Visiting artist teaches Batik

By: Breanne Durham, Staff Writer

In Kenya, proverbs and sayings are used to teach values to children and to tell stories.

In visiting artist Nicholas Sironka’s Maasai Art and Culture class, they are used to inform Whitworth students about the rich Kenyan culture.

“We nourish each other with our words,” Sironka said.

member of the Maasai tribe in Kenya.

Located in the Rift Valley plains of East Africa, the Maasai are originally a pastoral people that have managed to retain much of their culture over the centuries.

“I am proud to be Maasai. That’s the best way I can put it,” Sironka said.

“To be Maasai is to be able to speak the language and as long as one can speak this language, you know etiquette and respect and love for fellow mankind.”

Sironka brought the Maasai culture to Whitworth this semester by teaching a three-hour class on Tuesday nights. The class generally consists of two hours of art and one hour of cultural lecture and discussion.

Freshman Anna Gray is in Sironka’s course.

“I’m really excited to be able to take the class because it’s a rare opportunity to learn about another culture from an authentic source,” Gray said.

Art department Chair Gordon Wilson said Whitworth has been in relationship with Sironka for the past seven years. Sironka displays many of his Batik paintings in Weyerhaeuser Hall and has previously taught at Whitworth and been a guest artist. Batik art is a medium that uses wax, dyes and cloth to create unique paintings.

"I think what sets Batik from other forms of art is the complexity of working with hot wax and the methological use of dyes to bring out a painting or design that should actually have been complete in mind before commencement," Sironka said. "Every piece is a challenge."

Batik is used extensively in Java, Indonesia today and is believed to have originated in India. It is regarded as more of a cheap craft in modern Kenya, but Sironka has been fighting to change the perception that people have toward the art form. He uses his Batiks to tell about the Maasai culture.

“What’s unique about [Sironka’s] art is that he is a Maasai doing Batiks about his culture,” Wilson said.

Freshman Molly Zeiger is also in the Maasai Art and Culture class. She considers it a test of patience, but enjoyable.

"The class is an investment of time because it’s going more in-depth into another culture," Zeiger said. "Sironka is a good representative of the culture. I feel lucky to know him."

Gray agreed that Sironka’s persona had a lot to do with the quality of the class.

“He’s not only sharing the culture, but he’s also sharing himself,” Gray said.

Sironka teaches that people nourish each other with their words. He encourages his students to teach him about their own cultures as he teaches them about his.

“I would really like interaction from you, because that is how it should be,” Sironka said to his students during class one night.

In addition to his art work and teaching, Sironka is also very passionate about a non-profit group he has established in Kenya. The organization is focused upon improving the lives of Maasai women, particularly by way of providing education for young girls.

“Without education, all you become is someone who is there to make babies,” Sironka said of the average woman in the Maasai culture.

Sironka’s program seeks out fund raising that helps to sponsor girls to go to high school, which in turn gives them chances for a better life in the future.

“He’s always working towards some really good things,” Wilson said of Sironka.

Wilson and Sironka first met in 1999 when Sironka was in the United States to attend the wedding of a friend whom Sironka’s family had hosted while she was on a study tour in Kenya. Through the connection with Wilson, Sironka stayed in the United States for two months and taught at Whitworth.

Since then Sironka has been back to the United States several times. In 2000, he received a Fulbright Scholarship, which allowed him to teach Maasai culture and Batik art as two separate classes at Whitworth for a full year.

“His teaching about the culture is most exciting, for me personally, when he’s doing his Batiks,” Wilson said.

Sironka hopes to have more opportunities to share his culture and art with the students at Whitworth. He is currently working toward setting up study programs for Whitworth students to Kenya, although the current travel ban on the country is making the process difficult.

“I think students need exposure to a place where people don’t have much,” Sironka said.

If the study tour works out, Sironka would like to be the liaison between Whitworth and Kenya and continue to have a positive relationship with the school.

“I have been very happy to be given the opportunity to work at Whitworth College and hope that opportunity comes around again,” Sironka said.

Sironka will be in the United States until May 19, at which time he will return to his family in Kenya.

Source - The Whitworthian

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