Walker Art Center
Content, Context, and Cultural Commitment: Curating the Performing Arts

How do I impact Mozambique, how do I impact Brazil, how do I impact Japan if I am bringing artists from those countries? That has become my definition of global programming.

PB: How have you achieved that with Africa Exchange, a program you helped organize, and also with your current NJPAC Global Exchange project?

BS: Africa Exchange was created in 1995 at 651 ARTS Center in Brooklyn, thanks to a Ford Foundation grant.[2] Other institutions that received funding--working in other geographical regions such as Asia, Latin America, and South America--were focused primarily on doing the projects in their own institutions. We decided that we wanted to bring other organizations into the program, create a network, create an advisory committee, and hold convening sessions and conferences. We wanted to expand the number of institutions in our field working with African artists. During the first three years alone, we engaged more than fifty artists from the African continent, including composers, choreographers, theater directors, dancers, and musicians. They were in residence at sixteen different arts institutions throughout the United States. Works were commissioned, collaborations and residencies happened, and amazing products came out of that endeavor.

PB: Africa Exchange has sponsored a broad array of artistic exchanges and new collaborative projects between African and American artists. The program greatly increased the number of African artists who were seen in the U.S. and it developed deep ties between artists from different continents. What did you learn from that initiative, and what would you do differently?

BS: Ping Chong was on our initial advisory committee. When I began thinking about the design of Africa Exchange, I asked artists, "How should this program operate? How would it work for you?" Ping said, "American artists have frequently voiced concern that any exchange that does not provide funds for both African and American artists to visit each other's countries and communities will put the artist who does not have such an opportunity at a psychological and cultural disadvantage, and will create an unequal partnership in the collaborative process."

With the Global Exchange at NJPAC, I wanted to create a residency program that allows artists to travel both ways and that is not just performance-based. In other words, the process and the residency are the essence of the program itself, so the exchange isn't necessarily predicated on an artist having to do a performance in my hall. What I really wanted to do was to facilitate relationships, artists meeting other artists.

A key element of Global Exchange came from the model set by the Walker's global initiative. When I learned about your program taking at least three years, if not more, to develop the idea, to develop the plan, to develop partnerships, I said, "That's what artists need." In almost every residency that we did with Africa Exchange, the artists said that there was not enough time. So Global Exchange gives artists three to five years to work together.

PB: My sense of the funding realities in America right now is that if a new work does emerge from a collaboration, it takes much longer these days to fully fund and develop a project. The timelines have stretched from a year and a half to three years or more to be able to realize a work.

BS: The collaboration we have developed through residency exchanges between the Urban Bush Women and the National Song and Dance Company of Mozambique has taken five years. Finally, in the 2002-2003 season, we will have a new work by the Urban Bush Women that received input from the National Song and Dance Company in Mozambique and we will have a new work by the National Song and Dance Company in Mozambique that received input from the Urban Bush Women. So I'll finally present those two companies together.

PB: And the two works were influenced by each other?

2 Africa Exchange was jointly conceived by Baraka Sele and Mikki Shepard (then at 651 ARTS Center in Brooklyn, New York), Stephanie Hughley (curator for theater and dance at the Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta, Georgia), and Laura Greer (Aaron Davis Hall in Harlem, New York).