‘Migrant artists don’t need to be invited as the exotic guest of the day’
Contatto: Online project explores a new generation of artists and talent in Ireland
“Life happens between our plans,” says Elena Cristofanon, whose latest project, Contatto, shares the words and stories of a new generation of artists in Ireland. For centuries, the Irish experience of multiculturalism mostly took place abroad. Sometimes we assimilated; on other occasions we established deliberately green enclaves. But it has never been binary: all contact generates change, from subtle to seismic.
Similarly, culture is never static. Even were it possible (never mind anything approaching desirable) to remain culturally isolated, people, custom and belief evolve and shift. Each generation learns from and reacts to the ones that came before, a process that is enriched by different viewpoints, not least because they enable one to see life from new angles.
Cristofanon is a photographer who was born in Italy and came to Ireland in 2014 with a plan to stay for just a few months. Seven years later she is still here, setting up the Mother Tongues Festival with fellow Italian Francesca La Morgia. The festival, which will run from May 17th to May 22nd, celebrates the many cultures and languages now threading themselves throughout Ireland.
My hope is that Contatto will help event managers see there are so many talented artists outside the mainstream circle that can be actively involved in creating projects
“Contatto was born last summer,” says Cristofanon. “We felt the need to give a sense to a very nonsensical 2020.” Uploading a new interview each Wednesday, the results are a series of videos ranging from the personal and the fascinating to the intriguing and the heartfelt.
“The artists,” as Cristofanon puts it, “are shown as powerful human beings, going way beyond the stereotype that many people have of migrants in need of help. My hope is that Contatto will help decision makers and event managers to see that there are so many talented artists outside of the mainstream circle that can be actively involved in creating projects. They don’t need to be invited as the ‘exotic guest of the day’. Whether you like it or not, they are already enriching the Irish cultural scene.”
Some of the artists involved in Contatto have shared their stories with The Irish Times.
I was born in Lagos, the unofficial capital of Nigeria, a city as diverse as it is unique. Till today it still serves as my foundation for appreciating the beauty in otherness. I grew up among people from at least half of the tribes in Nigeria, and given there are more than 300 tribes, my culture is a combustion of southern food, western greetings, northern clothes and everything in between.
I moved to Ireland in 2010 after getting a scholarship to study abroad. I studied in Tralee and Cork before moving to Dublin to work as a pharmacist. This was when I started taking my poetry seriously. I performed at poetry slams and open mics before I transitioned to being an official artist, performing at festivals all over the country and curating shows and projects of my own.
As beautiful as Tralee and Cork are, Dublin reminded me of Lagos: the cultural tapestry, the art, the music, a certain diverse uniqueness inspired by otherness. All this is what triggered my writing, and as time goes on and other cultures continue to grow in Ireland, I believe my job is to continue to try and capture the muse in motion, to show what true integration looks like. It is not a cultural wash, it isn’t assimilation, it is a black man with a Dublin accent wearing a dashiki to go see river dancing at The Point. It is turning a river green thousands of miles from where it all started.
There will always be people that fear this will lead to the erasure of the Irish culture, a fear that comes from believing the space for the existence of others is limited and the more space they have, the less you will have. But I have witnessed first-hand how diversity does the opposite, how it breaks down walls and increases the space for these things to exist.
From first-generation Irish children learning Gaeilge to St. Patrick’s Day being celebrated in Nigeria, diversity is the answer, not the problem.
I moved to Ireland from Poland in 2006 and four years later I started my journey as an artist. Contatto is a possibility to bring some reflection on the art scene in Dublin and in Ireland. It lets us respond to the realities of different artists as well as other members of society. It lets us suggest what’s missing, what is needed.
I was involved with setting up The Icon Factory, an artist-run collective, and The Icon Walk, a street art walking trail, both in Temple Bar. As well as that, I have a live painting studio in Temple Bar where people can watch me work. I wanted to bring a focus on integrating art into everyday life. I want art to be able to have a greater impact by making it less intimidating, so that we can all become part of the art of the city.
Art is an action for me, it is something that can make a difference. Creativity is about developing new ideas and my art and social engagement work are about using those ideas as part of a transformation. Sometimes that means changing something physical, such as the back alleys of Temple Bar; sometimes it is changing behaviours. What I pay most attention to is connecting with the simple fact that art is part of our humanity. It is something that adds to our experiences as humans. Local government needs to focus more on creating accessible places for artists, places where their art will also be visible for all audiences.
Unfortunately, I have found there is little interest among those in power to understand how important this is.
My journey with the arts started as a kid. I always loved going to museums and I learned stage acting when I was a teenager. I was always naturally into everything artistic. I believe the biggest beauty of art is its power to show us reality from another perspective. This is a mighty feature that can help change society and the world. Working with arts is not a profession for me, it is a mission.
In my experience as a curator in Brazil, most of our events and exhibitions had themes of social relevance. That is what I hope to continue in Ireland. In my Contatto interview, I talked about the importance of local artistic networking. When I moved to Ireland I was expecting to find a huge Brazilian/artistic community, but what I found was individuals, just like me, all trying to find their way by themselves. So, I set up Artmulti Brazil, which now has 70 artists involved, including Irish artists, I am happy to say.
The main difficulty for migrant artists is finding a place to exhibit as rents are expensive and, more than that, it is hard to find an available spot in many galleries. So, instead I started putting on exhibitions in local establishments to show our potential. Last year we had exhibitions in restaurants and in a hair salon. This year we have been selected for an exhibition at the Mother Tongues Festival. This will be the first time, if Covid-19 restrictions allow, that one of our exhibitions will be in a gallery.
I have German citizenship. When I finished college I wanted to come to Europe to grow in personal and professional experiences. I chose Ireland for the similarities between Brazilian and Irish people. Both are extremely friendly and helpful. I think we have much to learn with each other and we share more than personality traits. Historically, we both have experienced hard times and had to fight for our freedom.
I can relate to and embrace Irish history and culture, I really feel at home here.
I am from Zambia. I dance, act, sing, drum, write poems, I do storytelling workshops and I teach. These are the things that helped me get back into education after circumstances had forced me to leave it. After that, my friends and I had nothing to do, so we formed Barefeet Theatre to help young people at risk of homelessness. I travelled the world with Barefeet Theatre, and through an exchange I met my partner and came to Ireland.
Growing up in Zambia, every evening we used to sit around the fire and elders would tell stories full of knowledge and wisdom. It is called Pansaka, though it happens less now. I try to keep that culture alive.
When I moved to Ireland I had thought it would be easy as an international artist to get a job, but after auditions I was always told, “We regret not to pick you, we will keep in touch . . .”
The performing arts industry in Ireland can be judgmental. Making a living as an artist here is not easy. In the end I gave up with auditioning and started focusing on building my solo artist career. I joined the Discovery Gospel Choir, where the hospitality was overwhelming. It is a place you feel at home, a place you can be who you are, it is a community.
I also work for Depaul Ireland as a night support worker. My role is to make sure our residents are safe, well protected, to give them hope, to remind them that there are people who care about them and that they are also people like everyone else. I love this job because I know that for most of them it is not their fault to be in that situation. For most of them, it is due to circumstances beyond their control.