Senior artist wins 2017 Congressional Art Award with Kenyan artist-inspired piece

Senior Sofia Riley’s art piece inspired by Kenyan artist and activist Anne Berenge won her the 2017 Congressional Art Award. Photo courtesy of Sofia Riley

Senior Sofia Riley was selected by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi as the winner of the 2017 Congressional Art Award for her rendition of a piece by Kenyan artist and activist Anne Berenge, earning her a year long exhibition in the U.S. Capitol.

The project began as an assignment for her art class with art teacher Kirsten Janssen. The art that came out of this assignment was showcased in a special exhibit at the Asian Art Museum as part of the San Francisco Unified School District Arts Festival on April 29 to May 7. This festival has traditionally been an opportunity for Pelosi and her staff to view art from across the district, and several previous winners of the award have been chosen from the art displayed in it.

The competition had no prompt other than to make art. However, with the recent events of this year’s election, Janssen wanted to play it safe. “No political art,” she had warned her students regarding the contest, “I don’t want any trouble with D.C. on my hands.”


Janssen had her students crush tins and use whatever had been in them as inspiration for the composition. Riley used a Kenyan breakfast tea as her inspiration to echo the techniques she saw used by Berenge. Berenge is a fierce advocate for women with HIV and AIDS in African slums. This also had a profound effect on the piece that Riley chose to replicate. After choosing the Berenge painting that resonated most with her, Riley painted her reproduction of it onto the tin she had crushed.

Imitation was a crucial part of the exercise. “Part of it was emulating artists so that we could learn from their brushstrokes and procedures,” Janssen said. For copyright purposes, it was important that the judges were informed of this fact when Riley’s art was submitted, according to Janssen.

Riley never expected to win the contest. “I hadn’t really taken art seriously until now,” Riley said. She has taken several classes in photography, but only in the last year has she begun working with Janssen on art disciplines such as drawing, painting, and sculpting.

As Riley continues to grow and develop as an artist, she has been delving into even more diverse forms of art, including stop motion. Her current project is a stop motion animation, the theme of which has close ties to the new all-American musical, Hamilton. According to Riley, stop motion projects like this one often take large amounts of time and intense focus. “Patience is the key to art,” Riley said. Her goal is to create a work of art that infuses the story of the United States’ beginnings with stories of immigration.

Riley has recently graduated from Lowell. This award is a recognition of her artistic accomplishments throughout her high school years. As she begins her college experience at Fordham University, she hopes to continue exploring her own creativity.