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January 18, 2019

How to look at art: Social art empowers individuals and communities

Alla Tkachuk (C) with MASK’s young participants
Alla Tkachuk (C) with MASK’s young participants

Art is not just paintings, music, theatre or great literature. There is also another type of art. Art that focuses on people as the ‘medium or material’ is called ‘social art’ or ‘socially engaged art’.

Social art aims to empower individuals and communities, to help them work towards a common goal or to encourage conversation around social and political issues. Grounded in the act of ‘doing’, this type of art addresses issues actively, rather than simply representing or describing them. 

Social art ‘does not point to a thing, it is the thing’, explains Cuban artist Tania Bruguera. The people’s participation is key: people who create the work are as important as the work itself. Social art results from the programmes of both institutions and independent artists. Artists usually spend a lot of time and efforts integrating into the communities they wish to help, educate or share with, to develop relationships and grasp the complexities of issues.

MASK (Mobile Art School in Kenya) is a good example of social art. Set up by me in 2007 in response to the creative education gap in schools in Kenya, MASK has been championing education for creativity as the strategy for advancing lives of individuals and nations, 

Creativity is not just artistic creativity. It is the ability to devise and implement new non-routine and outside-the-box solutions to problems, the fundamental skill for success in all walks of life. 

In business, creativity is called innovation. ‘Creativity and innovation’ has become a key asset in the 21st century: ‘Innovation feeds the world’, declares the 2017 Global Innovation Index. ‘Creative employees are a priority’, urge business leaders; creativity is a ‘core competence’, announces the new Kenyan Curriculum Reform. Creative skill is, above all, visual thinking (observation and imagination). Therefore, actively practising all forms of the visual arts from an early age is critical to creative ability.

Working with young people, their parents and teachers, as well as the media, policymakers and business leaders in Kenya, MASK has been successfully strengthening the creativity of young Kenyans through programmes such as the after-school Creativity Clubs and the creativity competition MASK Prize. Participants of the Creativity Clubs develop their ‘creative character’ and ‘creative skill’ and learn to apply them in real life. Discovering creativity, they become confident leaders and successful professionals and entrepreneurs. Some go on as ‘creativity enablers’, helping others. 

Participants of the MASK Prize send in their creative artworks and ideas, and then celebrate them at the prize-giving ceremonies and exhibitions. Partnered by the Kenyan national newspaper the Star, the MASK Prize reached thousands of people across Kenya and beyond. 

The output of MASK — the artworks, ideas, success stories and expertise — is disseminated at many platforms, such as Unesco, the Nairobi National Museum, Turner Contemporary, the Library of Congress, and acclaimed by the Harvard University and the Results for Development Institute.

A couple of years ago, leading Kenyan art critic Margaretta wa Gacheru called MASK ‘one of the biggest youth empowerment art projects’. Creativity does empower people to invent new products and processes, take advantage of opportunities, successfully negotiate environments, and, therefore, thrive and flourish. People who lack creativity lose advantages and stagnate.

If you wish to learn how you or your children can be more creative and thus more successful in whatever you do in your school or adult life, sign up to MASK’s upcoming book, ‘Foundation Creativity: Build Your Success On Creativity’, here:


Alla Tkachuk is the Founder of MASK, [email protected]

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