MASK Awards fetes kids’ community art

Orkedi Art was hailed for nurturing talent in needy pupils from Nanyuki

In Summary

• MASK Awards was founded to fill a gap in getting children to engage their creativity

• Now in its 11th year, the awards attracted entries from 16 African countries

Painting by Orkedi Art of Nature
Painting by Orkedi Art of Nature

Since 2013, the MASK Awards has recognised arts talent among schoolchildren and youth, particularly in remote areas with limited access to creative tools.

Third place in the 2023 MASK schools category went to the children of Orkedi Art of Nature and Education Foundation. Orkedi Art is a community initiative for primary schoolchildren coming from underprivileged backgrounds in Nanyuki town on the foothills of Mt Kenya.

Speaking after the online awards ceremony in London last month, MASK founder Alla Tkachuk said,“Their paintings were lovely and colourful. Clearly, the children were thinking visually about their subject of nature and showed good teaching.”

Tkachuk is an engineering scientist and artist who, in the course of her work in rural Kenya, realised that few opportunities existed for children to engage their creativity, which inspired her to start MASK (Mobile Art School of Kenya) in 2007. At the time, art was a non-examinable subject and no longer taught in most public schools. “Creativity needs to be fostered from an early age,” Tkachuk said. “It's very difficult to teach creativity to adults.”

Now in its 11th year, the 2023 MASK Awards attracted entries from 16 African countries, including Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Tkachuk believes that by putting creativity at the centre of education and broader society, “We can achieve the realisation of human potential, build a much more prosperous and brighter future.”

Orkedi Art was started a year ago by Camille Wekesa, a Kenyan fine artist and leading muralist who trained in Italy. Delighted by the MASK award, she credits the children’s dedication to learning.  “They have been totally open and committed and turning up every Saturday for months now.”

In partnership with the Ontulili Primates Protection, Orkedi Art supports the weekly art classes in Nanyuki, where she lives. “Art opens up minds and brings creativity into children’s lives,” she said. “We tell the children there’s no right or wrong and there are no mistakes in art.” The project drew inspiration from her previous experience of running creative classes at the nearby Lewa Conservancy’s education programme for five years before art was reintroduced to the public-school curriculum in 2021.

About a dozen primary-age children from the local community spend Saturday afternoon in Wekesa’s premises doing art under the tutelage of Nanyuki-based artist Boniface Maina, co-founder of the Brush-Tu artists collective.

The children learn different art styles, such as drawing, painting, clay moulding, real-life illustrations, beading, working with plasticine and plaster of Paris, making cards and more. “We’re trying to impart skills of thinking outside the box, and where there is possibly a career behind having basic art classes but necessarily as an artist,” Wekesa said.

Nevertheless, they keep an eye on children with talent and those showing a real interest in the arts. “The MASK award was a nice recognition, which shows that it is not just making art but your consistency in doing something that produces results.” The art classes are also a way of keeping children constructively engaged on weekends, when they have little else to do, “ and we find the parents are very grateful.” Wekesa says as a result of the MASK award, they now have enquiries from an overseas gallery interested in featuring the children’s work.

Artists-in-residence at Wekesa’s studio also support the Orkedi Arts programme, bringing their art specialisations to the Saturday classes as part of their giving back to the community. Sebawali Sio, Nayia Sitonik, Faith Njenga, Jimmy Kitheka, filmmaker and artist Jeff Waweru and Michael Mwebe of Uganda are some of the past residency artists.

Community engagement has been an integral element of Wekesa’s art career and vision of growing the arts sector in Kenya. “We are all part of the ecosystem, and I’ve always liked working inside the community and being part of the community and not outside it.”

A deep interest in environmental matters is reflected in her paintings and muralism works, which document African landscapes and the natural world. Orkedi Art was another way of bringing together nature and creativity, and enhancing environmental awareness, especially among the youngsters. “We could not have done Orkedi Art without the community, the children, the parents, and professional artists moving it forward together.”

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