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MURALS, ART, CHILDHOOD, AND COMMUNITY IN LWALA: MARTHA COOPER AND SETH IN KENYA: PART 1

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In the heart of Lwala, Kenya, a place where the warmth of the sun is matched only by the warmth of its community, two artists, Martha Cooper, an esteemed New York ethnologist and photographer, and Seth, a visionary French street artist and muralist, embarked on a remarkable journey a few weeks ago. Their mission, rooted in a shared passion for integrating children’s creativity into their work, led them to the vibrant classrooms and playful corners of Lwala, capturing the imaginations we all had as kids – against a backdrop of education, care, and community.

Cooper, with a distinguished career spanning over seven decades, has traversed the globe, documenting children’s inventive play practices and turning her lens toward the ingenuity that flourishes in the spaces between childhood and the urban landscape. Seth, on his canvases of buildings, brings to life the dreams and stories of Lwala’s children in murals that echo the community’s pulse.

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SETH. Nyota Orphanage and Daycare Center. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)

Lwala, situated near the shores of Lake Victoria, is more than just a geographical location; it’s a nexus of culture, learning, and artistic expression. Through the eyes of Cooper and the brush/cans of Seth, the essence of Lwala’s youth shines brightly, depicting scenes of everyday life transformed into extraordinary murals.

As Seth described on his Instagram, the interaction is key. “The walls of the Lwala primary school are covered with small drawings and graffiti,” he says. “Treasures just waiting to be discovered, to which I sometimes enjoy adding my touch.”

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SETH. Nyota Orphanage and Daycare Center. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)

This collaboration marks another chapter in the duo’s journey of artistic exploration and social commentary, previously witnessed in places like Tahiti and Haiti. Yet, Lwala stands out for its own spirit and this natural integration of art into the lives of its children. The murals, vividly capturing scenes from daily life to imaginative escapes, become a canvas where the children’s own artworks also find a place, transforming school walls into collaborative galleries of dreams and aspirations. Martha Cooper’s photography captures these moments of interaction, where art and life converge, offering glimpses into the playful ingenuity that has been the focus of her lens many times in her life.

“We asked kids to bring their homemade toys (my ongoing subject). The most creative were wheeled sticks they called ‘motorbikes’ with an engine sound made by a stick hitting a plastic bottle as the wheel turned,” she says. “There were also guns shaped from mud, balls made of trash, paper hats, thin scarves knit from scraps of wool and stick needles and jump ropes.”

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SETH. Nyota Orphanage and Daycare Center. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)

Among the observer’s voices echoing the significance of this project, Valentine Otieno’s stands out, “Some of the best memories for the school will be in this art. It will exist for years, and what Seth gave the school is a gift for ages,” he writes on her Instagram page. “Thanks Martha for covering all this through your incredible lense skills and the few snap lessons.” Mode2, a legendary figure in graffiti and urban art, remarks, “The only limits to their resourcefulness is their imagination,” highlighting the boundless creativity captured here in Lwala.

At 81 (she celebrated her birthday while here), Cooper’s journey to Lwala with Seth is a testament to capturing childhood’s essence and art’s transformative power. Without sponsorship, driven solely by passion and friendship, their visit to Lwala becomes a narrative now woven into the fabric of the local school – a vibrant testament to the enduring power of art and the universal language of play.

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SETH. Nyota Orphanage and Daycare Center. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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“The boys and girls at Lwala primary school found a little surprise perched above their blackboard—a sweet drawing by Seth of a child wearing their school uniform reading a book,” says Martha.
SETH. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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SETH. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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SETH. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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SETH. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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SETH. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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SETH. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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This one is of a “boy blown horizontally as if by wind hanging onto the tree,” says Ms. Cooper.
SETH. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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SETH interacts on a wall with graffiti from an unknown student at the school. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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The kids are shown playing with their homemade ‘motorbikes’, Martha tells us. “I’m always on the lookout for creative child-made toys. Kenya did not disappoint with these ‘motorbikes’,” she says. Play the video “to hear their very realistic-sounding engine,” Martha says. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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The kids are shown playing with homemade toys. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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The kids are shown playing with homemade toys. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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The kids are shown playing with homemade toys. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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Boy wearing a homemade hat. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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Girl wearing a homemade hat. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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Girl knitting with homemade tools. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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Lake Victoria, Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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SETH. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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“Seth painted fishing boats on the wall of Lwala Primary school after seeing similar ones on nearby Lake Victoria. Students added their names,” says Martha.
SETH. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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SETH. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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SETH. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)
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SETH. Lwala Primary School. Kenya. (photo © Martha Cooper)

@seth_globepainter @montanacans @nyotaforchildren #kenyastreetart @marthacoopergram

Nyota Orphanage and Daycare Center  https://nyota-ev.de/ueber-nyota-e-v/unsere-ziele/

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