The ArtXChange must be one of the most successful programs that the European Union has running for Africa, or at least for African artists like Nick Ndeda, Yeshihareg Cosmos, Abdirahman Yusuf, and Najma Swaleh.
They were among the 16 young artists who came from both Europe and Africa to take part in a three- week project that culminated earlier in March in an event entitled ‘Look Me in the I’.
The event took place at The Alchemist in Westlands and in four hours was meant to condense what that multidisciplinary team was able to create over an intense 16-day period spent up at the Tafaria Castle in Nyandarua.
Tafaria turned out to be the perfect get-away place where that diverse troupe of strangers got together to create and recreate themselves.
More than one of them described their experience as ‘life-transforming’ largely because the project facilitators did their job so well.
Maimouna Jallow and Xavier Verhoest come from two very different artistic and social backgrounds. Maimouna only recently moved to Spain to take care of family. But previously, she had been based in Nairobi for years.
Her special gift for inspiring others with her storytelling and filmmaking skills had endeared her to the local community.
Meanwhile, Xavier had been involved in humanitarian aid programs throughout the region before settling in Kenya where he’s a visual artist specializing in body mapping.
They were the two whose role it was to curate the residency while infusing an invisible spirit of familiarity and trust among artists who were everything from filmmakers, photographers, visual and performing artists, to poets, dancers, writers, and musicians.
The success of their efforts can be measured on several accounts. First, there’s the ArtXChange Instagram account where one will find a range of personal testimonies shared by project participants who are not just pleased to have participated in the initiative.
Many are elated for having been among the few selected out of a slew of artists who applied from across the region.
The African artists came mainly from Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, while the Europeans came from Spain, Italy, and Belgium.
All had applied to be part of the ArtXChange process, which Maimouna says was primarily experimental.
The facilitators, while committed to blending two very different methodologies, namely storytelling and body painting, had their ultimate goal.
It was to get the artists to explore their own stories and release their inner spirits so they could feel free enough to express their hearts, minds, and souls.
On all those counts, the project was a success as one could see in early March at The Alchemist where they put on a multifaceted display of the fruits of their creative journey.
Portraits of life-sized body maps created by the artists themselves hung all around the ground floor of The Alchemist.
Meant to inspire the one painted to use the map as a kind of autobiographical statement about themselves, they used colors and textures to reflect on themselves.
But definitely, it was the performance space that enabled the actor, the dancer, the singer, filmmaker, spoken-word poet, and even the choreographer, and author to have their say.
Their performances flowed non-stop, as the whole team presented themselves in a well-choreographed production.
The narrator Nick hardly had a role apart from his opening words since the guitarist, the dancers, and the poets all took turns taking over the stage, which was given a busy light-infused backdrop that kept one awake throughout the entire unscripted process.
The participants had clearly gotten to know one another well enough to blend into and out of the program as they’d agree beforehand.
“Look Me in the I” wasn’t the first ArtXChange project enacted through a broader EU-African Union program.
But this one, also involving the International Committee for the Development of Peoples (CISP), has been especially effective in targeting a youthful population with its commitment to use art to affect social change.
CISP also works with a consortium of five organizations based in four countries, namely Kenya, Somalia, Italy, and Sweden.
“Look Me in the I”, like the previous ArtXChange projects, turned a team of strangers into close friends who seized the opportunity to blend their creative ideas into one delicious visual and vocal meal enjoyed by locals last March 8.
Ideally, the artists will take home the lessons they have learned to benefit their local communities and the wider world.
That’s the stated ArtXChange objective, namely creating art that can effect social change.