 2013

Kenya: Art Contest for Young Creative Minds

When we take art out of the academic curriculum in public schools, we cut the lifeline to our economic development. It's a bold statement, but Alla Tkachuk, founding director of the Mobile Art School in Kenya, tells us why she upholds this assertion.

Founded seven years ago, Mask is a registered charity that promotes creative thinking through art workshops and art clubs at 20 schools in the Laikipia and Naivasha region.

The organisation trains art facilitators, runs an art-for-peace-building programme and holds local and international art exhibitions and competitions.

Since the early 1980s, education within the arts has been either partial or non-existent in Kenyan primary and secondary schools.

Mask is a means for academic institutions, that don't have access to creative education, to expose students to the idea of culture and development.

Having researched this theory extensively in order to gain support from the Ministry of Education, participating schools and patrons of the Mask movement, Tkachuk shares her rationale for the school - to keep a torch for the arts burning in East Africa.

"We are not talking about art in the traditional sense as Kenyans understand it. It's not just about painting or drawing. We are encouraging the creativity of the future generation of Kenyans; that is an ability to come up with new and innovative ideas, problem solutions, opportunities and alternatives.

Using art to explore certain ideas, we create an entrepreneurial spirit," she says. Ultimately, the youth can create change and become visionary leaders. As Albert Einstein said, " The real measure of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination."

Referencing entrepreneurs and professionals who see the importance of innovative thinking and inventiveness, the most compelling of examples Tkachuk relays is a theory propagated by American Economist, Paul Romer, who she says, "has made a clear association between countries with the largest numbers of creative people and those doing better economically".

A professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University, Romer believes that economic growth only happens when people take resources and reorganise them in a way that is more valuable.

Tkachuk expands on this idea and relates it specifically to creative education. "Most visionaries and successful people, even Nobel prize winners, are - as research shows - profoundly visual people.

They are good at observation and imagination. The visual skills can be developed through the visual arts. The creativity, fostered through art classes, can be vital to the competitiveness of companies or the growth of a nation as a whole."

With the creative resources of almost 30 million youths in Kenya being underutilised, Tkachuk tells us that there is a problem in store for the future.

"If we don't use our mind's eye to communicate or solve problems; if we are not encouraged to think for ourselves; it stands that we will perpetuate our current predicament and things might never progress," she says. "Creative education is intimately related to culture, and there is no development without culture."

"Researchers have found that if creativity is not fostered, it diminishes from 98 per cent when a child is five to two per cent by the age of 25. We are not here to teach art necessarily, but to encourage students to build their visual skills and imagination, and understand the importance of self-development. We are building thinking skills, social, entepreneurial and leadership skills with these children."

Hoping to engage young people in visual arts, Mask has launched a national art competition. The Mask Art Prize is currently accepting submissions of artworks on paper or canvas (paintings, drawings, prints, collages, or works made out of recycled or natural materials).

This is an annual affair open to all Kenyans under the age of 25. There are three large prizes to be won and all shortlisted artists will have the chance to exhibit their artworks at the Nairobi National Museum in June and then Saatchi Gallery in London in September.

In line with keeping things positive, especially during the electioneering period, the artworks in this year's competition should be on the theme 'What makes you proud about Kenya?'

From Paul Romer's philosophy that every generation has limits to growth if no new recipes are discovered, Tkachuk and her deputy head John Githiri share the belief that visual art is a powerful way of contemplating how to match the different ingredients and come up with new concoctions.

New ideas empower the student and give them the confidence to become tomorrow's leading scientists and entrepreneurs.

Although it's easy to discard another art development project especially when it's hard to measure the impact of art workshops in the long run, there is no doubt that creative education exercises the mind and that dreamers by day seem healthier, happier and more successful than those who reserve it strictly for bedtime.

Imagination is absolutely more important than knowledge in that it brings progress - but more importantly, quality to an otherwise mundane existence. It prompts higher-level thinking.

For more information about Mask, and how your child or school can participate, visit www.mobileartschoolinkenya.org

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