Ira and Ayra

Ira and Ayra are a special pair. Not only are they business and creative partners, but they are also twins. Ira is the dreamy and somewhat elusive creative, and Ayra, the smart talking, sharp-minded business woman. Ira is a theater director, and Ayra, a marketing strategist. Ira lives in Brooklyn, Ayra, in Amsterdam--but for some time before that--London and LA. The duo grew up in Amsterdam. Their identities as "Black women"--had a much more pluralistic meaning in The Netherlands, as their family originated from where many people-of-color from Amsterdam emigrate from--the Caribbean. Having spent a short, yet significant part of their formative years in Aruba--where arts education was limited as compared to the abundant access that they had in The Netherlands--inspired them as adults to bring their creative expertise and international art networks to Aruba.This is the story about Art Rules Aruba (ARA), the two-week-long summer arts program in Aruba that Ayra and Ira dreamt, organized, and implemented; despite being told that they couldn't, despite not having any money, despite being criticized for their organization being "too black." Just having officially announced their 4th year (this summer), ARA has brought the best-of-the-best art educators from around the world to teach Aruban youth about performance, dance, visual and multimedia art.

*Interview conducted with Ayra*

You guys are twins. Did you both love the arts equally as kids, or was one more into it than the other growing up?

As far as I can remember--equally, but it wasn't so much a case of loving art or loving dance.  We started at the age of three and it has never left us, which means it's all we know. It's part of who we were, and who we are today.

Where are your cultural and ethnic roots?

Aruba and Curacao on our mother's side, and our dad is from Suriname. We were born and raised in Amsterdam, so culturally there is also that aspect, but our South American and Caribbean roots have always been more prevalent in our household.

Did you guys always know since you were kids that you would someday create and run a business together, rooted in the arts?

We always knew we would work together. The business side--The Pancake Gallery--was not actually planned. It just made sense when the time came to make our work official, become professionals in it, and give it a name.

How was Pancake Gallery born, and what was the initial objective?

I had my own company, Taboo Management, which was more an avenue to take on freelance marketing and PR jobs. When it came time for Ira to establish her work, she came up with the company name--Pancake Gallery--and a personal objective for her work. I soon decided, why not do all our work under one umbrella? And decided to combine forces with Ira's company. It just made sense.

After the merge, we started thinking seriously about the overall objective of what we wanted to do. This was some time around 2007. I was living in London and Ira in New York, so we thought about ways to connect the cities where we lived, adding Amsterdam in the mix as the city where we grew up, as well as the Caribbean, our family's roots. As we made our personal connections internationally, we we so many like-minded people with the same idea's and ambitions as ours, which then led to the idea to create something that would link all of these people to each other. The vision to take people with us on our journey, and through our work was born. That is what became the foundation of our work with Art Rules Aruba.

...when we moved to Aruba at the age of twelve, with little-to-no place to continue practicing dance at the level we were used to, that was really difficult for us. It really felt like artistic suicide. Later when we left the island to go back to Amsterdam, we also left with a sense of wanting to go back to Aruba to bring something meaningful to the community there...

At what point did you come up with the idea to bring a comprehensive teaching artist program to Aruba?

The idea to do something in Aruba started about 20 years ago when we were 12 years-old, living on the island. We were those kids that we created the program for--bored in the summer with not much to do.

Like I said, we grew up in Amsterdam taking dance classes our entire lives. So when we moved to Aruba at the age of twelve, with little-to-no place to continue practicing dance at the level we were used to, that was really difficult for us. It really felt like artistic suicide. Later when we left the island to go back to Amsterdam, we also left with a sense of wanting to go back to Aruba to bring something meaningful to the community there, involving education and the arts. Honestly, for years I thought about bringing books. I had this very vivid vision to help build a library in Aruba.

When you walk into the local library, even today, it reeks of old books. I had this idea in my head that I wanted to send new books to the schools and library's every year. When we went to school in Aruba in 1993, we were using books that were over 20 years old. Almost 16 years later, something clicked that showed us it was time to return with something to give back. We decided that the best gift was to share our artistic knowledge and experiences. What made it even bigger than we imagined was bringing the people who we ended up enlisting to come with us.

Why was going back to Aruba necessary for you guys personally? 

Personally I just wanted the youth on Aruba to have what I had: access to information, an international education, and experiences that could shape the ambitions of these young people beyond what they envision for themselves. Also, there are too many unheard voices and hidden talent across the Caribbean. Aruba will always be our home in a sense, because we spent part of our childhood there. That's where this journey needed to start for us in our careers. Suriname is another home, and it's our next destination for this work.

Did you plan on Art Rules Aruba (ARA) being a one shot deal, or did you want to see it as a staple of the arts education in Aruba?

It was not a one shot deal at all, but we also didn't orchestrate a structured plan for it to be a staple program either. Maybe somewhere I hoped it would become a staple and I knew it would have that potential, but we weren't sure if the 'powers that be' and even the local arts scene would allow the program to have play such an important role on the Island.

To a lot of people on the Island, Art Rules Aruba was initially seen as a threat. As crazy as it may seem--since we had not lived in Aruba for years--there were people who were not comfortable with the idea of "outsiders"-- as they would sometimes call us, coming to the Island and 'taking over the art scene.' Nor were they comfortable with us developing the biggest youth based arts program on the island. There was an aspect of competition that was a challenge for us when we first began.

To take that conversation even further, the scope of challenges we faced were often unpredictable. We knew we had no money, so we knew it was going to be hard already, but we did not foresee things like discrimination, or having our team of teachers be considered "too black". The journey came with a lot of strides, but also many set backs, and honestly, in the beginning I had no idea where this ship would dock. In the end, because we had a vision, and mostly because we worked hard (and maybe had a little bit of luck and knew a few amazing people), Art Rules has become a staple program in Aruba, and in hindsight, I am truly thankful for the journey that it took to get us there.

...the scope of challenges we faced were often unpredictable. We knew we had no money, so we knew it was going to be hard already, but we did not foresee things like discrimination, or having our team of teachers be considered “too black”...

What were parts of the process that were most challenging, in getting the project off the ground the first year?

Money! My mother put €1000 euros in my bank account, of which half was spent on a flight from Amsterdam to Aruba to get myself to the island in December of 2009. When I got to Aruba, all I had left was a little pocket money just enough to rent a car and eat. The rest was smartly spent on some heels, a few sharp outfits from Zara, and my 40 page proposal under my arm. This was truly all I had at the time.

As far as selling the project, I did not see this as a challenge. I knew in my heart the way Ira and I wrote the proposal that it would sell itself!

This was not a dream for us. It was a vision. It already existed. All we needed was to get the people there involved.

Did you guys have any personal challenges as siblings or as business partners? Do your ideas for the organization ever differ?

We have the same vision for the company, yet the execution is a very different thing. As much as we are the same, at the end of the day, I am a fierce business person and Ira is an artist. I cut the deals, Ira edits the videos. I organize the production, Ira mentors the kids. In the beginning I had this crazy idea that my sister and I would have the same work approach. Through experience I have learned that we truly are two different people.

What is your working relationship like? Who runs what?

Our work relationship shifts with time. Whatever we have in hand at the moment, we take a look at the work and decide who is good at what. We select our tasks based off of our strengths. If there is a time we can't handle the pressure, we then ask for each other's help. Since 2010, we've also had an amazing web designer by the name of Justin McKenzie (a.k.a Toprock) who has been able to translate our ideas visually in the most creative ways. Then there is our our Latina sister, Mariaelena, from New York, who accidentally became our project manager. Mari was visiting ARA in its first edition and ended up becoming our stage manager at the closing of the project. She has been with us ever since.

How does Pancake Gallery use Arts Rules Aruba to “Integrate and connect international arts communities” as you suggest in your mission?

Simple. We have 18 teachers from New York, London, Amsterdam, Aruba and in between. All of these people aren't only representative of different places around the world, but they are all connected to a local arts scene, which they represent when they bring their knowledge and expertise to ARA. If you were to zoom in on their personal background, we can add that our team consists of Haitian, French, Bajan, Dutch, Sudanese, Surinamese, British, American, Nigerian, and many more cultures around the world. That in turn, connects us to people from all these places. If we want we can do Art Rules Barbados, or Art Rules Sudan, it can now all be possible. That's what we have accomplished from integrating and connecting with one another.

How do you select the multidisciplinary artists from around the world to teach each year?

We do not have a format. In the beginning we looked at people that we knew personally or who were recommended through personal friends. By the third year, we learned not too work with too many friends and to set higher standards to our criteria of selection, which include: the ability to teach, the experience of working within education, the experience of working with youth, and having the right type of personality. It is very important to work with people who are flexible and can be open to the idea that ARA comes with a certain ethos.

What is the lasting impact that the two-week program has on the participants?

I think this is more of a personal question for them to answer, but from what we have seen and experienced, some of what we've heard from the kids were: they felt like ARA shaped them, opened them up, inspired them, got them to lose weight. There were so many different things that we've heard. The main impact that I believe Art Rules Aruba has had on the participants is that it has given them a sense of identity, and has empowered them to feel that they have the complete right to freedom of expression.

One student said "When Art Rules is not here, we are all like weirdo's, but when you guys come, we can feel normal again".

Do you ever feel a sense of completion?

Business-wise no, I always want to continue to do more and accomplish more as an organization. Personally, there is a sense of completion after every year, but as soon as November hits and we start thinking of the next year, we know our work has just begun, and there is a lot more work to do.

What (if at all) is the end point? 

I do not know if there is ever an end point. Education is a way of growing, and art is the purest form of expression to your identity. We definitely bring the two together. I also wonder, when do you ever stop growing or being who you are?

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos courtesy of Art Rules Aruba + Pancake Gallery

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