Q&A: Words on the Times – Marina Novelli on “Building Bridges through Contemporary Arts”


aquotesThe Building Bridges through Contemporary Arts Online Panel Discussions Series is part of a University of Brighton initiative that facilitates a contemporary art-based dialogue between key stakeholders from Africa and Europe. Based on participants’ personal and professional local and global perspectives, the aim is to stimulate reflections which will inform innovative and meaningful collaborations between the contemporary arts world and academia in Africa and Europe, far beyond this COVID-19 induced time of uncertainty.

AiW note: Ahead of their second panel event in the three-strong online discussion series, “Local Actions for a Global Vision” on 2nd June 2-5pm (BST), we were lucky enough to catch the Building Bridges Through Contemporary Arts Project lead, Prof. Marina Novelli (Academic Lead, Responsible Futures and Professor of Tourism and International Development) for her Words on the Times

The Project, Panel Series and the generosity of its purview felt especially timely for a Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A subset initiated as the pandemic lockdowns began to set in last year and our communities and creative industries entered a “#Covoid”, intended as a space to share our altering experiences of life, work, thinking and making.

Novelli’s responses offer an insight and personal view into the development of Building Bridges Through Contemporary Arts, outlining the collaborative nature that underpins its common goals, aims and cogenerative cross-dialoguing in these times of distance, uncertainty, change and possibility, as well as the significance of the creative power of the contemporary arts to these critical, timely discussions:

aquotesSocial distancing and physical immobility are amongst the most controversial containment measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, with consequent restrictions on gatherings and travel having dramatic effects on some of the most important aspects of artistic experiences. These have hindered the ability of artists and other stakeholders to benefit from planned and casual face-to-face encounters leading to meaningful knowledge exchanges and collaborations. The economic impacts of the pandemic have been widely debated across sectors, but it carries other covert consequences, such as its effect on social interaction, individual mobility and cross-cultural exchanges, which are at the basis of much of the arts world. 

Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed a process of ‘cultural diplomacy’ involving leading European cultural institutions, aimed at fostering ‘decolonised virtuous dialogues and narratives’ about the Global South and the African continent in particular. Concurrently, in Africa, a fast-evolving arts sector based on biennials, festivals, fairs, residencies have emerged and offered alternative spaces for interaction, some commercially focused, others of a more socio-cultural exchange nature. These have challenged conventional and limited images and narratives of the continent and have provided a more truthful and multifaceted representation of continental realities.

In such contexts, cultural operators have become cultural ambassadors of their respective countries, and, whilst such an evolving art sector has facilitated plurality of narratives, cultural exchanges and inclusion – ignorance, racism and stereotyped views of Africa have been challenged too. The potentially hindered process of connecting people and cultures through contemporary arts is of great concern as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves.


Words on the Times – Professor Marina Novelli.

AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your own work with the Building Bridges Through Contemporary Arts Project and the ways that the pandemic affected your plans for it? 

I am Professor of Tourism and International Development and Academic Lead for Responsible Futures Research and Enterprise Agenda at the University of Brighton. Over the past 20 years, my job has included a number of international development and cooperation assignments in Africa and beyond for organisations like the World Bank and various United Nations bodies. Besides my involvement in the study and implementation of tourism for sustainable development, I have been very keen in identifying new opportunities for peer-to-peer collaborations with an eye on novel niche segments of the service and creative sectors. 

In April 2018, I was in Accra (Ghana) on a World Bank assignment and learnt the work of Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey. After a brief visit to his studio in La (a neighbourhood of Accra), I initiated an exchange of ideas with him and jointly devised a programme of collaboration, including a residency at the University of Brighton in 2019 and an on-going sustained programme of work under the banner of “Arts and Community Development in Africa” involving the community of La (Accra) where his studio is located. For me, this was the beginning of a new line of work and, despite taking me totally out of my comfort zone, one which has become a determinant part of my professional practice.


Serge Attukwei Clotty – Instagram https://www.instagram.com/afrogallonism/

In August 2019, I was invited by Marwan Zakhen – Founder and Director of Gallery 1957 in Accra to attend the opening of Joana Choumali’s exhibition.  Here, I was privileged enough to meet most inspiring African contemporary artists Joana Choumali (Cote D’Ivoire), Modupeola Fadugba (Nigeria/Togo), Abdoulaye Konatè (Mali) and Nelson Makamo (South Africa). I have since been studying and learning a lot through peer-to-peer exchanges with such an incredible team of professionals as they trusted me enough and gave free of their time to engage in conversations to identify possible ways to work together. I attended a number of other events in Europe and in Africa, from galleries to art fairs and artists’ studios and thanks to Maria Pia Bernardoni (International Project Coordinator at the African Artists’ Foundation – AAF) I was able to learn, appreciate and meet some more key professionals like AAF Founder and Director Azu Nwagbogu…the ball kept rolling faster and faster and the co-construction process aimed at devising a common agenda for collaboration evolved into a number of projects. 

The Building Bridges through Contemporary Arts Project is indeed a reflection of this process to which all those mentioned above contributed to and, when in 2020, the world came to a standstill due to COVID19, we became determined to continue working together towards our common goal of fostering a dialogue between the arts world and academia and explore further ways to use contemporary arts as a vehicle to sustainable development. 

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In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before, and/or how are things on the ground where you are now? 

I have been ‘COVID19 displaced’ in Italy since May 2020, as I returned to my home country to be close to my family after being in lock down for 3 months on my own in the UK, where I normally reside for the first phase of the pandemic. 

Travel restrictions meant that my work and international travel schedule have been substantially disrupted. I had to find alternative ways to continue engaging and be productive. Like for most, the virtual environment became my office. I continued teaching on-line, researching and meeting people via Teams, Zoom, Skype, the lot and indeed life, both professional and personal, has been at times challenging, but fulfilling nevertheless. 

I am still in Italy and waiting for my vaccine, which provides a great hope to return to my international travel. Here in Italy, we have only recently gone back to being allowed out and to some cautious socialising. I am planning to return to the UK in September and hopefully return to some level of normality based on face-to-face rather than virtual encounters. There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment about what the ‘new normal’ will be, but my new normal will certainly be based on valuing social interaction, both professional and personal, even more so than I ever did before COVID19… 

What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time? 

At such a challenging time, I kept going and I can certainly say that concentrating on this new line of work around “Contemporary arts for sustainable development” and the collaborations that have emerged so far have been a great way to cope with such a dramatic change in my work pattern and life in general. I am grateful for the inspiration and heart lifting I got from watching the evolving arts of Joana Choumali on Instagram – I often spend hours in the evening watching her immaculately detailed and colourful pieces of art, as well as the inspiring activist engagements and expressions by Serge Attukwei Clottey and Gerald Chukwuma. The learning of so many new things through my conversations with Maria Pia Bernardoni and my University of Brighton colleague Dr Nicola Ashmore have been key in my ‘sanity’. These are few examples of what gave me peace at a time of global troubles caused by the pandemic, and the many other events which have characterised a very strange year.

How can our blog communities best support you?

Your blog communities would be pivotal in supporting the Building Bridges through Contemporary Arts Initiative, by sharing a Call for Participation for our Panel Series (see: https://blogs.brighton.ac.uk/buildingbridges/programme/), as a catalyst to further our network, encourage your members to engage in these conversation and get involved in co-constructing further inspiring collaborations. 


aquotesThe Building Bridges through Contemporary Arts Project is a University of Brighton (UoB) Initiative facilitated through its Responsible Futures Research and Enterprise Agenda, the University’s Centre of Arts and Wellbeing (CAW), the School of Arts’ Crossing Cultures Series (CCS), the Business School’s Centre of Change, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management (CENTRIM) and African Artists’ Foundation (AAF). The project is led by Marina Novelli (Academic Lead, Responsible Futures and Professor of Tourism and International Development) in collaboration with Maria Pia Bernardoni (UoB BBTCA Project Facilitator and International Project Coordinator at AAF), Duncan Bullen and Dr Charlotte Gould, and respective teams from the Brighton School of Arts.

The Building Bridges through Contemporary Arts Project emerges from participants’ shared desire to respond to the need to foster new co-constructed and mutually beneficial interdisciplinary research and knowledge exchange collaborations, reflecting on the sector’s current state of play, to better understand how existing processes can be revisited, dialogue structures re-imagined and a way forward shaped. Please register for our next events here.


Marina-Novelli-Professor-300x200Marina is a human geographer and an internationally recognised authority in the field of sustainable development, tourism, cultural industries and arts. She has written and advised extensively on a number projects across Africa, Europe and Asia. Her global reputation is associated with 4 broad thematic areas: Tourism and development in the developing economies (particularly in Africa); Niche tourism development and management; Overtourism; and, Contemporary Artistic Expression, Tourism and Sustainable Development.

Her interdisciplinary research approach draws on human geography, development studies and international politics as well as anthropology and sociology.



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