The Sylt Foundation residency

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One merit award winner of the Absa L’Atelier, South Africa’s most prestigious art competition, will win a two-month residency at the Sylt Foundation on the Island of Sylt. The prize includes a return flight to Germany and a monthly stipend. The date of the residency is September to October 2018. Indra Wussow, founder and director of the Sylt Foundation, shared her thoughts on the Absa L’Atelier prize with Creative Feel.

To set foot on an Island is perilous. All expectations and preconceptions must withstand the brutal test of real experience

Creative Feel: Please tell us more about the Sylt Foundation. What does it do and why is it involved in South Africa with the Absa L’Atelier Award?

Indra Wussow: The Sylt Foundation was founded in 2003 and is working on interdisciplinary art projects and offers artists, writers, composers, choreographers, filmmakers, curators and art activists residencies in different parts of the world (Sylt, Germany; Frankfurt, Germany; Johannesburg, South Africa; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Yangon, Myanmar; Santiago, Chile; Port au Prince, Haiti). We build networks and encourage a global art discourse. 

CF: What do you, as the head of the Sylt Foundation, expect from the artist once they are on the island?

IW: First of all, it is our philosophy that every person invited should enjoy as much freedom as possible. We just expect the person to be curious, to personally engage with the space and the surroundings of a space. Their stay offers time to reflect and this is a very important commodity for an artist. Of course, some artists work with us on projects and we then discuss beforehand what could happen. But for a residency like the one awarded for the L’Atelier, we expect only that the artist is present and uses her/his time to think and reflect. This freedom generally allows the artist a very fruitful time in his career for years to come. 

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CF: Who has been a previous winner and do you think the Sylt Foundation residency has helped them with their development as an artist?

IW: So far Jaco van Schalkwyk, Bevan de Wet, Nina Kruger and Wasswa Donald were merit winners of the Absa L’Atelier Award. Kai Lossgott was a resident on Sylt and was the overall winner of the Absa L’Atelier in 2015 with a video work he started on the Island of Sylt. Sylt does help as it is an island far in the North with very different weather patterns, lights and an enormous history of artists who stayed there over the centuries. It is the silence, sometimes loneliness and, of course, the dialogue with another artist/writer who stays on Sylt the same time that makes the stay very prolific. And, of course, there is our staff who make it work and try to support every artist on her/his way. All artists seek different things and it is important to support them as we on the island have the knowledge and the connections to assist. 

Islands are distant places; an effort must be made to reach them. Their remoteness evokes the idea of travel, of passage; ‘a system of openings and closings’ that makes an island isolated and yet penetrable at the same time

CF: The Absa L’Atelier Awards are not the only involvement of the Sylt Foundation in Africa. What else do you do in Africa?

IW: Ag, we have done so many things over the past 15 years already. The Sylt Foundation has offered residencies for artists and writers from the continent. A major one is the Goethe Institut and Sylt Foundation Residency Award for African writers, whose five winners came from four different countries in Africa. With two German cultural institutions, we invite South African writers for a residency in Cologne each year. Niq Mhlongo and Fred Khumalo had been there already. German writers are invited to Johannesburg in return for a dialogue with their colleagues. I personally am the editor of a series of contemporary African writing for a German publisher. In our series, we have already published 22 books in the last eight years. I work as a literary translator and run my own radio programme on arts and culture where we also focus much on African cultural topics that otherwise would not have been discussed in the German art world.  

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CF:  You yourself have been involved in some rather interesting projects in Asia for the last few years. Please elaborate about those projects.

IW: Our latest project is a series of workshops, art exhibitions and readings called ‘Transformation and Identity, Trauma and Reconciliation’ where we will examine how we deal with our ‘burden of history’, social and political changes in our countries through the lens of the arts. It is a long term project that includes seven countries and is set to last seven years. It takes place in Cambodia, Chile, Cuba, Germany, Haiti, Myanmar and South Africa and this year we had the first workshops in Yangon and in Phnom Penh. South African artist Jaco van Schalkwyk is an integral part of this exchange and he will lead a workshop with artists from Cambodia, Myanmar, Germany, Chile and Israel in November on Sylt and out of it a group show will be curated that tours the countries of the artists in 2018. It is a rather ambitious project but feels so right as our world is in a terrible state right now and one has to examine how the arts can make a difference, can foster a dialogue and make these processes of transformation visible. An important part of our discourse in this project is also happening with scientists, activists and guests from different fields. After seven years we hope to publish a book of the results in all seven countries. 

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Creative Feel congratulates Wilhelmina Neil and wishes her a really special time on Sylt. We are looking forward to sharing her experience of the Island upon her return.

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