The Delfina Foundation: Mobility and Dialogue between the UK and the MENASA region. Interview with Aaron Cezar | HERMAN BASHIRON MENDOLICCHIO
To reflect and to research on mobility means to be in a state of permanent travel. Theory and practice come together thanks to the potential of mobility and exchange, facilitating the development of a complete experience that engenders a perceptual shift in our ways of seeing and living the realities that surround us.
If the practice of mobility means to face many complexities – primarily economic, political and bureaucratic – then at the same time it allows us to explore and experience the touch and knowledge with other cultures, with spaces, places, ideas, images and different notions.
The proliferation of mobility projects and international residencies is due not only to the growing trend to want to live a life of multiplied, fragmented, fluid experiences, integrated into a system of networks and flows, but also to the proliferation of centers, organizations, foundations, etc., that promote residency and mobility programs in the most remote parts of the world.
One of the most important contemporary foundations, whose vision and primary focus are residential and artistic exchanges, is the Delfina Foundation.
Based in London and oriented towards the MENASA region – Middle East, North Africa and South Asia – the Delfina Foundation places itself on the international stage as a platform, “as a refuge” in the words of its director Aaron Cezar, where dynamics of exchange are activated to create new geographical segments, new artistic routes, new formulas of contact and new possibilities of research and creativity.
To work in this context means to reflect on the poetics and politics of mobility, on the developments of the educational and training models, as well as to create and imagine hybrid models opened to the merging between different creative disciplines.
The mobility experience transforms us, opens up new visions and provokes and brings up many questions. I had the opportunity to interview Aaron Cezar, whom I thank very much for his time and availability, to know more about the Foundation’s activities and reflect on the present and the evolution of mobility practices.
Herman Bashiron Mendolicchio: What is the origin of Delfina Foundation? Who is Delfina Entrecanales and who is Aaron Cezar?
Aaron Cezar: Delfina Foundation is an independent, non-profit foundation dedicated to facilitating artistic exchange and developing creative practice through residencies, partnerships and public programming, with a special focus on international collaborations with the greater Middle East & North Africa and increasingly with countries of South Asia. We were established by Delfina Entrecanales, who is an arts patron and has been one of the pioneers of artist residencies over the last 25 years with Delfina Studios, which supported international artists as well as many emerging from the Middle East such as Shirazeh Houshiary, Khalil Rabah, Farhad Moshiri, Susan Hefuna, Haluk Akakce, and Khosdrow Hassanzadeh to name a few.
Delfina Foundation was founded in 2007 to support the next generation of artists. Being set up as an independent initiative we have certain amount of freedom from agendas that we, in turn, offer artists. There are no prescribed outcomes. Artists are not obliged to give us a work after leaving. We are a charity, non-commercial. We are not grant-making. We avoid selling work.
I took up the reigns as Director at this point bringing in my experience in producing artist projects and developing networks as part of Metal, an organisation set up by Jude Kelly OBE. I have attempted to make Delfina Foundation artist-centred and focused on artistic development. In a few words, I would say that we are a catalyst, a hub, a platform, a refuge, an artistic laboratory, a resource, a host, and a family.
HBM: What are the main aims and activities of the Foundation?
AC: The main aim of our work is to promote exchange and experimentation, and to offer a space where residents – artists, curators and writers – can reflect on what they do, position their practice in a global discourse on the arts, create career-defining research and commissions, and network with colleagues.
Our residencies are bespoke. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to how we work with residents. We attempt to tailor each experience for each resident. Some come to conduct research; to gain exposure to a different art scene that may, in turn, enhance their own practice; to make new work; to build a set of specific skills; or to have ‘time out’. We aspire for the residencies to be stepping-stones to other opportunities, regardless of the type of residency or whether the resident is emerging or established.
HBM: Promoting art as a tool for mutual understanding between East and West is one of your main aims. What kind of role do art and creativity play in this sense?
AC: While a central belief of our founder and trustees is in the power of art to promote mutual understanding, the way in which we achieve this is often indirectly. We inherently believe that art has the potential to open up areas of debate, provocation and realisation without instrumentalising artists or the work that they do.
Our main geographical remit has been the greater Middle East & North Africa (MENA). It is an area that has been the focus of the world’s media on one hand and the art world on the other – often for the wrong the reasons. Our activities attempt to update perceptions about the MENA, through a very nuanced way via artistic exchange.
It would also be remiss not to mention that there is genuinely strong interest in what’s coming out of MENA… the enormity of ambition in contemporary art – sometimes produced against all odds – and the ambition in architecture in the UAE. We actually have a lot to learn about the resourcefulness and the guts that it takes to be creative under censorship or creative and competitive, as has been the case in the Gulf.
HBM: What kind of Mobility/Residency Programs are you involved in?
AC: Residencies form the core of our programmes at Delfina Foundation, from which everything else stems. The residencies tackle some fundamental issues in MENA, and they can also be viewed as an alternative form of education and learning in light of the educational system in the region, which is weak – or non-existent – in some places in terms of contemporary art. To some degree, the residencies can also be viewed as a laboratory space where ideas and ‘hunches’ can be supported without the pressure of the commercial market, which has also boomed in the MENA region.
Our residencies in MENA, with local partners, address both the local issues, which I described above, but also ones that affect international cultural practitioners. In light of the economic crises, there is a strain on support for international exchange, which is also essential in the development of artistic practice here.
Since 2007, DF has hosted nearly 100 cultural practitioners from 18 countries in residence in its London premises and with partners in MENA. Most importantly, we have worked with leading UK institutions such as National Portrait Gallery, Serpentine Gallery, the Royal Society of the Arts, Hay Festival, Edinburgh Art Festival, Iniva, Goldsmith’s College, V&A, and Tate.
Previously we have had residencies in Beirut, Damascus, Halabja, Bethlehem, Dubai and Muscat with partners in the region, often bringing together different organisations and harnessing local resources. Some of these programmes are unilateral and in many bilateral.
In addition to unique collaborations, our on-going partnerships are with A. M. Qattan Foundation, Art Dubai, Tashkeel, Dubai Culture, Magic of Persia, Ashkal Alwan, Al Riwaq Art Space, Decolonizing Art Architecture Residency, Bidoun, and the British Council.
HBM: Could you please tell me what kind of networks you are currently creating and what is, in your opinion, the value of these interactions?
AC: At the moment, we are launching a major collaboration with ArtSchool Palestine called Points of Departure. It includes 8 residencies and an exhibition across the UK and Palestine with the support of the British Council. The value of this interaction is to provide exposure for contemporary artists in both Palestine and the UK. It’s about mutuality and creating opportunities for artists to share ideas and collaborate. Mobility is an essential aspect of the project providing access to knowledge, resources and networks that would otherwise not be possible without Delfina Foundation, ArtSchool Palestine and the British Council.
In the future we are developing more international collaborations with the Middle East & North Africa, rather than working in isolation with the region. It was important when we started to give priority to MENA and to promote artistic development with the divisive language in the media following 9/11 and then the sudden boom in the art market that could have dominated how art – and what type of art – from MENA makes it into the wider world.
At the moment, we’re developing residency projects with India and Brazil, which would involve collaborations between cultural practitioners from those countries with those in MENA and the UK. I think there is a considerable value in facilitating this kind of mobility around common practices and shared discourses.
HBM: Mobility is also a way of creating new visions and perceptions. What are the main cultural, social and personal enrichments of the mobility experience?
AC: Delfina Foundation works with a range of cultural practitioners at different stages of their career; and therefore, the enrichment from a mobility experience is unique for each. It is hard to single out any one example since ‘success’ could be more confidence in one’s practice to more international exhibitions as a result of the exposure that comes from mobility experiences.
Ultimately, a residency enhances both the personal and professional development of cultural practitioners and thus, it stretches their capacity to re-define their practice and re-imagine the world.
HBM: Artistic practices and research are both essential elements in understanding the complexity of the contemporary world and creating new perspectives of analyzing it. How do you select artists and researchers for your residency, research and exhibition projects?
AC: We attract residents through a wide network of cultural practitioners, partnering organisations and social media. Some residents are invited directly, nominated or through an application process.
We convene panels for most of residency selections and we focus on the benefit that the mobility experience will have on the practitioner, personally and professionally. We also seek out practitioners who are well-placed to share their individual experience in a collective way.
HBM: Art centres are rapidly shifting towards the East and new art cartographies are growing up. Delfina Foundation actually focuses its activities on the MENASA region. What does the MENASA space mean for you?
AC: This ‘space’, if one were able to refer to it as such, is one of immense complexity and diversity. For the sake of brevity, we sometimes refer to MENA and even MENASA as a region; however, it is only a region in terms of geography. There are significant economic, social, political and cultural differences that require distinct approaches. For Delfina Foundation, we have always attempted to create bespoke opportunities for cultural practitioners that are flexible to accommodate specific practices and places.
HBM: How can one improve and promote the cultural and artistic mobility in this region?
AC: There is an overwhelming need to develop more mobility within MENASA itself, particularly in engaging the Maghreb more. Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and Libya are often under-represented in regional partnerships, which should be addressed by artists and arts organisations in the region itself. However, governments also need to be engaged in order to facilitate visas and access.
Private patronage can play a fundamental role in supporting mobility. All too often mobility in MENASA is supported by international funding which promotes certain agendas and the involvement of particular countries. Patrons in the region (and Diaspora communities) can shift such power dynamics by activating partnerships across the region. Alongside developing regional networks of arts organisations, there should also be a move to develop a network of private patrons.
Improvements must also be made around coordination across the region. Arts organisations could share resources better to support and encourage international residencies. For example, we connected two of our residency projects, which paved a way for a programme in Muscat to gain from our curatorial residency in Dubai. In short: the partners in Muscat could afford to bring the resident there once she was already in the region. I am not advocating for ‘regional tours’ of resident artists but where there are communalities, as in the case of curatorial research residencies, this should be considered.
HBM: What will be the future of mobility?
AC: The future of mobility is one that is no longer focused on East-West or North-South exchanges but involves more East-East and South-South collaborations.
I would also love to imagine a world where there are fewer visa restrictions.