How to look at art: What is talent?

Joan Muema, 21, Injustice, Digital art, 2018
Joan Muema, 21, Injustice, Digital art, 2018

We overuse the word ‘talent’ and often do not fully understand what it means. Does it mean intelligence, skill or personality?

Does it result from one’s genetics, education or experience? Does it need ‘role models’ and strong societal support to flourish? Why are talented people deeply committed to self-education? Do school tests destroy talent by killing curiosity? Does talent come from a majority-culture or are talented people outsiders? Is talent political — do lower social classes have a right to talent or is it a privilege of the rich?

To find answers to these and other questions about talent is essential. As long as talent remains an elusive concept lacking clarity, many of us will not apply it to ourselves, children or the society. Understanding talent will help us to recognise it and make the most of it.

Talent is creativity. Creativity is people’s ability to generate new innovative ideas and solutions that can change the world for the better. The idea-generating skill is deeply rooted in the capacity of the brain to connect knowledge across a wide range of domains. Creativity is also linked to a type of personality. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in his book ‘Creativity’, creative people display contrasting personality traits. The idea-generation skill can realise its power only if someone can operate at both ends of these polarities. According to Csikszentmihalyi, creative people have/are:

1. a great deal of energy but also often quiet and at rest; 2. intelligent but an IQ beyond 120 not necessarily imply higher creativity; 3. playful and at the same time highly disciplined and hard-working; 4. highly imaginative but their novelty is rooted in reality; 5. introverts and extroverts and humble and proud at the same time;

6. no gender role stereotyping: girls are more dominant and boys are less aggressive than their peers; 7. traditional and conservative as well as rebellious and independent; 8. passionate about their work but also extremely objective about it as well; 9. open and sensitive and therefore can suffer anxiety but also experience intense joy from the creative process.

Creativity is a direct result of upbringing and education. Arts practices - visual arts, music, writing, performance - that encourage the generation of non-routine ideas and creative personality is the most diverse environment that a person can experience to develop their talents in all areas of life. Failing practising arts during school-years prevents individuals in later life from developing any pronounced levels of creativity. In Africa, art has been limited or absent in schools. This seriously threatens young people’s creativity and talent.

We, therefore, started the MASK Prize Creativity Competition in Africa, a unique platform that helps African children, youths, and their parents and teachers to celebrate creativity and develop talent. Partnered by leading media houses, MASK Prize reaches young people directly, providing the participation opportunities to all regardless of their social status, ability and income. Thousands of young people across Africa have participated. They say: "MASK Prize motivates us to be more creative," "Art is where we express our creativity," "MASK Prize experience was an absolute game-changer for my creativity”.

Young people under the age of 25 and any school can enter their creative and innovative artworks and entrepreneurial ideas free, online, in any medium, and on any subject in three categories: ‘Schools’, ‘Under 15y/o’, and ‘Under 25y/o’ - before 1 June by visiting mobileartschoolinkenya.org/MASK-Prize. Winners will receive prizes at the Award Ceremony in Nairobi in October. Selected works will be exhibited at leading institutions to inform and educate the audiences about the creativity and talent in Africa.

Alla Tkachuk, creativity-learning specialist, founder of MASK and MASK Prize. To become part of MASK Prize movement and sponsor its prizes, contact Alla on [email protected]

[1] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Harper Perennial, 1996.