It’s official: that which separates us can also bring us together. Consider those practitioners who were enrolled in the ninth iteration of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative just as the pandemic struck. The biennial multidisciplinary cultural exchange had launched its cycle in February 2020, leaving little time for its four mentors to embark on the intended year-long collaboration with their respective protégés before the global shutdown brought a halt to proceedings.
Not so Carrie Mae Weems, the prominent visual artist chosen to mentor the young visual artist and filmmaker Camila Rodríguez Triana. Even though Weems was sequestered at her studio in Syracuse, NY, throughout the pandemic, and the Colombian-born Triana was similarly stranded in France, mentor enlisted protégée and set to work responding to the immediate effects on those most vulnerable.
‘And that really helped us,’ recalls Weems. ‘Number one, because it grounded us. We needed to figure out what we were experiencing and what the impact was. And not only on us but on the extended community around us as well. So that was an important first step, working together, working out language and text and image. And working out where to place that out in the world. It was wonderful to start on something that was really powerful and meaningful and touched us all.’
For the pandemic project, Weems repurposed an image from her acclaimed All the Boys series to serve as a reminder of those who remain most affected at times of economic and social upheaval. ‘I knew it was going to have a serious impact on people of colour,’ she says. ‘So although I was responding rapidly, I was responding to an ongoing condition, that brown people are always most impacted by negative forces. And I think this idea of disparity is actually where [Camila and I] are most connected. It’s the reason we relate so easily to one another; we are working out of the same territory.’
Triana had relocated to France to study film and contemporary art at Le Fresnoy in order to further explore what, as a Mestiza woman, it means to be of mixed heritage. As she explained in a short speech to introduce her first US solo exhibition, ‘Patrimonio Mestizo’, shown at BAM Fisher as part of the programme’s closing weekend in September, ‘I wonder about my ancestral heritage. I wonder about the heritage that people with power at different times in history took away from me but in some ways I receive. I am a constant seeker of the history that I lack, and I look for it in the names of my ancestors, my body and in their bodies, and I look for it in my territory.’
‘Patrimonio Mestizo’ is a five-installation exhibition comprising photography, video, sculpture and text. It draws together the lost threads of a denied identity in an eerie yet ravishing assemblage – one in which the extended ‘window of opportunity’ to work alongside Weems played a key role. ‘Usually I need more time to live in a situation and come to an answer,’ says Triana. ‘But in the middle of this situation, when Carrie invited me to make this project, she pushed me to make something with all the feelings about the situation at that moment. I made [it an] exercise to make something that [had] all the feeling I had inside.’
Fittingly, given its meditation on the meaning of connections, woven thread plays a major role in Triana’s work – ‘I had to make an installation at art school, and I remember my grandmother working with it, so I started to work with this ancestral material’. Weems recognises it as a metaphor, being ‘something larger than itself. But there are also images of books, handmade pages, language, so there’s this development, the five installations, all connected by threads.’
But for all its delving into the artist’s heritage – a complicated birthright that encompasses colonialism and cosmology – ‘Patrimonio Mestizo’ is not simply about the past: ‘I need to make something about what is happening in my country,’ says Triana. ‘If we don’t make something about this pain and violence, it will be there in the next generation and it will be repeated. But you don’t necessarily have to work with the world that exists, the material world. There is the other dimension that is more spiritual, and in that dimension, you can make some change that moves the material world.’
Change that, in its most unorthodox cycle yet, the Rolex Arts Initiative has once again been instrumental in delivering. ‘It’s a gift,’ acknowledges Weems.
Rolex Arts Initiative: the mutual benfits
Launched in 2002, the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative serves as a wide-reaching, world-traversing, mutual-learning project inspired in part by the concept of transmission espoused by company founder Hans Wilsdorf (1881-1960). Providing the opportunity for young artists to work alongside globally recognised practitioners in their respective fields, each year-long cycle involves around six weeks of direct collaboration facilitated by a dedicated team based at Rolex’s HQ in Geneva.
Prospective mentors are nominated by specialists familiar with their discipline, while a shortlist of protégés is prepared by a separate group of independent advisors from which the mentor picks their preferred candidate (protégés are unable to nominate themselves). Funding is provided by Rolex, and each cycle concludes with a two-day event, the most recent held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York City in September, at which the 20th anniversary (2023-2024) iteration of the programme was announced.
Meet the Mentors and Protégés for the 2023-24 Rolex Arts Initiative
El Anatsui and Bronwyn Katz
Bernadine Evaristo and Ayesha Harruna Attah
Anne Lacaton and Arine Aprahamian
Dianne Reeves and Song Yi Jeon
Jia Zhang-Ke and Rafael Manuel
A version of this article appears in the December 2022 issue of Wallpaper*, available in print, on the Wallpaper* app on Apple iOS, and to subscribers of Apple News +. Subscribe to Wallpaper* today (opens in new tab).
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