By Jason Dyer
Back in 2011, the words “environment does not dictate talent” were shouted at the conclusion of the first Mathare art camp. It wasn’t a clever sound bite crafted by the Inverted Arts team, but an exuberant proclamation from one of the Kenyan teachers we had worked with during the week. The fact that this statement was from someone that lived in Mathare and not from the USA was significant. That short little sentence held my attention as it perfectly captured the understanding that had been growing within me and the rest of the Inverted Arts team as we worked with the students from Mathare. It didn’t matter where they were from, but where they were going. These students had tremendous talent and simply needed space to be allowed to create.
I have to confess that I was very unsure of what I was getting into when I first agreed to lead the video class that first year. I didn’t really feel qualified to teach and I wasn’t sure what we would be able to accomplish in four days. Frankly, I was worried that by the end of the week the students would wish they had taken one of the other classes. My worries were misplaced as the students’ talents outshone my selfish insecurities as I came to a basic realization: I simply had to provide a safe space to allow the students to create and get out of the way. That initial art camp experience served as a catalyst that would bring me back to Kenya again and again. Each year the students continue to amaze us with their creativity, passion and joy while sharing with us their personal stories and struggles. We have had the privilege of working with many of the students for several years in a row. It is exciting to witness the students discovering creative outlets, passions and considering how their creative pursuits fit into their dreams for the future.
A shared dream for the Inverted Arts team coming out of the first Mathare art camp was that eventually, those of us coming over from the USA would gradually step behind the scenes while Kenyan artist mentors would take more and more of a leading role and take our places leading the classes. 2016 was an exciting year for this dream as 4 of the 5 classes were led by Kenyans artist mentors for some or all of the sessions! How exciting is that?
This year I had the privilege of moving behind the scenes while supporting Rose Simbiri as she took over the video class. Over the past few years she has been a regular fixture at the Mathare art camps supporting the video class between the video editing, production and other classes she was taking. Over the years she has steadily grown in confidence with regards to her skills and talents and this year she took charge and impressed me on many levels. Rose led with confidence and was able to do things that I couldn’t (like swiftly switching between English and Swahili to make sure a point was understood). Her passion was obvious all week as she shared with me the desire she has to teach a year-round class on video recording, editing and production. I couldn’t help but get excited with Rose at the idea of students being given a chance to create through movie making on a more regular basis.
The same passion was on display through the entire camp as new leaders stepped forward and injected new ideas and creative energy into things. Philister deftly guided her students through the process of creating some amazing and beautiful pieces of clothing in the very first (of hopefully many) fashion design class. Henry again led the photography class and brought forward new opportunities around areas like fashion photography. Winny and Seth continued to step forward and take greater leadership roles in the music class by teaching the class an original song that was written by Seth. The musical duo also deftly lead the class in writing a class song named “Eastland” that pulsed with energy, enthusiasm and creativity.
Inverted Arts has completed six art camps in Mathare. Six years is a long time to do anything, but the years that have been have spent in Mathare are bearing fruit in interesting and wonderful ways. There is potential for more year-round activities to spring up for music, photography, video, visual art and fashion. If environment does not dictate talent and environment does not limit creativity, imagine what we will find when we return next year?