About community and safe space building: Arafa Hamadi reflects on their residency
Arafa C. Hamadi (they/them) is a multidisciplinary artist working in Tanzania and Kenya. Their practice spans both physical or digital format, aiming to create fully immersive works. Arafa’s art explores their queerness in relation to space and occupancy, focusing on joy and tangible ways of connecting their community
Read more about Arafa’s residency here.
Tanzanian multidisciplinary artist Arafa Hamadi creates immersive digital and physical artworks informed by a human-centred approach. They are interested in the concept of “world building” and creating spaces of care where LGBTQI+ communities can find connection and expression. During their residency at La Becque near Geneva from May to July 2022, Arafa developed a body of work inspired by labyrinths, hair braiding and ballroom culture.
What experience living and working in the different context of Switzerland?
The experience of living in Switzerland was incredible. When I first arrived, I was amazed by the beauty of the country and the landscape, especially at La Becque in La Tour-de-Peilz. Having come from Dar-es-Salaam, I was not used to living outside of the city and so the silent and slow country living got to me at first, but then I embraced the meditative opportunity of the space. I loved swimming in Lake Geneva on most days, enjoying the sunshine and exploring the region. I also loved going to the cities of Lausanne and Basel frequently, and met some of the most incredible people there.
What have you learned about your own work through exchange with people and artist you encountered during your residency?
It was amazing to meet other artists in my peer group while I was in Switzerland. I truly enjoyed the exchange of tips and skills, specifically while navigating the international art spaces as artists of colour. I learned how important it was to not filter my work through a western lens and to not shy away from addressing specific topics concerning my community, that is the LGBTQI+ communities in East Africa.
Please tell us about the influences that inspired your project ALTAR, and what themes and ideas you were exploring in this body of work.
ALTAR was inspired by various different interests that I explored and engaged with while I was in Switzerland. My intention for the residency was to explore labyrinth design and its history, however I found that a lot of the reading I was doing was around European labyrinth design. In search of African design aesthetics, I came across fractal design and Ron Engel’s work identifying various applications of fractal designs throughout African urban and textile design history. From this reading, I began creating abstract patterns based on existing urban and hair-braiding designs found in East Africa. This became a meditation as I produced multiple similar yet entirely different patterns long rolls of paper.
Simultaneously, I was also encountering and engaging with the ballroom community in Lausanne, who accepted me into their fold so fully, I was able to ask them about community and safe space building within their local queer community. I began considering the architecture of a safer space, and how ballroom always follows a consistent layout regardless of the space it occupies – a sort of realisation of queer people’s realities of being marginalised and continuously violated. Almost as an ode to this culture I had been allowed to participate in, I began incorporating this set-up, this architecture, into my meditative pattern drawing.
ALTAR, as it was shown towards the end of my residency, was a collection of various non-representational artworks created as I explored both Ballroom culture and labyrinth design or, more accurately, the meditative quality of creating fractal patterns based on Swahili ornamental, urban and hair-braiding designs. It explores the intentional and innate culture of creating spaces that simultaneously embody and accommodate us.
In what way do you foresee this project evolving or inspiring new trajectories in your work?
I hope to continue this exploration, possibly realising physical spaces. I really enjoyed working in my own studio, and having the space to explore conceptual works in large scales. I hope to approach art spaces in Dar-es-Salaam to allow me to use their large spaces, and to continue creating non-representational abstract works that addresses the critical conversations I have about safety and the community in Dar.
Can you tell us more about your interest in safe spaces and how this notion resonates in your work?
My Interest in safe-space building began when I returned to Tanzania in 2017 after living and studying in the UK. I craved the freedom I experienced while living in the UK, and began seeking out spaces in East Africa where I could exist freely and boldly. This led me first to festival spaces, such as Nyege Nyege in Uganda and Kilifi New Year in Kenya, then eventually found femme and queer spaces in Nairobi. I met a lot of the change-makers there, and got to have very interesting conversations about what safety meant to them and how one can intentionally curate such spaces.
I have now had the privilege to explore such spaces not only in my region, but also in Southern Africa and Europe this summer. I intent to create such spaces in my city, Dar-es-Salaam, however I would like to approach them carefully without leaning into the capitalistic tendencies event-planners in this region tend to fall into. I recently watched organisers with profit in mind exploit the young communities in Kenya, and I would like my practice and eventual realisation to avoid that. I believe this is a long journey of learning I am about to embark on, and am grateful that I got to connect with the older, more established spaces in Europe.
What impressions did your engagement with the ballroom scene in Lausanne and Zurich leave for you personally and artistically?
I was in awe of the scenes in Lausanne and Zurich, hence the creation of ALTAR. While the scene is still young compared to the American and British scenes, I was still incredibly inspired and enthralled by how the black and brown communities all across the big Swiss cities came together. It really instilled in me the belief that while I could wait for spaces to be created for me, or for permission to be given, I could also choose to act and use the community around me to build something bigger than ourselves.
What value do you think residencies provide artists in terms of their personal and professional development?
A long residency such as this encourages you to think about what topics and themes you would like to study in-depth – having never been given three months to solely concentrate on my work, I found myself questioning the topics I had chosen to work on when I arrived. This residency specifically provided me the opportunity to follow the research as far as it could take me, and explore open-ended questions about safety and how this can physically be realised.
I think residencies also provide the very necessary physical studios young artist like me lack in their practice. It was a privilege to work at La Becque, at their studios, their workshops as well as their landscape. I think this was an invaluable experience, and will continue seeking such residencies out in the future of my practice.
Anything else you would like to add.
I just want to emphasise how grateful I am for this opportunity. I appreciate the freedom and resources I was given to explore everything I was interested in during my residency, and hope to continue working with some of the artists, cultural workers and ballroom parents I met while in Switzerland.