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January 18, 2019

How to look at art: Art is not idle

‘Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I’, 1965 / Ibrahim El-Salahi
‘Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I’, 1965 / Ibrahim El-Salahi

Once, a famous African artist, Ibrahim El-Salahi, told me this story. Being a young artist in his native Sudan, he asked a homeless, unemployed man to pose for a painting. 

They agreed the man would work for the whole day and get paid at the end of it. In an hour or so, the man wanted to stop and demanded his fee. ‘But we’ve agreed for the whole  day!’ exclaimed Ibrahim. 

‘You are idle, but I have things to do!’ the man replied. 

‘The point is’, said Ibrahim, ‘in Africa, even a bagman feels more worthy than an artist.’ Teaching art in Kenyan schools, I, too, came across  the similar reaction: ‘Why do you  teach our children to  be  idle?’ some  parents ask me. Art is idle, they believe. Because ‘the value of the arts is not recognised’, says a Kenyan Institute of Education report. 

But art, of course, is not idle, quite the opposite. Children who actively participate in the arts are four times  more likely to demonstrate higher  academic performance, regardless  of  their socioeconomic background.  In the countries that consistently  outperform in math  and reading, schools offer extensive education in the arts. These children are three times more likely to  demonstrate  strong  leadership skills. Indeed,  Ibrahim became a notable  figure  in  the Sudan government. 

Art students are among the most employable: 90 per cent of business executives consider recruiting creative employees a priority, and believe that studying art in school is an indicator of an employee’s creativity. In the US, they even say ‘an MFA (Master of Fine Art) is the new MBA  (Master of Business Administration)’.   

Art  has a positive effect on young  people’s character, too. It makes them more resilient, resourceful, persistent, open-minded, motivated and confident. It fosters an appreciation for cultural differences. Art makes the youth successful communicators. It enables them to understand and express ideas and define who they are. 

Why does art have such a powerful impact? Art teaches us to think creatively, i.e., to generate new ideas, opportunities and value. High IQ does not make us successful; it is creativity that makes people to achieve in life. Societies that reach prosperity have  a high  proportion of creative people. In 2008, US President Barack Obama  said that ‘to remain competitive, we  should encourage young people’s ability to think creatively that comes from arts education’. 

High achievers  tend to grow up in creativity-rich  environment. In Kenya, only  two per cent  of  schools offer education in the arts. If creativity is not fostered, it deteriorates from 98 per cent of 5 years-old children to only two per cent of 25 year-old adults being creative. By limiting art in children’s lives, we set them up a road of disadvantage, stagnation and failure. Who is idle now?


Alla Tkachuk founded Mobile Art School in Kenya. Become ‘Kenya Patron of the Arts’. Contact Alla for more information on [email protected]

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