In one of my other lives, I was once on the board of a prison for young offenders back in the United Kingdom. So when Kioko rang and told me about the Probation Art Exhibition at his gallery along James Gichuru Road, I was keen to see it. So I went last Saturday; I not only saw it, I also talked about it with Kioko and Hannah Maingi, the deputy director of Kenya’s Probation and After Care Service.
It is a fascinating and touching exhibition. It has 42 items on display – paintings, collages, or drawings – chosen from 651 entries in an art competition mounted across the country, supported by the European Union and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The exhibition is called ‘A New Beginning’; because that is what the Probation and After Care Service provides for so many young offenders. The exhibits are created by youngsters aged from nine to 17 years. Yes, in Kenya, even a child of only eight years can be taken to court and become a ‘child offender’ on probation.
Take to drugs
The young artists were given a choice of four themes – their experience of the justice system, views about the probation service, the impact of Covid-19 on their lives, and their aspirations for the future. For the youngsters, it was a chance to express themselves; for the probation service it was a chance to get feedback that could help improve its care.
There is no great art on display. That isn’t the point of the exhibition. But it is very revealing about the lives and regrets and hopes of 42 young people on probation.
One thing that comes through is that many of the youngsters are from broken homes. If in the care of a guardian, or especially on the street with other youngsters, as Hannah said, they become so vulnerable, take to drugs or drinking, engage in under-age sex or get involved in crime.
Often, they are used by adult criminals. This is the situation symbolised in many of the pictures and expressed in the brief texts written by the youngsters and displayed alongside them. It is sad that many express hopes for the future that are unlikely to be realised – like becoming an architect or a doctor.
A number of the boys dream of becoming footballers and playing for a team in Europe – the Maradona syndrome, whereby many youngsters born in shanty towns have escaped a life of poverty.
The picture I chose to show here is one painted by a 17- year-old girl. I didn’t realise at first that it was actually the winning entrant. Her story is that she had a happy life with her parents. But they died, and she was brought up by her grandmother, who she describes as arrogant. Eventually, she was chased away and, to survive, she had to rely on herself.
She was caught stealing, handed over to the police and, for a while, locked up. She was taken to court and then sent to the Nakuru Girls Probation Hostel. That is where, she says, her dream started. Through probation, she was taken back to school and also involved in some vocational training. She mentions three dreams – to be an air hostess, a make-up artist, a hair dresser. And you will see that all these stages of her short life are depicted in her painting.
In her welcoming speech at the competition’s award-giving ceremony at Kempinski Hotel last August, Hanna Maingi said, ‘In this art the children are hopeful that someone will listen to them and act’.
The exhibition at the Kioko Gallery was scheduled to end on December 17. But it has proved so popular that it has been extended to the end of the month. So you still have a chance to go and listen.