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December 17, 2017

How to Look at Art: Mask Prize at Turner Contemporary: Art pioneers change

’So Much Potential’, by MASK Prize winner John Njeru, 2017, Nairobi
’So Much Potential’, by MASK Prize winner John Njeru, 2017, Nairobi

Last week, the 2017 MASK Prize opened its exhibition at a top public art gallery, Turner Contemporary in Margate, the United Kingdom. The work of the MASK Prize’s participants got shown, along with artwork by renowned artists British Phyllida Barlow and British-Kenyan Michael Armitage, as part of Turner Contemporary’s summer season titled ‘Every Day is a New Day’, The show celebrates the capacity of arts to pioneer change, to challenge perceptions and to empower society. It was opened by one of UK’s inspirational poets, Ethiopian-born Lemn Sissay.

British sculptor Phyllida Barlow, 73, has had a great influence on young artists. Her sculptures, made out of plywood, cardboard, plaster, cement and fabric painted in industrial paints and arranged in complex installations, challenge the viewers. “I don’t think about beauty in my work,” says Phyllida, “I am curious about other qualities, such as time, weight, balance, rhythm; growing or shrinking, going up or down, folding or unfolding.” 

Michael Armitage, 30, Kenya-born and educated in the UK, is one of the major artists of the contemporary African art scene. A former pupil of Barlow’s at the Slade School of Art, he is represented by the UK’s leading commercial art gallery White Cube. Painting on Ugandan lubugo bark cloth layering, removing and reapplying the paints, his powerful and lyrical paintings draw on his life in Kenya and challenge social attitudes and prejudices in Kenyan society. You can read more about Michael Armitage in my article ‘Producing Culture’ on

Exhibiting the MASK Prize in such company made me proud. The talent of young Kenyans can and should be shown in the league of such artists and at the great venues like Turner Contemporary. But at the same time, I felt concerned for the young Kenyans who lack the meaningful art education in their schools and an access to art in the setting of great galleries. There are dozens of public art galleries in the UK, and only one public art museum in Kenya, the Nairobi National Museum.

Alan Rivers, one of the MASK Prize’s principal donors, said the MASK Prize shows young Kenyans “the joys of creativity”: the ability to imagine, solve problems, bring innovations to the marketplace and build multicultural peace. 

The number of MASK Prize participants has grown every year. More than 4,500 young people from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa have taken part. This is great news. 

“Creativity is contagious, pass it on,” said Albert Einstein. Because  the solutions to our problems, whether food, health, fuel or environment, will not be found in bureaucratic institutions, but in our collective creativity. Art is a key component to fostering creativity. It raises our higher consciousness and agency. It moves us to action.

Kenyans have the right to creativity. Dismissing this right we are reducing our chance to survive and succeed. As Kenyan visionary Dr Manu Chandaria noted at the MASK Prize Award in Nairobi, “Survival in the 21st century will be difficult and without creativity, it is not possible”.

The 2017 MASK Prize exhibition at Turner Contemporary will be opened until September 24.


Alla Tkachuk, a London-based artist, is the Founder of the MASK Prize. To support the MASK Prize to ensure it continues to ignite creativity of young people, contact Alla on [email protected]

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