Articles

Artist Residencies in the Developing World

Sculpture at the Kenya National Gallery (image by the author)

ZURICH — Is being an artist-in-residence in a third-world country akin to being a participant on the Survivor television series? If visiting artists are left to fend for themselves in unknown territory, this may well be the case, however at what point does a residency in such an area need to step in and moderate a visit?

When signing up for an artist residency it is always hard to tell what the circumstances of the residency will actually be until you get there. If the program does not come from a personal recommendation, the only point of reference is their website which can often omit crucial information and as a result be misleading. Not only this, the residency itself may be well thought out and accommodating, however its location may pose problems that make it less hospitable to visitors. A country like Jamaica for example is notoriously homophobic, the city of Nairobi in Kenya has a steady crime rate that is tricky to navigate for newcomers. These cities are however home to thriving residency programs.

Map illustrating the location of the artist residencies discussed in this post.

Roktowa is an artist residency in the heart of downtown Kingston that offers a less formal program for artists who want to live and work in the Caribbean nation. It is also a space for a handful of local artists to create work both for their personal interest as well as industry. Rocktowa was founded and is run by Melinda Brown with the assistance of local artists Banta, Crocus and Sand.

Lindsey Reynolds is an artist from the United States who spent three months at the Roktowa residency, she describes her experience as:

… living in a communal situation, hand washing my clothes, the lack of windows, those sorts of “[developing] world experiences” were not what I had to adjust to. The mediation of cultural interaction and the management of my perspective were what really threw me.

Lindsey felt her experience of the city was mediated by the residency’s staff:

… being informed of the “Jamaican way” by non-Jamaicans was not helpful in this case. I caution those participating in and directing art spaces anywhere not to overly mediate visitor’s experiences.

She was able however to build a relationship with the three local artists-in-residence. Together they built a beehive as part of her ongoing project, she explains, “during time spent at Crocus’s farm building beehives I made friends and felt that I interacted seamlessly with his neighbors, never feeling self-conscious about my American-ness.”

ROKTOWA describes itself as “an urban renewal initiative that encompasses traditional modes of art, experimental gardening and community organizing as a means of restructuring our perspective on the role of art and artists in the struggle toward healthier communities.”

Kuona Trust in Nairobi Kenya. (Image courtesy Kuona Trust)

Kuona Trust in Nairobi, Kenya is a nonprofit organization that provides studio space for 20 local artists as well as international visiting artists. Its mission is “to advance the skills and opportunities of contemporary visual artists to create innovative, world class art in Kenya.” Its program is certainly dynamic and along with the rows of prefabricated studio spaces, it also provides a series of workshops led by visiting artists from all parts of the globe.

Residency programs in developing world cities like Kuona are often known for their personal touch and the people involved who see the value of the exchange and make the experience inviting and worthwhile. Danda Jaroljmek, director of the Kuona Trust and Centre for Visual Arts, explains the role of artist residencies in Africa as “enormously important to the local art scene, bringing in new contacts, new art practices and ideas. The local community of artists is usually very supportive of visitors, so visiting artists integrate quickly into the art scene and are really looked after. This is not often the case in big first world cities like London.” The Kuona Trust purposefully pairs up a local artist with a visiting artist to help facilitate their visit from a peer group perspective.

Jaroljmek has been at the Kuona Trust since its inception in 1995 and sees mutual exchange as a crucial part of the residency experience:

Artists’ presentations and discussions can generate powerful ideas and sharing of information can really change an artists’ work. Exchange is valuable to both visiting and local artists, especially in countries with limited exhibitions, galleries and museums, the information and ideas, books and videos they bring or suggest are very useful.

Residency programs abroad either adopt an approach to teach visitors of the ways of the local community, or they facilitate a visit that promotes a self-initiated experience. In developing world countries this balance is precarious, on the one hand ensuring the safety of visitors whilst at the same time allowing for self-discovery.

Jaroljmek concludes:

We prefer artists who do not arrive with fixed ideas of what they want to do but take time getting to know the environment and other artists.

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