Thursday, July 16, 2015

Artist in Residence (AIR) Programs; To Have or Not To Have?

I have recently participated in numerous conversations in regards to artist residencies and from artists’ opinion of the same; I never really know how to feel about artist perception of them.

Artist residencies are programs created to avail opportunities and support structures for an artist to stay and work away from their regular studio. They have been going on ‘forever’ and sometimes are very institutionally structured or can take an organic and very personal form. The common misconception locally is that artist residencies must involve international travel.

Historically, artist-in-residence programs trace their roots in Europe with earlier documented ones in Germany and France.
(Circa 1860s) Edouard Manet and Claude Monet after rejection from the Academie des Beaux-Arts that held its annual exhibition at the Paris Salon started the Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters Sculptors and Engravers to exhibit their works independently. They at some point worked from Manet’s studio with his upper class status guaranteeing financial stability and access to a guaranteed space as Paris was being renovated by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussman. It became a regular occurrence in early 20th century with European artists travelling to America to imbibe culture and vice versa. Others travelled to gain specific skills and follow art movements while others just did pilgrimages.

Such informal and organic movements of visiting people/institutions and working together set the stage for the more structured residencies we know today. Most programs share the same ideals but none in same to the other. Most encourage artists to develop their creative skills – while some emphasize on skill development, others facilitate the exchange of ideas, knowledge and skills. As an artist, taking time out from your studio enables you to stand back and look at your work objectively. It also allows you to get away from your everyday hustle and work from an environment totally detached from your daily practice. This may be a time to study, look at other peoples work, develop an idea, explore a concept or just contextualize your practice. Residencies can also be flexible peer to peer arrangements. I recall John Kamicha and myself taking over Peter Klashorst’s house in Nairobi a couple of years back and am yet to take up an offer of a print hangout with a friend at his garage.

Getting in to residencies varies. While some are basic invitation only, some require a detailed application process with work samples, artist statements and a detailed statement of intent. Before the turn of the millennium, this was complicated as an application had to be a hard copy involving numerous slides and handwritten applications and the post office/courier services but this has changed as most programs take electronic applications. This process can be quite intimidating depending on your personality and could be the reason most local practitioners give residencies a wide berth.

With most Kenyan artists’ background of being ‘self taught’ or from art schools mainly teaching traditional art making techniques, there are a lot of practicing professional artists who are unable to articulate themselves. Most can’t navigate from a curriculum vitae/resume to an artist statement to a bio or even a statement of intent. With these being mandatory documents for any application, most will give up instead of seeking help. Add to this the fact that these are artists whose practice is probably over a decade and are already making regular sales and you get stubborn individuals who won’t even try! In this part of the world, whoever makes more money is Emperor. And who are you to talk about their new clothes?!
It’s these elements that create such uncomfortable situations. Artists tend to feel that their practice is under unnecessary scrutiny, of which they are not equipped well to handle. It’s even worse when the person receiving/reviewing the documents is younger/newer in the arts.

There are numerous courses/workshops labeled mentoring and artists like Maggie Otieno, Gakunju Kaigwa and Peterson Kamwathi among others are on the forefront on this. It is good to see younger artists interested in gaining this knowledge and participating but it should be pushed more. Methinks this is a stepping stone to understanding your requirements as an all rounded artist willing to claim their stake on the global podium. An artist who understands the theory part of their practice. An artists confident enough to ask questions and have a conversation about their practice. An artist confident enough to build a portfolio and make an application – whether a workshop, residency or just an exhibition. An artist ready to write their narrative.

I think that the fact that someone sees the need to find and puts together some money for an artist’s professional development is reason enough to be interested in a residency program. Whether the objective, philosophy or fine print agrees with yours should be the point of contention. But it is unfortunate when we use our knowledge handicap or lack of confidence as our defense mechanism to pretend that we’re not at all interested!

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