Ateliers Picha: Towards the Symbiotic Planet?
“Nothing comes without its world.”
Worlding in complex times
Being committed to Picha’s activities means at first understanding the difficulties related to running a non-profit cultural organization. Economic stability and viability represent the main challenge that any independent cultural center outside a few rich countries of the West faces every day. In the past two years, the uncertainty and restrictions related to the global pandemic required to rethink our program that involves many international actors (guest artists and lecturers; partners and donors; publics and benefactors). Interrogating how to work in a meaningful manner in both the global and the local context is a permanent preoccupation for Ateliers Picha and my own curatorial work engaged with the structure for several years, but it becomes a major issue when travels are interrupted and most of the supporting institutions postpone international activities and freeze funding. The precariousness of Picha – an artists’ collective which utopically sets up a self-organized, internationally acclaimed Biennale, an art center and an international pedagogical program (Ateliers Picha) – was deepened by the deterioration of the social and ecological situation world-wide. More specifically, the Democratic Republic of Congo is an extremely complex context and an astonishing mirror of the crisis of the planet: damaged landscapes, precarious existences, collapse of industrial promises, economical ruins, and global uncertainty.
Picha does not receive stable institutional funding. The structure’s strength lies in its international network, its solid connection with local cultural actors and the tireless engagement of its members.
If for Picha the pandemic was a moment of slowing down, it was also a moment to observe the huge human and financial efforts involved in the making of a successful event like a Biennale. While cultural producers working at the intersection of art and society are used to operate in unstable conditions, the past two years have clearly pointed out the necessity to reconsider what is a viable and non-toxic model for everybody involved. Asking these questions together, sharing networks and connections, acting as a facilitator without authorial attitude towards curating is for me a possible response, in search of a position, which emerges from finding collectively answers to these pressing questions.
Embracing the trouble
For me, as a European curator working in the context of Lubumbashi, means to deconstruct Western narratives and ideological structures at many levels, and to embrace complexity as a method. How to rethink the meaning of an art center and the significance of its programs when daily life is a challenge for part of a community? How to make art and culture meaningful for a collectivity? To which audiences does a cultural institution communicate and how can it take into account their temporalities? Finally, how to think about the transnational structures themselves that are part of the constant risk of turning the center’s program towards Europe and the USA?
Having the chance to dedicate a substantial amount of time to Ateliers Picha, I have more to learn than to teach. The same, I’m sure, should happen with fellow artists, practitioners, scholars, cultural activists, friends and allies from all over the world who visit, think and perform in a city that is both situated at the geographical margins of the global art networks and simultaneously a headquarter for international economic actors competing in the global economy. In this context, artistic and cultural production and transmission cannot remain limited to global artistic meta-languages, exchanged by traveling professionals on intercontinental flights. Nor should it promote global art trends in the local context. It should instead fully embrace the complexity of the situation, articulate the local and the global, share connections, and act as an ally.
To meet this purpose, as the director of Ateliers Picha and one of the curators of the seventh edition of Lubumbashi Biennale, titled Toxicity, I proposed a program merging research with situated artistic production, a pedagogical program based on learning-by-doing and collectivism, individual mentorship, and a cultural program for Picha’s spaces. The previous edition of Ateliers Picha, which took place between June and October 2019 under my direction, was already based on these premises. It comprised collective visits, exchanges, city walks, readings, discussions, moments of desperation and of enthusiasm shared in real life and online (the images in this article depict some of these moments), but its duration was limited. From 2020 on, we give priority to long duration; co-creation in partnership with a network of local and global organizations; and site-specific artistic and cultural production with an emphasis on Congolese artists.i
In the making ? The Symbiotic Planet
The praxis of sharing, cooperating and collective improvement, which is the foundation of Ateliers Picha, uses Lynn Margulis’ concept of symbiosis and endosymbiosis as a metaphor. According to the evolutionary theorist, biologist and natural science scholar, organisms that form a symbiotic relationship with others – in fact specifically as a consequence of this very symbiosis – build a better life environment for themselves and the collectivity. The Symbiotic Planet is a fundational metaphor for a cultural program that allows participation and sharing to become tangible possibilities to create better spaces for living, thinking, creating, and improving the lives of the community and the individuals alike. In many cases, our desire to construct lasting structures clashes with existing asymmetries and their financial, ecological and cultural dimensions.
Ateliers Picha is conceived as a long-term calendar of activities bringing together a group of young artists and cultural practitioners, who are called to work together until the next Biennale of Lubumbashi (October 2022). Participants from Lubumbashi and other Congolese cities follow lectures, mentorship programs and discussions with their peers and are supported in the conception of an artwork. A specific focus lies on the city as a resource and a stage (as Picha declares, the initiative “wants to promote artistic creation using urban space as a scene, and images as medium”). In response to the pandemic, most workshops in 2020 took place online: participants were invited to engage with multi-platform editorial productions (Websites and Social Media, Radio and DIY publishing, image production etc) with practitioners from South Africa, Mali, Morocco, Cameroon, to name just a few. This led to the conception of a new website for Picha and to the initiation of a fanzine. Since 2021, activities have been pursued both on-site and online. Those that require presence and site-specificity are developed together with local artists and practitioners, eventually in dialogue with experts from abroad, joining online. The participants themselves organize and coordinate public events, like reading groups, screening programs, and artist talks in the spaces of Art Center Picha. Engaging with local artists and resources is at the core of the program, while international residencies are less frequent.
The workshop with the Indonesian collective Ruangrupa in 2019 initiated this direction: At Picha, the workshop was directed and coordinated by Lubumbashi-based filmmaker Douglas Masamuna. Cooperating from a distance, the group embodied and translated Ruangrupa’s iconic artwork Gerobak Bioskop, the Mobile Cinema-cart for the streets of Lubumbashi. The result, Cindam Bala Bala, adapted and recontextualized the Gerobak Bioskop (conceived for the Indonesian context) by producing a cart that fitted in the daily life of Lubumbashi and its inhabitants.
The theme of toxicity emerged as evidence out of our experiences: toxic is not only the way resources are extracted from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also the manner ideas and cultural practices are sourced in the Global South, and transferred to the global art world. At the 2019 Lubumbashi Biennale, Kinshasa-based artist and performer Mega Mingiedi addressed the extraction of natural resources with his astonishing, large-dimensioned drawing depicting the scramble for mineral resources in the Katanga region.
In a workshop that he directed as part of Ateliers Picha, the discussions especially concentrated on the Gécamines neighborhood, a formerly wealthy area in Lubumbashi, where high rank employees of the Gécamines Mining Company lived until the political crisis and economic collapse of the 1990s. Transforming an old family house into his home, studio and laboratory, he conceived and developed in collaboration with the young artists of Ateliers Picha the performance Kesho!. The group dressed as mineworkers and pushed a huge model of the planet on the streets, inviting the inhabitants to participate and contribute their stories and their desires for the future.
Ateliers Picha 2020-22 pursues its program in the same direction. In order to address extractivism, we will critically question who holds the power to tell stories. The aim is to create spaces and creative working contexts to those who reflect and rethink global issues from Lubumbashi and the DRC. Engaging with local organizations is key in order to address first and foremost local publics. For this purpose, peer organizations are invited to collaborate with Ateliers Picha in the conception and development of activities as varied as a local web-radio, a publishing project, or a film-screening series, but also to structurally rethink the space of Picha itself as a Maison en Commun (a “House in Common”).
i So far, Ateliers Picha collaborated with international partners as varied as Facultad de Artes ASAB of the Distrital Francisco José de Caldas University, Bogotà; Framer Framed, Amsterdam; Archive Books, Berlin/Dakar; Untitled Duo, Marrakesh; Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE; Art Hub Asia, Hong Kong; Grigri Pixel, Madrid; Kunstverein, Milan; Ramdom, Gagliano dei Greci.
Lucrezia Cippitelli, cultural activist, scholar, PhD. Together with institutional and independent international partners, has developed educational and artistic activities which involve education through art, DIY culture, site-specificity and collectivism. She set up a Media Lab in Havana (Alamar Express Lab, with Omni Zonafranca, Cuba, and Inventati, Italy), a Master in Visual Arts at Alle School of Arts and Design of Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia; a lab for site-specific artistic production in Khartoum (Khartoum Art Lab, Sudan). She is currently artistic director of Atelier Picha, the long-term, site-specific educational program of Picha, the artist lead organization which runs Lubumbashi Biennale (Democratic Republic of Congo), and is professor of Aesthetics at Brera Art Academy, Milan.