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Weekender
Friday, June 19, 1998

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Unlocking Kenyan pupils untold talents

By MARGARETTA wa GACHERU

There's nothing new about Kenyan artists exhibiting their works overseas.

Meek Gichugu just had a one-man show of his paintings in Japan while Shine Tani recently held exhibitions all over Europe and Elijah Ogira just got back from mounting several shows in Germany.

Meanwhile, Nation's own cartoonist Gado just recently had a chance to exhibit his provocative cartoon art in Italy during a brief study leave in Venice at Colours of Benetton's avant-garde art school.

What is rare is for young Kenyan artists to be given an unsolicited chance to exhibit their paintings and drawings before thousands, and maybe even millions, of Americans.

But that's exactly what's happened right now to students from 15 primary and secondary schools in Ukambani, whose schools got specially picked by Anglican Bishop of Makueni and Machakos Joseph Kanuku to take part in an unusual arts experiment initiated by a one-time tourist who seems to have adopted this country as his second homeland.

Mark Scheflen first came to this country in 1985 and, by some quirk of fate, found himself the guest of kind Kenyans who showed him such homely and heart-warming "African hospitality" that this photographer/teacher and former construction worker chose to return after a year to Kituvi village and, at his own expense, put up a spacious three-room house for his hosts.

Naturally, news of Scheflen's stunning generosity spread throughout the village and led to most able-bodied villagers becoming construction workers or artisans adding special touches to the American's friends' second home.

Meanwhile, this enterprising American was simultaneously taking photos, videos and slides as well as collecting relevant artefacts and writing an intimate journal of his observations, all of which he subsequently transformed into a fascinating photo, film and "light" installation on his days in Kenya which he's displayed in galleries, universities and public exhibition spaces in the New York City area.

It's in this same area that Scheflen is now showing Drawings and Paintings by Children of Makueni & Machakos, Kenya, an exhibition which is currently at the Staten Island Children's Museum through June 30.

After that, it will travel to the Hudson Valley Museum in Nyack, New York, then to Old Forge Art Centre also in New York and also to Scheflen's own home-base at St Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery where the artist/photographer now runs a Visual Arts Programme from Greenwich Village youth.

After that, if all goes as Scheflen's planned, the Ukambani Children's Art Show will go to the United Nations! (A feat which might be more possible now that the UN Secretary-General himself has spent some time in Kenya.)

Initially, the complete collection of 200 Ukambani children's works went on show late last year at the busy Port Authority Bus Terminal where not just Americans but an international crowd, including Kenya's own Archbishop David Gitari, had a chance to see the creative wizardry of Kenyan youth.

The whole idea of having a Kenyan Children's Art Show go to the States actually came out of the success Scheflen's own exhibition enjoyed in New York City.

Seeing the keen interest that Americans had in Kenyan rural folk and, at the same time, feeling it would be fair to let Kenyans themselves "say" more about themselves through art, the New Yorker proceeded to devise a way by which Kenyan art could be shown all over the American East Coast.

His first challenge was reaching out to Kenyans and that was where his Anglican connection helped. American clergymen put him in touch with Gitari who in turn linked him with Kanuku, who was very receptive to his plan and provided him with a personal escort all around his diocese.

But what ultimately seems to have been the essential key that unlocked Kenyan youngsters' untold talents and artistic wizardry is the American's generous gift of art supplies, including coloured pencils, crayons and water colours as well as paper to students at every school where he went.

Indeed, what's clear from the creative content of the young Ukambani artists' paintings and drawings is that they all (at least the 200 whose works were selected to tour the States) have tremendous talent, only that they previously didn't have the means or the incentive to express themselves.

And while Scheflen and Gitari were delighted with the quality of the Ukambani children's art, they were initially surprised that youngsters would display such originality and creativity as is evident in this extraordinary show.

As Scheflen admits, "I was initially overwhelmed. The detail, the talent, the skills. Their expressions were right out there. Most . . . were environmental."

But it was the quality of the works as well as the directness of the children's expression that also impressed Scheflen who found it somewhat surprising to see domestic animals juxtaposed with wildlife as well as matatus and luxurious Western-styled homes standing side by side donkey carts and grass-thatched huts. But, indeed, all those elements are part of what makes up Ukambani children's multifarious view of life.

But one thing that especially impressed Scheflen about the children's art is that after having been given the art supplies, a five- week time limit and one rule that adults not interfere with the youth's artistic expression, he found the children had actually improvised a lot more indigenous art materials, using clay, sisal fibre and "found" objects to augment the supplies that he personally brought.

The final fruits that the children produced was actually a whole lot more awesome that even Scheflen had expected to see, which is why he's been so enthusiastic about displaying it in the States.

Whether the success of Ukambani children's show will reverberate back to the young artists, enabling some of them to possibly find means to pursue further studies in Fine Art, has not yet known. But who can tell? Certain, the glowing review that young Musyimi Muema and Richard Maluia got from Shawn Moynihan in the Staten Island Advance of March 6, 1998, should open doors for both boys in the future.

For now, it's enough to know that Ukambani children are leading the West to have a wholly different perception of Kenya and Africa than what they get exposed to in the Western Press everyday. It's a view that demonstrates the best of the Kenyan spirit and sort of soulful sensibility that attracted Mark Scheflen to make Kenya his home away from home, a bond that won't be broken in this lifetime.

 

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