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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bridging cultures with art

Kenyan batik artist Nicholas Sironka paints a scene of two Maasai dancing called “A Warrior’s Song.” Sironka also lectures others on his Maasai culture and has a dance troupe that he takes to schools and events in the U.S. He is here selling his art and doing batik workshops.  (Colin Mulvany)
Jennifer Larue The Spokesman-Review

What do Americans know about Africa? Visions on television show that it’s hot and dusty, that wild animals roam free, that men and women run barefoot, carrying water on their heads or spears in their hands. Draped in brightly colored fabric, they dance and do strange things.

They are nothing like “us.” Artist Nicholas Sironka disagrees, “we are all human beings.”

We often fear what we do not understand and it is Sironka’s goal to share, and therefore teach, his culture through art and dance.

Sironka is a Kenyan and a Maasai, people known as livestock herders residing mostly in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They speak Maa and their core beliefs include respect for others and the existence of God, referred to as Enkai. Like all people, they do some ritualistic things marking transitions or rites of passage, things that Sironka says are worth protecting and passing on to future generations.

Sironka believes in patience and tolerance. “We must all strive to accept one another for our diversity, and this should never be a reason for conflict,” he said.

He brings diversity, via his culture, to America, illustrated in colorful fabric dyes applied to heavy cotton fabric. The painstaking process is called batik and includes the use of hot wax.

He began the art of batik after walking past a shop in Nairobi and seeing art that incorrectly portrayed his people. He wanted to change that by creating art that authentically exemplified the stories of the Maasai people. Batik is a unique medium usually associated with ethnic artists, and Sironka thought it would be a good fit. He taught himself and worked on it for years, perfecting the techniques.

His pieces show women with their children, men swapping stories, warriors, dancers, hunters, gatherers and indigenous animals in the foreground of his land where the sun always seems to burn brightly. With each piece, he writes a narrative to further aid a viewer’s understanding of the stories being told in dyes.

Sironka found his way to Spokane after housing a Whitworth University student who visited his country to study. In 1999, he was invited to her wedding and he attended with his art in tow. In 2000, he received a Fulbright award and traveled back to the Spokane area with his wife. They stayed for about a year and he served as a scholar in residence, teaching batik and his culture to students at Whitworth as well as other colleges and schools in other areas.

He has since been back to America a dozen times with his art. He has also brought others to help in cultural awareness through dance. Called the Friends of Sironka Dance Troupe, they have entertained thousands of Americans. Currently he is in Spokane, sharing his art with others and auditioning for local movie projects. He is also working on a children’s book. His wife joins him at events and sells her beaded jewelry.

Sironka is a storyteller in many mediums motivated to build bridges between cultures and to send money home to his people. “The time to take part in what makes the world a better place for all is now,” he said.

The Verve is a weekly feature celebrating the arts. If you know an artist, dancer, actor, musician, photographer, band or singer, contact correspondent Jennifer LaRue by e-mail