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The Twins Who Used Art to Rule Aruba

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The Twins Who Used Art to Rule Aruba

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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Bisco and Jasmine: Unifying Visions, Youth, and (While They're At It) The Middle East

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Bisco and Jasmine: Unifying Visions, Youth, and (While They're At It) The Middle East

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I met Bisco Smith (a.k.a. Brad) several years ago after having first been enamored with his visual art as a designer for one of my favorite music labels growing up, Definitive Jux, after my friend put me onto his work. I also admired the aerosol art that he adorned New York City walls with, his thoughtful lyricism as an emcee, his passion as a youth art educator. After just relocating to LA this past summer, Bisco, along with his creative partner (and girlfriend)--cinematographer and photographer Jasmine Hemery--banded together with a few other talented friends to bring their love of hip-hop and youth development to Israel as a vehicle to unify Israeli and Arab Israeli youth. There they used their hip-hop sensibility to teach mural painting, song-writing, and dance. In this joint interview with Bisc and Jasmine, we give you a glimpse into how their fleeting idea became a transcontinental art program, and how this Jack and Jacqueline-of-all-trades pair continuously push each other to the next level.

As U.S.-based multimedia artists, how did you develop an arts enrichment program in Israel? 

Bisc:I work with an organization called Arts By the People. They're based out of New Jersey, and I got involved with them via my friend Gus doing street art workshops. Gus connected me to this guy Paul who's got a lot of friends in Israel. We were driving around one day and we were just like, “It would be crazy to run this workshop in Israel,” and two weeks later Gus, Paul and I put together a PDF to get money--just breaking down what we wanted to do--and boom! He got us funding in a week. Okay, maybe not a week. It took a few steps, but he  reached out to one person, who reached out to another person, and maybe a few steps later, we got funding and we got a place to go to. It was a very fast process.

We then connected with Project Harmony, a program who works with a great organization in Israel called Hand In Hand. The umbrella that we went to Israel under is Hand In Hand, and inside of it was Arts By The People and Project Harmony. The airfare was privately funded for, and the accommodations were privately funded. We raised money for the materials, which were all donated by friends and family in a really quick matter of time. Between Hand-In-Hand, Arts By The People, and Project Harmony, and donors and friends and family, a lot of people got together to make it work. I went to do the street art workshop. Jasmine came to document everything, Gus planned to do hip-hop song writing, and our friend Renee Floresca came to teach dance.

How many kids did you work with? 

Bisc: We worked with about 50-60 youth. It fluctuated especially because Ramadan started around then. It was an English language summer camp that is run out of Hand In Hand, which is an English language school, so they teach in each classroom--they have one teacher who teaches Hebrew, and one teacher that speaks Arabic in each classroom. They use English as the common thread. It’s a mix of Jewish and Arab kids. Some from Palestine and some from Jerusalem. It’s very progressive and political. There are a few of those schools in Israel.

How does religion play a role in the day-to-day life of the Israeli youth that you worked with?

Bisc: In Israel, things are segregated by religion. I don’t know too much about the experiences of Christian and Muslim Arabs, vs. Jews, but pretty much, everyone is separated because religion is the key factor out there. Younger generations and more progressive people are changing stuff. Most of the parents of the kids that we worked with are artists or creative people. They function in not your everyday world.

Going there, we went for art. We didn’t go for politics, we didn’t go for religion.

As Americans, did the actual experience of being there change your initial view of that region of the world? 

Jasmine: I feel like our experience was only formed through our actual journey out there. Initially, we went to Palestine, but we also saw The Holocaust Museum in Israel, and so understanding both perspectives changed what we thought. I think we ended the trip realizing that it's just such a complex situation beyond what we thought we knew. Both sides have views that are relatable. I left feeling much more empathetic to both sides. I think being in The States you have such a skewed perception that leans towards one end.

Bisc:Going there, we went for art. We didn’t go for politics, we didn’t go for religion. Everyone goes to Israel for religion and politics. People don’t really go there for art, so our political knowledge was only what we hear on the internet and it was very skewed. I wasn’t scared by that. I was more focused on the kids than I was about the political climate.

Was working with the youth there challenging because of language or cultural barriers? 

Bisc:I don’t think so. The kids we worked with were very educated. I initially thought that we were going to go to a more underserved area. I think it was actually pretty privileged--not super rich and balling out--but the kids, even to be in a program like that you have to have a family that is doing pretty okay out there.

The kids just loved what we were doing. After the first day, we had their full attention, they were excited about it. I’d say, the age for me was the toughest part. We worked with some kids that were as young as nine, and I’m used to working with kids who are older than that. It was harder to do what I normally do--and I had to on the spot change my approach--but only because of their age, not because they were Israeli or Palestinian.

Jasmine:One of the things that struck us the most was that they had all of the same kid mannerisms as anywhere. Kids are kids no matter where they are from, but sometimes we did experience a language barrier.

Watch Words to the World: The Making of a Mural,a short documentary about the Israel youth project:

WORDS TO THE WORLD - The Making of a Mural from Little Giant on Vimeo.

How did the Israel project fit into the natural scope of your work? 

Jasmine: I feel that this fits into the evolution of our careers that will include more philanthropic causes, including service as part of our common work.

Bisc: I think it’s important to work with young people. I’ve been doing that for a long time. I have definitely been fortunate enough to give back through my work, and I’m sure that’s not going to stop, but I really want to work with all ages sharing these skills and crafts.

Why hip-hop?

I believe that hip-hop is great at breaking boundaries and uniting different ages and cultures, and bring them under one umbrella. Who knows?--Those kids could form an Arab-Jewish collaborative rap group, or slowly make their way to create change through the continuation of hip-hop--which is about unification.

To flip the script and talk about your working relationship, what other major work have you two collaborated on? 

Bisc:Jasmine hasbeen working on these shorts, and she’s been letting me help her assist direct, and do a lot of different stuff on that. I started working with her on her films, and I would score her movies. Then we did a project where it was my music, and she shot me a music video. This is the first time that we’ve travelled overseas and created a documentary piece. Definitely it’s just the first one. We’re both kind of hyped on doing more of it, and it’s a great opportunity for dope co-created projects. We’ve been doing that since day one.

How do you guys keep inspired and sustain your rhythm for creating, individually or in a partnership?

Jasmine: I think as an artist, you are inspired daily. It can be something as simple as someone crossing the street, that you just want to explore and dig deeper, whether it's in film or writing, or painting. I think my rhythm is just everyday life, allowing myself to be inspired to make something. And this guy here is super creative and multi-talented, so naturally in conversation, we’ll be listening to the same thing, and talking about it, and then we create something.

Bisc:We think on the same wavelength. I mean, we’ll both look at the same thing and say “that’s dope." For me, because I always work alone, we’ve had some struggles with Jasmine giving me real criticism and feedback, but it’s a lot of growing and a lot of learning. It’s working in a way that it’s only going to be iller. I think we push each other. I think that where I fall short, she steps in and makes it better. I think we really do fill in the space for each other where we aren’t as strong. It’s done very effortlessly. Say I’m writing something for a client--I’m not the best writer--I ask her, and she will change my perspective and make me better. Boom!

Jasmine: And I’m not the best talker [laughs].

Bisc:You’ll see that I like talking a lot, so I’ll talk for her. It works like that. It’s something creative where we both do for each other. Like when we are directing partners in film; I talk for her, I don’t mind talking where I’m telling people what to do or where to fall on set, and she’s the eye, and together we create a really good overall holistic and creative person. One more thing to add to are both of our goals. Right now I don’t have an ultimate goal, or there's absence of an overall goal. That’s something that I am struggling with in the present--not struggling with--but I think creatively, it’s something that I have to work towards because I have to see it in order to get there. She’s been helping me a lot with visualizing that imagery.

Looking forward, I have no idea what it will lead me to. I’m going to quote Steve Jobs and say, “you can’t connect the dots going forward.” Right now, I just don’t know.

Did Israel fulfill any long standing goals that you had for your careers? 

Jasmine: In terms of traveling, I’ve always traveled and brought a camera and took to photographs, but now that I’m studying film, it was an opportunity to evolve my skills and try to do film, creating what is going to be a miniature documentary. I was trying to capture moments. It’s very different than just taking a photo. You’re capturing an elongated period of time. It was a really interesting experience.

Bisc: For me, I can’t specifically answer that. I don’t know. It’s weird for me to say it, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. I don’t really have a "thing." I just kind of take the art as it comes, and this just came to me. I just feel like I was fortunate to get the opportunity and I mean--I paint walls, and I come from that world for more than half of my life. I’ve been involved in that culture for a long time. It’s definitely a continuation of what I come from--the root to my art and creativity. It was also a continuation of being Jewish and coming from that as a whole. Looking forward, I have no idea what it will lead me to. I’m going to quote Steve Jobs and say, "you can’t connect the dots going forward." Right now, I just don’t know.

On the surface it looks like you guys are living the dream. In your day-to-day reality, are there ever times where being in a creative profession is exhausting or unproductive? 

Jasmine: I definitely have creative blocks. For me, I have to force myself to sit there and work through it. Editing for me is really hard. I kind of have to just sit there and force myself to do it. It makes it easier to think in terms of projects. I try to do one project at a time.

Bisc: I don’t know man, for me, I just work. Somedays like today I didn’t do shit. I sat at this desk all day and I organized files. I did bullshit all day. Because I’m in a creative block right now…I don’t know, I guess it comes and goes, at the end I just have faith that everything comes my way, and I’ll make art and I’ll make money. There’s a lot of shit that I want to do. If I write it all out, like I did recently, it becomes overwhelming. I mean, our day-to-day, it’s pretty normal. We don’t stay up until the morning doing art and smoking weed and shit. I feel like I’m getting old, and I’m trying to be healthy. I’m just going to the gym and trying to eat well. It’s a balance between professionalism and artistry, business and personal, love and relationships, and regular life stuff too...

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photography and video by Jasmine Hemery

Check out Bisco's creative agency Daylight Curfew Creative, a creative agency that specializes in design, apparel, identity, instillation, web, video, and audio.

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