Africa | Nosy Art Echange – (re)connecting the African mainland to it surrounding islands through artistic exchange

Meghan Judge is a Johannesburg-based artist who has curiosity for people, places and narratives from around the world— as well as her own. “Power is an important focus in my work”, and she is always trying to see how it works, to learn, expose and play with it. She recently joined the Oceanic Humanities for the Global South Project at WITS University to conduct a PhD in the arts so that she could delve deeper into her practice, that has been taking shape in and around the Indian Ocean. In early 2010 Meghan, along with artists Rakotoarivony Tahina (Malagasy) and Conor Ralphs (South Africa), were taken aback by the lack of knowledge exchange and dialogue between Malagasy and South African artists, and began discussions around the possibility of an artist exchange program. This led to the establishment of Africa|Nosy Art Echange. ANAE is a platform that aims to build and strengthen artistic networks between Africa’s mainland and the surrounding islands. It facilitates exchanges between young artists from these geological spaces — redirecting the commercially driven framework for the art world with an emphasis on cultural producers that are on the periphery of the arts ecosystem. I had an interview with Meghan to find out more about ANAE and their current residency, SIRA.

Could you please share more about what Africa|Nosy Art Echange aims to do and why you think it’s important?

The Africa|Nosy Art Echange (ANAE) really serves to bring artists, their different knowledges and their resources together. It focuses on building into — or creating networks that (re)connect creative practice in places that are near to each other; that are historically connected but are currently separated. The area we work in spreads out from the pivot point of Madagascar, reaching to South Africa with activity in SADC and Kenya. It has been complex working with a pivot point in Madagascar because the location of this small continent sits off the edge of ‘Southern’ and ‘Eastern’ Africa — right in between the line that compartmentalises a lot of funding. Further, many of its neighbouring islands are still a part of the EU. So finding funding to bring artists with similar interests to participate in residence together can be a real challenge. But remaining with what it is, and not tripping into the various nodes that operate within those compartments, is in itself important. In fact, the idea of ANAE arose out of conversations between artists who realised the difficulty in accessing each other — that there are so many barriers you need to hurl yourself through (language/borders/culture/land and ocean/access etc.). At some point we realised that we are all actually on our own little islands in our countries with a vast space between us, despite perceived ideas of there being one homogenous ‘grand land’ (the African continent) and then some little islands that surround it in the ocean. This reflects in the name ‘Africa|Nosy Art Echange’ where ‘nosy’ means island and is separated by something ‘|’ that both divides and draws together the two words.

The initial conversations mentioned above that sparked ANAE were had in Madagascar, and that is where much of the work has since manifested. Importantly, these conversations occurred between artists from different places who were just hanging out together, and there’s something to be said of this. Hanging out, having supper or drinking a beer or jus frais is when time and worlds can encounter each other, and then the potential for unpacking and thinking a bit deeper into how we might rearrange things a bit better simply arrives. In many ways, the work of ANAE has been about trying to make room for artists to have this experience. We mainly do this through residencies at a gallery in Antananarivo called La Teinturerie, but the history goes deeper to Is’Art Gellerie, the first contemporary gallery that looks toward local artist in the capitol city, and even earlier to the first REK festival that grew out of a residency at Imaitsoanala. These current residencies, however have mainly sat alongside the activities of the Festival d’Art Urbain (which the REK festival became) which brings artists together from Madagascar and from countries near to it.

ANAE’s role has been to support this residency activity within La Teinturerie. This was initially done through establishing an eco system—what we called a ‘friendly network’—that looked to artists who came through [it] to invite other artists who they thought might appreciate what happens in these residencies. It initially grew like this. This was both a way to not open up too quickly to the rambling global residency scene, as well as a way to allow for the strengthening of local networks through those who cared for the space; so it could shape itself first. We think this has been an important factor in allowing an emergent network to become established. It has since broadened out a bit more to the designing of other residencies and activities that move artists around, including Malagasy artists out of the country. We often think of the actions in ANAE as being inspired by the moments that rose out of the early residencies, where artists were not really able to [speak] each other’s languages but were able to lose themselves in a spontaneous, delightful and playful jam session at the dinner table with the cutlery, crockery and glass sounding together on the table. Afterwards, there is a much satisfaction and bonding. Ultimately, ANAE looks at the issue of barriers, language and otherwise — and asks what can be made through them.

Could you please share more about SIRA, how you got involved and why the focus is film and sound-based artists?

SIRA is a residency that houses experimental activity for difference to shape together. It brings artists from disparate locations into activity first with their environments and then with each other. SIRA uses the analogy of salt to think about how these disparate parts might come together, find each other and crystallise into each other. Essentially, it’s a space that allows mutation amongst the artists work (and ways of working) to happen. During the residency, artists have a lot of freedom to explore making what they want without the pressure of having an exhibition afterwards, so it becomes more about the attempts to communicate through their creative practice than about the need to produce a polished piece at the end. In SIRA the idea of language is really played with and artists use their work to connect and converse into each other’s environments by means of response and mounding into each other. So in the end there are lots of little mounds — as opposed to one large piece. I was asked by the board of La Teinturerie to design a virtual residency based on the success of the Vitrual Winds one a couple of years back. It is of course a time where people cannot move physically to the same space, especially with borders in between us. So the vitrual space has potential in holding people together in ways that are similar to what our residencies want to achieve and there are some benefits to it in that you can work from your domestic space so, for example, mothers of young children can apply. [However], I don’t like to think of it as a virtual residency, I just think of it as a residency that happens to be online – it’s a residency first and foremost and it doesn’t necessarily favour digital.

The theme for this year is ‘rust’ which is really a way to think about ourselves in these times. The interesting thing about rust is that it is an activity that is born in between two surfaces. If you think of rust as an activity of surfaces — and you think about power in those surfaces then it becomes possible to understand rust not as something negative and aggressive; but as something that emerges because there is resistance between the surfaces. Often the dominant surface is seen as being attacked, but what if we consider what caused the rusting because that dominant surface was asserted in the way of existing ways and systems? And so in SIRA, rust is seen as the rusting away of the surface of the business-as-usual world that we are witnessing the momentary collapse of; a world that artists have most often struggled to fit [within]. Artists are people who have experimented in moving in between this world and our own worlds of creative practice, and are therefore not unfamiliar with such in-between activity. In a way they (the artists) may be more porous to such activity and may be able to experiment with what sits inside those holes that are pitted and expanded into the surface of the dominant ways and worlds. And so SIRA is turning to artists to see what they notice is rusting away in their own environments, and using this as a starting point for opening these holes up.

However, the residency is not set up with only the artists in mind, it also brings the curator into the mix. The role of the curator here includes drawing out knowledge from what begins to mound in a shareable, experimental showcase of their own. The curator also becomes vulnerable and shares a creative response to what knowledges they have noticed emerging in the time of the residency. This is so that an archive of the activity can grow alongside the residency. This year the focus is on sound and film respectively. The combination attempts to offset the dominance of the visual in the arts, and also draws attention to the brilliance of the Malagasy experimental sound scene. At La Teinturerie there is a permanent stage set up which is a part of the studio space – artists are often musicians and vice versa – and music making, forms part of the everyday studio experience. Sound is something that I feel has a strong ability to create atmospheres and carry intimate environments. Film can house so many forms of creative practice, and so that is a way to also really open up the virtual space to more than the digital arts. Of course, sound and film often work hand in hand, but there is mostly a hierarchy present with sound accompanying the filmic piece. By separating each in the call, these parts becomes a player in their own ways.

What are you hoping programs such as SIRA will encourage in the arts ecosystem?

I would like to see more focus on artists spending time together so that they can establish their own networks, bring in their own people, and reflect their own intimate environments. This is critical for any arts eco-system that wants to actually reflect far reach. Experimenting with how difference can co-exist speaks not only to establishing genuine arts networks, but also to what it means to be living on a dying planet. These moments of anthropogenic pandemics aren’t going to go away, and thinking with them in ways that are sensitive to artists abilities in these times are little steps to opening up the conversation of how we will cope.

What is some of your thinking around your curatorial approach and what considerations are important for you?

My curatorial approach to SIRA has [largely been]about thinking about containers for activity. Instead of designing a route that artists have to go through, I wanted to just set up a container in which the artists generate their own activity — where the works can mutate into their own thing. A bit like the dinner table with lots of cutlery and glassware laying about, ready for an improvised jam session. I was raised laying around at the foot of musical jam sessions in our home and other homes; listening to musicians coming together to riff off of each other and explode into new tunes. This is something that has really stayed with me as a way for finding relatability through initial, seemingly unpassable, barriers. So finding artists who show that they might be jam-session ready, instruments raised, foot ready to tap, is important. Of course it is also important to find artists who have a keenness to explore neighbouring countries and a deep interest in where they are has also been an important consideration.

Who are some of the artists that have been selected for this virtual residency and what you find most striking about their work?

The selection process for SIRA was done together with the board of Le Teinturerie. It took a bit longer than expected because there were many people involved, but it was important that it was done this way. The discussions we had were about who is experimentation ready, who responded to the theme well and what combination would make a good team. Balancing gender is also a strong consideration. The artists selected consist of two Malagasy artists and two South African artists. Mota Soa (Danielle Raharivola) represents one of the talented experimental voice artists and musicians of the Antananarivo art scene. She has an improvisational way of exploring music, performance and visual arts. Duduetsang Lamola has the ability to mutate the everyday by working with the problems of universal imagery reflecting African life and rusting back into them in otherworldly ways. Her works are soundless, and so are ready ripe for this particular residency.

Hery Zo Ralaindimby is a self made Malagasy artist — which is important in a context of a place where there has historically been no arts education at schools or universities. He has built an array of skills through constantly learning and growing his skills. I see his ability to mutate and continuously produce, as almost rusting into the world that favours institutions as spaces for learning. His passion for film and sound are apparent in his experiments with the two mediums. Wezile Mgibe, brings works in that are quite still but are fully charged. He works with his body in ways that question the environment and perceptions that are housed in it. Together the artists combine in ways that have potential, and it is up to them to explore what this potential will become. I have tried to allow for people of different backgrounds without too much cross over to be in this intimate space. So that each can really have the room and space to explore what they do, and then also see if they want to try anything new out.

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