Review: Building Bridges through Contemporary Arts, Panels 1&2

AiW Guest: Clive Allanso.

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AiW note: Anticipating the final panel in the “Building Bridges through Contemporary Arts“ (BBTCA) series – “Responsible Solutions to New Obstacles” (June 30th, 2pm BST) – Clive Allanso summarises the conversations and debates of the previous two panels on “Art Institutions as Plurality Warrants” and “Local Actions for A Global Vision”. Based on participants’ personal and professional local and global perspectives, the aim of the BBTCA panels has been 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.

Clive’s review notes the panelists responses to the challenges and solutions posed by the pandemic, emphasising an increased commitment to innovative and creative practices, highlighting the strong, shared desire for the possibilities of bringing people together through the creative arts….

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Earlier this year I was invited to provide support to the “Building Bridges through Contemporary Arts“ (BBTCA) initiative, a programme designed to investigate and open a dialogue during these times of social distancing and physical immobility, with the aim of facilitating cross-cultural knowledge exchange between Africa and Europe. As a PhD student researching Contemporary Art in West Africa and looking at the impact on small/medium enterprise productivity and tourism development, this was an opportunity I simply could not miss.

The BBTCA programme has been designed to run over three workshops spread over May and June 2021. The first Panel “Art Institutions as Plurality Warrants” was on May 5th which started the series looking at how the creative industry has evolved and survived the global pandemic. This was followed by the second Panel “Local Actions for A Global Vision” on 2nd June, which addressed specifically what we can do globally to overcome the associated challenges. The last in the series is taking place on 30th June and concerns “Responsible Solutions to New Obstacles”, looking to explore sustainable ways for the contemporary arts to navigate the post-Covid world.

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Marina Novelli, Professor of International Development and Tourism at the University of Brighton (UK) and the academic lead for ‘Responsible Futures’ introduced the first session, sharing the vision and purpose behind the BBTCA which was born out of a casual meeting with Maria Pia Bernardoni and other key players at Joana Choumali’s solo exhibition at Gallery 1957 in Accra – for more details see: Q&A: Words on the Times – Marina Novelli on “Building Bridges through Contemporary Arts”.

This first Panel was moderated by Maria Pia Bernardoni. She began the discussion highlighting a common desire and shared vision of cross cultural knowledge exchange and collaborative working that has brought everyone together. As a curator and through her previous work with the Lagos Photo Festival, she shared her experience about the role of art institutions as plurality warrants, a social structure encompassing arts and culture, particularly meeting and engaging with so many talented artists and key players in the industry, for instance through her international project coordinator role at the African Artists’ Foundation, a leading non-profit organisation based in Lagos, and a key partner of the University of Brighton in the BBTCA initiative. 

Bernadoni highlighted the importance of collectively reflecting and sharing experiences of this past pandemic year, with the conversation starting with Azu Nwagbogu – Founder and Director of the Africa Artist’s Foundation (AAF). Nwagbogu introduced and outlined the role and functions of AAF, as a safe space where artists can explore and experiment with ideas and concepts, have discussions and hold talks, workshops, residencies and seminars. 

The AAF has established a youth-led young connectors club which is enabling a number of young people interested in participating and engaging with arts from the continent, not just from a commercial point of view, but to look at innovation and share inspiration with next generations, thinking more critically about how to engage, perform and support within the community. 

It was interesting to hear Nwagbogu talk about the impact of Covid-19, in particular on events-based economies and the need for reflection and reinvention. He offered the view that with the decrease in arts-based activities, there has been an increase in innovative ideas and opportunities, which have emerged to reflect upon what we are trying to do for the future and new ways to engage. He also spoke about the burning topic of “restitution”, and how photography and image making could accelerate any project through innovative ways to spark citizens’ interest in photography. He drew on the concept of the ‘home museum’, using ethnographic objects, or ‘objects of virtue’ that may have personally charged meanings and that are found in one’s home.

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BBTCA panel ‘Art Institutions as Plurality Warrants’, May 5th 2021

Alessia Glaviano – Brand Visual Director Vogue Italia and Director of the Photo Vogue Festival, spoke of her passion in blending ethics and aesthetics. She has always believed in fashion and fashion photography as a language and way to speak about different issues, citing fashion as an identity. 

BBTCA_PhotoVogueThe creation of ‘Photo Vogue’ has provided an open platform for creatives to upload and share their images with editors from Vogue. This is an initiative which has been extremely successful and now has more than 250,000 photographers from over 200 different countries, providing much detail and with an ethos of a strong sense of community.   

Glaviano spoke about the importance of connectivity and engagement and representation, highlighting how ‘for too long’ the narrator has more often than not been the ‘white male’ voice. She has always wanted to try and break down stereotypes, by representing people, culture, diversity and gender with particular attention given to the specifics of context, origin and reality of the narrated stories. Speaking powerfully about change, Glaviano highlighted the impact of photography on everyday life, pointing out that arts can change so much more than laws can: ‘If you change people’s gaze then their mind can change too’.

Glaviano spoke of the impact of the pandemic, especially on limiting physical engagement, but noted a positive shift to technological interventions, which saw a replica of real physical space on the web, with online collaborations and digital platforms taking us to people and places we wouldn’t normally get to. 

Modupeola Fadugba took us on her journey as a young and emerging contemporary artist trying to establish herself in the arts world by applying to the AAF open competitions, which led her to working with an incredible cohort of artists and enabling her to take the critical step to becoming a full-time artist. She said the AAF had offered her institutional support, opportunity and exposure on a national and international level. She noted that the pandemic had given her time to work on experimentation. It offered her ‘space to make mistakes in private’, and time to reflect and develop new ways of going forward. 

The event ended with an open Q&A  with panellists responding to a very important question: “what advice as an artist would you give to your younger self?” Fadugba highlighted a series she has been working on called ‘dear young artist’, a compendium of art, poetry and music which calls on the reflective practice of taking things slowly and gaining experience and developing relationships with people in the field over time.  

Nwagbogu responded to questions on visibility and support during these pandemic times, highlighting that there are a lot of platforms online and work sharing knowledge and experience. He advised young people to be persistent and creative to find solutions and not use the pandemic as an excuse. 

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BBTCA_Panel2The second event of the series, “Local Actions for a Global Vision”, focussed more on local interventions, local knowledge, practices, and the role of curators. Marwan Zakhem, founder and director of Gallery 1957 (Ghana/UK) highlighted his journey engaging with and promoting West African arts and artists. Prior to this, he had already developed a substantial understanding of the region’s arts and culture through his own professional practice and personal art collection. His growing relationships with several emerging artists working on arts with key social, economic and political messages emerged, for example from water scarcity to equality, and the impact these have on communities around the world, especially in Africa. 

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Zakhem discussed the ways Gallery 1957 was working with artists and the communities in addressing contemporary issues. What also emerged was the importance of promoting and fostering a collaborative practice centred around supporting creatives through residencies, exhibitions and cultural weekend programmes, by specifically creating cultural visits to other foundations and events across the country and internationally.  

Serge Attukwei Clottey related that following government guidelines around the pandemic, he had temporarily closed his community-based studio in Labadi. This had allowed him to reflect and pay attention to particular bodies of work, returning to his earlier form of painting practices and charcoal drawings in his private studio space, resulting in some of the best work he has produced lately. Clottey foregrounded the centrality of his Labadi studio and his team and the importance of those relationships which have evolved over the years. Although the pandemic brought this to a standstill, they came back stronger despite the challenges. He emphasized how the Labadi studio was a key environment for him and the community to evolve and produce innovative approaches and some phenomenal works. Clottey spoke of the difficulties of virtual reality as a medium for viewing contemporary art, in particular the challenges of people not being able to see and feel the colours and textures. He shared the specific case of mirroring the Wishing Well exhibited in the USA, with a mini-version of it in the community of Labadi, a way to display his work in the community for the community, and to continue actively engaging with them as the pandemic unfolded.

The Chief Executive of Brighton Dome and Brighton Festival, Andrew Comben reflected on the impact of the pandemic resulting in the cancellation of the 2020 Brighton Festival and the determination that emerged in ensuing innovative and creative approaches to deliver a successful 2021 Festival, in line with COVID-19 induced new measures requiring the mounting and displaying of artistic work in outdoor arenas and/or on-line. Comben highlighted that one of the inspirational aspects arising from the pandemic was the global conversations that emerged through the large and diverse virtual network from across the globe, with much deep and rich cross-cultural conversations. Comben agreed with Clottey that the human element associated with the sensorial aspect of seeing, touching, smelling arts is a vital part of any arts experience and that innovative approaches may be required to ensure this can happen again soon.  

Both sessions brought together the array of issues arising since the pandemic started, looking at how the arts world stood firm, adapted and created innovative approaches to support the industry and those that work or benefit from the sector. The final session on 30th June will be equally exciting, looking at sustainable ways to build bridges through responsible solutions to new obstacles.

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Clive AllansoClive Allanso is a Doctoral candidate at the University of Brighton whose research is looking at  developing a critical understanding of the “value of arts” beyond the commercial meaning of the term, and the role of art champions in the development of the creative sector SMEs (i.e. galleries, fairs, museums, studios) and value chain connection with the tourism sector in West-Africa. The study aims to identify innovative, socially responsible, sustainable and ethical pathways to contemporary arts and community-based tourism development and productivity in West-Africa.

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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.

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