As soon as I step through the arched entrance of the 2312 gallery in Belltown, a large photograph mounted on the right side of the Ziwa exhibit grabs me like a magnet.
The print shows three young Kenyan boys in focus; their eyes shine brilliance as they look into the lens of photographer Meg Stacker’s camera.
“Their eyes are looking into your soul. I call them god’s eyes,” says Stacker.
Ziwa means ‘lake’ and for this exhibit, it refers to Lake Victoria, which connects Uganda and Kenya, the sister countries highlighted in the show.
It is produced by and features the work of Scott Macklin, Jonathan Cunningham (a Seattle Globalist board member) and Meg Stacker. Macklin and Cunningham showcase photographs and ‘six-word memoirs’ of the youth who they worked with during an eight day workshop in Uganda last spring. The ‘Obumu Media Lab’ was a media workshop offered to youth from the Bavubuka Foundation, a Ugandan arts education program focusing on individual and cultural identity through hip hop, headed by Silus Babaluku, renowned hip hop artist.
Stacker’s work is comprised of prints she took during a trip to Kenya 2 years ago, in addition to a small showcase of photos from a disposable camera project she organized with an orphanage in Kenya. She has partnered with One Vibe Africa in Kenya to lead more photography projects with youth. Paintings done by youth at One Vibe Africa are scheduled to be installed as part of the exhibit later this month.
Both One Vibe Africa and the Bavubuka Foundation believe in the power of art as an avenue for expression in the lives of East African youth. By getting youth involved in artistic creations, they strive to keep young people away from wasting away their potential with violence and drugs.
“We give them the canvas and work with them so they learn how to express their feeling in a positive way. So they can begin seeing a different story about themselves,” says Simon Okelo, Executive Director of One Vibe Africa.
Okelo views himself as an example of how art can transform life. Growing up in a Kenyan slum, he was constantly reminded of his dim future. After being exposed to DJing, his life took on new meaning.
Through arts education — beyond traditional academics — East African youth gain access to a medium that is otherwise exclusive, Stacker explains. It provides them a way to think ‘outside the box’.
Exposure to artistic expression has translated into academic growth as well for young artists at One Vibe Africa.
“They were afraid to explore, and this program expanded their minds in a way that back in school they are willing to make mistakes and ask for help.” Okelo notes.
Along with an interactive piece at the entrance, one side of the gallery displays photographs from Macklin and Cunningham’s experience in Uganda. Some are portraits, accompanied by ‘six word memoirs’ of the individuals photographed. Others bring alive the movement and joy from spontaneous and hip-hop collaborations.
The opposite wall is lined with Stacker’s photographs from her trip to Kenya two years ago. Each one captures not only a moment, but a story
Stacker points out a photograph of an elderly man wearing a navy blue blazer, smiling wide to reveal missing front teeth. This particular photograph, she tells me, is of the grandfather of one of the orphans at the orphanage where Stacker was visiting. The grandfather lived up on a remote mountain top with a little land, and a few animals.
His feet blended with the color of the earth, and despite the little he had, he showered his guests with the food he had available — all while laughing unabashedly the whole time.
Often, mainstream images of countries such as Kenya and Uganda portray devastation, hunger, and half-clothed children. The Ziwa exhibit illuminates another color of Africa — and Stacker says people recognize it.
“There is a lot of hope in all the images, and a lot of this happiness and beauty and just genuine… light. It’s radiant.”
Want to see the light yourself? Ziwa will be showing until the end of July at the 2312 Gallery on 2312 2nd Ave, Seattle. All proceeds from art sold at the show go directly to arts education organizations One Vibe Africa and the Bavubuka Foundation.
This post has been updated since initial publication to correct inaccuracies in the description of one of the photos in the exhibit.