DISCOURSE: DEMYSTIFYING RESIDENCIES

16 Feb 2020

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Artist Peter Ibberson during his city orientation as part of the VASL International Fellowship Programme, 2019
Artist Peter Ibberson during his city orientation as part of the VASL International Fellowship Programme, 2019

Artist-in-residence oppor­tunities are a considered addition to the art world. They are thought of as an achievement to add to one’s resume. Almost every artist either strives to or has successfully managed to undertake a residency programme in the span of their career. However, the concept of artist residencies remains uncertain to the general public.

These programmes create an opportunity for artists to temporarily stay and work outside of their usual environment and comfort zone. They also provide context and time for them to reflect, research, collaborate or create new artworks. These residencies allow the artists to explore new locations and cultures and facilitate them to experiment with different materials and concepts.

The origins of artist residencies can be traced back to the late 19th century, when royals and wealthy patrons commissioned work to artists. This required artists to relocate in order to devise a contextualised narrative under observation. The artists were provided with accommodation, a fee and the subject to create the work around. Artists were also known to temporarily distance themselves from the pulsating cacophony of city life to realise new ideas in self-imposed isolation.

Over the decades, diverse models of residencies have emerged all over the world. They have become more structured in their manifesto — some residencies stress on the production of work, some are more research or process-based and others may focus on collaboration, sustainability or inter-disciplinary outreach. Several of these established institutions are also connected to each other under various global networks, to further promote and organise artist exchanges that are funded either by the state or by private benefactors.

A lack of funding and non-commercial galleries — particularly in the local art scene — arguably stifles the range of creative exploration that the artist may want to delve in. Residencies empower the artist to experiment with process, media and scale without being concerned about saleability and visibility. Unhindered by looming deadlines and the pressure to present finished work, they can also immerse themselves entirely in the process alone. Additionally, the artists can benefit from networking with foreign gallerists, curators and buyers. This opens up further avenues for more established international ventures. Participating artists take the role of cultural ambassadors while interacting with the local community and artists of other nationalities, which allows an exchange of creative information, beliefs and perceptions. Residen­cies also grant artists a portal to step out of themselves to view their practice and their identity from a bystander’s lens.

In recent years, more and more artists globally aspire to undertake artist residencies to boost their career. But why do they hold so much value?

Regardless of whether residencies are self-funded or sponsored, they are not easy to attain. Most programmes make their selection after vetting the applications by perusing the expanse and merit of the portfolios, the thematic relevance of the proposals and often by interviewing the applicants.

For almost two decades, Gasworks — an art organisation in London — with support from the Charles Wallace Pakistan Trust and the Rangoonwala Foundation, has been annually hosting a Pakistani artist for a three-month residency programme. Its latest recipient, Haider Ali Naqvi, conversed with South Asian migrants to inspect how they integrate or segregate themselves in society to rewrite or preserve their inherited traditions. In doing so, he surveyed how cultures clash and coalesce, how communities negotiate with new settings and how identity is woven to ancestry. The residency ended with an open studio for the public to view the artist’s process and learn about his practice.

Having been selected for a residency in Basel, Mohsin Shafi anchored his research in the idyllic portrayal of amorousness in ’80s Bollywood songs, notably those which were filmed in the Swiss landscape. He critiqued our fixation on intimacy and love in the popular culture that he grew up watching. Supported by Pro-Helvetia New Delhi, the residency culminated in an exhibition at the Atelier Mondial, which Shafi aptly titled ‘Swiss Honeymoan.’

Established by Saba Khan in 2014, the Murree Museum Artist’s Residency hosts local and occasionally foreign, artists every summer. The programme aims to document and critique the fractured post-colonial landscape by exploring the history, culture and geography of the hill station. Artists are encouraged to engage with the local community to reinforce a sense of ownership and reshape their identity.

Since its inception in 2001, the Vasl Artists Association has been organising residencies for both local and international artists. It has been conducting workshops, exhibitions, community projects, researches and outreach programmes to attract and inform the public of the efficacy of visual art.

These residencies and organisations not only offer a stepladder for local artists to gain international visibility but also operate as catalysts in the local art scene. By functioning as an incubator of knowledge and an alternate space for creative dialogue, they aim to disseminate a growing understanding of creativity — not just in the arts, but also in the society.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 16th, 2020