• Nairobi youths who make their own creative spaces, support each other’s creativity
Jesse Otumba, 24, is a painter, photographer and filmmaker from Nairobi. He won the Entrepreneurial Prize at our creativity and innovation MASK Awards last October, an internship at Unilever’s Heroes for Change, and since then has stayed on our radar, producing exciting art that informs and inspires.
In his recent video, he spoke about Nairobi youths who, in the spirit of a true ‘do it yourself’ ethos, make their own creative spaces and support each other’s creativity.
“I am an explorer. I seek new ways of doing things. This is what drives me and my art. Whether through film, photography or paintings, I want to project my experiences and those of people around me. And through these stories, I want to lead and inspire others.”
Jesse discovered his passion for art when he was a child. His friends asked him to draw various animals in their school exercise books. Neither his primary nor his secondary school offered any art lessons. Even worse, his secondary school regarded all art activities as “illegal” or “devil-worshiping”, and art was forbidden, so Jesse had to draw in hiding.
He recalls a time where a fellow student saw him drawing at school and threatened to report him to the headmaster. Jesse told him he was not afraid because his parents supported his art. His father, an agricultural officer and a pastor and his mother, a primary school teacher, approved of his passion, although they steered him towards a more conventional path after he left school.
To conform to what Jesse calls “messed up societal expectations”, he went on to study civil engineering at the Technical University of Kenya in Nairobi, where he is in his final year. While at university, he started visiting art exhibitions and took up painting. In a short space of time, he began exhibiting at the British Institute in East Africa and in independent galleries, and Jesse’s confidence grew.
Reflecting on this period, he observes that, “Going into the big world, I discovered I can do art and realise my passion”. He taught himself video and filmmaking and worked for Nairobi Design Week, producing videos featuring fellow skaters, musicians and performers, such as Mani Mungai. He was held in such high esteem by Adrian Jankowiak, the founder of Nairobi Design Week, that he even lends Jesse a Lumix Gx7 camera to make his work.
A couple of years ago, Otumba wrote to me, saying the MASK and MASK Awards "drive change in our society". This “change” is the society’s more positive attitude to art and artists. The MASK Awards also helps artists. “It puts art out there. This makes a real difference to artists. Rewarding creativity is a powerful motivation.”
This mission clearly resonates with Jesse. Recently he discovered a young talent, Lilian, who recorded her voice when she was “bored”. He encouraged her to take her skill seriously and she is now getting work as a voiceover artist.
I asked Jesse what he wants to do with his art. “I want to change society’s perception of artists. Artists do not ‘bother’ society. They are important people, critical to every aspect of life, business and technology. I want to reach the audiences and make them understand that young people want to lead, and they can lead through creativity. Art, therefore, must be available to them from an early age.”
Alla Tkachuk is the founder of youth creativity mobilisation organisation MASK. Please Donate to MASK or contact Alla at [email protected]. Enter MASK Awards. For more inspiration, follow MASK on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.