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From Glasgow to Joburg :: a cultural connector

A few years back, arts producer Natalia Palombo was invited by Glasgow based creative studio, Pidgin Perfect to co-produce a project – The Power of ZA – as part of the Cape Town-hosted World Design Capital.

Essentially a scoping exercise, the experience involved three weeks of interviewing a range of ‘fantastic’ artists, filmmakers, writers, architects, designers, activists and producers, many of whom would become friends and collaborators. The outcome was showcased on the Power of Now platform, which has since been condensed, but originally hosted over 30 individual interviews and performances.

The content was partly shaped by Natalia’s then work as a film curator focusing on African films made by filmmakers and artists based on the continent. Now, as Managing Director of Many Studios in the Barras – Glasgow’s east end – she reflects on South Africa’s creative influence, her evolving work with international artists and the importance of kindness in collaborative cultural production.

Q) How have you – or your ideas – changed or developed as an artist-producer in the last few years?

I’d say that practically, I moved from working predominantly in film and moved into multi-arts production. My trips to South Africa informed my practice in many ways, one of which was a new understanding of collaboration and interdisciplinary working. The fluidity in creative practice that I saw in Johannesburg seemed to come from a need to make work and to express an idea, before the politics of making a living or building a reputation came into play. Sometimes that idea would be best expressed in film, sometimes in performance, or in writing or painting. Other times the idea was stronger with someone else’s contribution. There was definitely a culture of lifting others up that was not present here in the UK.

Q) What direct effects did being in South Africa have on your work?

At the time, I was disengaged with British visual arts and design practices – I wasn’t sure how I could programme in a way that wasn’t holding up a white supremacist structure which is largely unchallenged in Scotland. At the time I was trying to understand how to talk about whiteness and white privilege in a country that claims to be liberal and socially and politically active, but had no (good) answers as to why the vast majority of creative spaces were run by and platforming only white artists. The Power of ZA project firstly introduced me to countless incredibly talented artists. I left so inspired. Secondly, it provided the seed for many other projects that followed. More directly, that project led to a longer trip in 2015 to work with [performer and director] Lindiwe Matshikiza, [artists] Dean Hutton and Anthea Moys and [curator] Lavendhri Arumugam, which led to a more recent project here in Glasgow called Many Half Hours, produced in collaboration with Johannesburg experimental music label, Mushroom Hour Half Hour.

Q) You’ve said that Johannesburg reminded you of Glasgow in certain ways. How do you mean?

A lot of the similarities came from looking at the countries as a whole, and then specifically at the relationship between Edinburgh and Glasgow and Cape Town and Johannesburg. The dynamics between the two cities in South Africa resonated with the dynamics we have in Scotland. Glasgow has a very strong grassroots creative community. The cost of living here is lower than in the East of the country, so the sector is not quite as elitist as it arguably is in Edinburgh. I think that has generated a much healthier creative output. It’s also much easier to access derelict or underused property in Glasgow, which has given artist-run spaces a chance to flourish in a way that hasn’t happened in Edinburgh where there’s a much more concerted effort to ‘keep up appearances’ by the council and government.

Q) When did you first step into your role at Many Studios and how has your vision for it evolved?

I started Many Studios in 2012 with three other friends. We had the first floor of an office block in the centre of Glasgow, which had been converted into tiny artists’ studios. We ran the businesses voluntarily in exchange for free space, but quickly realised that the model didn’t work and we would need to find an alternative venue to create a sustainable business model. For three years from 2013, I was a freelance producer while voluntarily working on a new build that would introduce 30 creative studios, two galleries, two shop units, event, meeting and residency space in the east end of Glasgow. When we opened our new building in 2016, it needed a member of staff and as the only freelancer in our group, that had to be me. I agreed to focus on Many Studios as long as I had a project space – the Gallow Gate – where I could produce projects in line with my research. The arts programme now largely runs as an international residency space, and we’ve welcomed over 50 artists to the Barras from all across the world in the last two years.

Q) What sort of impact has the Many Studios venue had on the local community?

After two years, we have over 60 members using the building day-to-day, a monthly outdoor market, two arts programmes, and a network called East End First Saturdays, which was inspired by First Thursdays in South Africa. The East End of Glasgow is a historic outdoor market place. It’s just 5 minutes from the centre of the city but you wouldn’t find a chain or franchise business here. The area does have some of the worst statistics in Western Europe for poverty, health deprivation, crime, alcohol and drug abuse but it has a sense of community that I’ve not actually experienced anywhere else in the city. This isn’t to romantise social problems that are still present, but rather to show how a disenfranchised community builds their own systems of support that can be a force for good. In our network, we have new retail, entertainment and creative businesses, which trade alongside confectionary shops, fabric stores and pubs that have been here for nearly 100 years. In order for the arts programme here to be effective we wanted to build non-arts visitors who are challenged by the social and political ideas within the work. We now have an audience of residents who provide criticism and feedback in a way that the liberal arts world often does not.

Q) The Gallow Gate does seem to be a wonderful ‘global’ space for artistic expression. How do you tend to select the work that’s exhibited?

Thanks! Most of the artists that I’ve invited into the space I have had pre-existing relationships with, either meeting them while on research or through existing creative networks. It was when I was in South Africa in 2014 and 2015 that I spent a bit of time with the lovely Andrew Curnow who leads the Mushroom Hour Half Hour record label. This led to the Many Half Hours project. I’ve noticed my decision making and curatorial approach has changed as I’ve got ‘a bit older’. I’m much less likely to produce a project that looks good on paper without understanding if there is potential for a harmonious collaboration. In order to get really stuck into projects there needs to be trust, openness and most importantly, kindness. I often end up working with people who I click with on a personal level, whose energy is really positive and open, and that was definitely the case with Andrew and is the force behind most of the projects in The Gallow Gate. Life’s too short for working without kindness!

Q) You’ve worked with musician Sibusile Xaba and an interesting selection of artists. How will that experience be documented?

The project was predominately focused on a series of live performances that took place in May last year. The nature of the collaboration was to play with improvisation. The live experience was the most impactful outcome of that project – beautiful and impactful! The collective – Sibusile Xaba, Thabang Tabane, Dennis Magagula from South Africa, Mele Broomes, Katie Armstrong and Omar Afif based in the UK – recorded a session together at the end of residency, which may come out through Mushroom Hour Half Hour in due course. You can see documentation of the live sessions. I often go back to these tracks and it completely calms me. What a beautiful group of people making fantastic work collectively and individually.

Q) I also like the sound of another project – Kobi Onyame Versus the Artist. What was the concept behind this?

Kobi’s a Glasgow-based, Ghanaian musician who came to me last year. His idea was to develop a project at The Gallow Gate that invited artists of all disciplines to respond to his new album, Gold. We put out an open call for artists and selected Ashanti Harris (Scotland), Ayo Akinwande (Nigeria), Bumi Thomas (England), Hakeem Adam (Ghana), Sulaïman Majali (Scotland) and Selorm Jay (Ghana). The artists all came from really diverse creative backgrounds, working in literature, video, photography, music, performance, installation – so we were really excited to see how they’d respond to music as a brief. Kobi and I worked directly with the artists over a series of (mostly virtual) critique sessions to develop new work, which came together as a group exhibition at The Gallow Gate.

Q) What were some of the underlying messages that came from the experience?

This project explored the process of music making and the subsequent interconnectivity between art forms. The album presents a complex collection of reflections that consider globalisation, hope, identity, privilege, and post-colonialism. We were interested in exploring ways in which the songs could be unpacked and distorted by handing them over to another artist, simultaneously exploring where music overlaps with literature, literature overlaps with dance and beyond through a dialogue that not only uses the album as a point of departure for discussion, but also the artists’ own identities and the ways in which collaboration can bolster, challenge and inspire. Etienne Kubwabo, a Glasgow based filmmaker, was with us throughout this project and has made a short film looking back at all the elements of the project.

Q) Music seems to figure pretty strongly in the Many Studios programming. Is it an important jumping off point for your creative ideas?

To be honest, it was accidental in the beginning. In a previous life I was a music promoter, but more so, I’m interested in breaking expectations and problematic conventions that exist in the visual arts sector and I find that crossing disciplines is a good way to do this. I think it’s also an effective way to build new audiences for visual art spaces.

Q) Have you ever produced a show out of anger – or any other specific emotion in relation to the arts?

I think a lot of us make and produce as a way of channelling, working through or understanding anger (or frustration, guilt, confusion etc). I’m not interested in creative work that separates the personal (social and political) from work. As human beings, all in this messed up world together, we have a responsibility to make sure we are trying to make the world a better place, however small or large.

Q) What’s coming up at Many Studios this year that you’re either wildly excited – or anxious about?

For the first time, I’m anxious about what’s not coming up. I’ve programmed back to back for years and that’s been possible because I’ve constantly applied for funding from everywhere I can think of (within reason!). Since opening The Gallow Gate, I’ve been really lucky with the support I’ve received from funders, but this year hasn’t been quite so positive so far. Since bringing down the last exhibition – (But) What Are You Doing About White Supremacy? – at the end of May, I’ve spent most of my time applying for more funding. We’ve got quite a few applications pending which, if successful, will bring artists from Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa to Glasgow, and one has just come through which is allowing us to plan a residency with Nigerian artist, Ayo Akinwande, in February 2019. I’ve been working with Ayo over the last six months following his participation in Kobi Onyame Versus The Artist and I’m incredibly excited about presenting his first UK exhibition next year.

Images:
The Routes We Thread // by Paria Goodarzi and Arpita Shah // photographs by Arpita Shah

(BUT) WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT WHITE SUPREMACY? // work by Imani Robinson // work by Rabz Lansiquot Halima Haruna and Chistopher Kirubi // photographs by Buki Bayode

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This interview comes from a partnership between Let’s Be Brief and People’s Stories Project (PSP) — part of the British Council’s arts programme in sub-Saharan Africa. Click here for more info.

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