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Brandeis student brings art class to Ghana

By Max Randhahn

Section: Arts

September 14, 2012

Alternative uses for art are becoming more and more evident at Brandeis, as is seen in the Attukwei Art Foundation, an organization co-founded by Jessye Kass ’13 that runs outreach programs in Ghana’s Accra region. Before coming to Brandeis, Kass took a gap semester teaching English at a Ghanaian orphanage. This gave her a firsthand look at how children in third-world areas are often beset by issues of education. Inspired by their plight, Kass received the Sorensen Fellowship and DoSomething.org grants and teamed up with Serge Cottey, a Ghanian artist with a similar passion, to found the Attukwei Art Foundation. The pair, however, underestimated the amount of effort involved in the project—they needed to publish a mission statement and create a website, and the organization was required to register as a nonprofit before volunteers could begin to work. Many of the art supplies come in the form of donations from the Brandeis African American Student Association, and volunteers seek grants to pay for their travel and living expenses. Despite these difficulties, the project has achieved fruition, and the foundation has already done excellent work teaching children. Kass said of her initial visit, “I [learned] how creativity helped not only the children, but also the teachers and the community. I dealt with the children’s painful memoir stories and beautiful clay pots and tacky spin art. When we started working with them, some of the kids didn’t even know how to open a marker, which was really sad to me. They have a hard time learning to be creative.” The children involved in the project gradually learn tasks as simple as passing paint to one another and creating murals as a team. In Ghanaian schools, emphasis is placed on competition, so concepts such as working together are foreign to children. Some children even consider it a great offense to make mistakes. But the founders have done an admirable job with over 800 children thus far. The project has taught Ghanaian children important virtues such as financial empowerment (by selling their artwork) and using one’s imagination and creativity. Most importantly, the program teaches children how to play an active role in their society, and how to focus on bettering their world. The local schoolteachers have nothing but praise for Attukwei, especially in areas that lack the funding for special programs. Kass and Cottey have major plans for the foundation, which is now offering a musical theater program; Kass has expressed a desire to turn it into a proper school, hopefully reaching out to victims of HIV/AIDS and abuse, and special needs children before the school year ends. As it stands, the project has already run festivals and reached out to street children not enrolled in school. Kass has brought her passion for helping others to Brandeis, as she is currently pursuing a double major in anthropology and African and Afro-American studies, and has plans to earn a graduate degree in arts education or school management. Four other Brandeis students are accompanying Kass on her fifth trip back to Ghana as interns: Alia Goldfarb ’13, Emily Balmuth-Loris ’14, Breanna Beberman ’13, and Malika Imhotep ’15. Goldfarb, enrolled in the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence studies program with a concentration in applied theater for meditation and reconciliation purposes, thought the foundation would be a great fit for her personal goals. “Attukwei Art Foundation focuses more on the fine arts as a medium for education and expression. However, Jessye felt my approach with the performing arts could be a good fit to expand the programming AAF has to offer,” Goldfarb said. “Serge is a gifted artist and teacher, whom I hope to learn much from. Jessye has an inspiring, undying passion for her work and a deep connection to the country, which I hope to share.” With this new foundation and the World Stage project, a Brandeis documentary that highlighted the power of theater in conflict areas, it is clear that art therapy and general fine arts highly benefiting third-world areas. Ghana is a great example of this, as the country is experiencing civil unrest due to rapid industrialization. Urbanization has increased the amount of city slums and extreme poverty. A 2009 United Nations estimate states that around 70 percent of Ghanaians living in urban areas are inhabiting slums. The general theory behind art therapy is that expression of a story provides necessary catharsis for those living in areas of poverty and strife. The World Stage project seeks to do that specifically with theater for all, while the Attukwei Foundation focuses specifically on children in impoverished areas. And with the acclaimed documentary “Acting Together on the World Stage,” case studies are being drafted to discern exactly how art aids people in areas of strife and unrest.

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