Celebrating mentorship

Following a year of collaboration, the eighth cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative culminated in an inspiring showcase of exceptional art at the Arts Weekend held in Berlin in February. This remarkable promotion of artistic creativity seeks to nurture the talent of younger artists by pairing them with older, more experienced mentors in their field.

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     Launched 15 years ago, the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative is a philanthropic programme that recognises the importance of passing on artistic knowledge across generations and aims to find gifted young artists from around the world and bring them together with artistic masters for a year of mentoring and creative collaboration.
     The Arts Weekend featured a series of stunning events held across Berlin’s most important cultural institutions: the Deutsches Theater, Gemäldegalerie, Staatsbibliothek, Kulturforum, Kammerspiele and culminated in a gala closing ceremony with a most memorable evening at the iconic Staatsoper Unter den Linden – home of the German opera company, the Berlin State Opera.
     ‘Berlin is a well-known centre for emerging artists,’ says Rebecca Irvin, head of philanthropy at Rolex. ‘What better place for us to welcome nearly 200 of our artistic family – past and present mentors and protégés, advisors and nominators – as well as hundreds of art enthusiasts from Berlin and beyond?’
     The Arts Weekend was a chance for the protégés to display their ideas and their creations to the artistic community that Rolex has built over more than 15 years. The performances, installations, talks and three world premieres showed the work that the protégés produced with their mentors during the eighth cycle (2016 – 2017) of the Arts Initiative, covering dance, music, architecture, film, literature, visual arts and theatre.

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Ohad Naharin and Londiwe Khoza

     For the very first time, the weekend also included a symposium on the need for arts education, moderated by Harvard Professor Homi K. Bhabha and featuring a panel made up of visual artists Anish Kapoor and William Kentridge, architect Tatiana Bilbao, festival director Fergus Linehan and writer Miroslav Penkov discussing what it means to be an artist in a complicated global world. The conversation covered many subjects, including the need to resist instrumentalism in arts education and the idea that every skill has to be narrowly marketable. Kentridge, who described himself as ‘rescued by a series of failures’, mentioned his Centre for the Less Good Idea, a scheme to encourage the development of all the interesting ideas that float away from the centre of your initial grand idea but which then ‘emerge and surprise you… You think you are doing one thing and then you get a whole new idea,’ he explained.
     There’s no way to apply for the Arts Initiative. Mentors are proposed by an Advisory Board comprising distinguished artists and arts practitioners from all over the world. Once the mentors have been invited and have agreed to take part, Rolex works with them to establish a profile of a suitable protégé.
     The Canadian world theatre man, Robert Lepage, explains that the scheme provides a ‘fountain of youth’ for older artists who have inevitably lost the bullishness of their hungry years. ‘We’re all full of doubt,’ he says. ‘The more you know, the less you’re sure of. At a younger age, you know less but you’re more confident, and that’s very uplifting. That’s why you hang on to younger people who say, “Go all the way”.’

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Sir David Chipperfield and Simon Kretz

     Protégés do not apply directly to the programme either. Rather, one nominating panel for each artistic discipline is assembled. Panel members identify potential protégés, who are invited to submit applications; members then recommend three to four finalists to meet the mentor who will choose their protégé.
     Rolex’s only stipulation is that the artists spend a minimum of six weeks together. The firm gives 100,000 Swiss francs (R1.3 million) to each mentor and 40,000 (R509 000) to the protégés, while also funding travel and expenses.
     The project’s diversity is largely due to the mentors and the international nature of the programme (artists have come from 34 countries to date). ‘Certain mentors will say, “I want to help young film-makers from Asia and Africa.” We don’t have quotas, we’re not following some kind of political agenda, it’s happening organically,’ Irvin explains.
     South Africa has done rather well during the years of the Arts Initiative. William Kentridge was mentor to Mateo López, Lara Foot the protégée of Sir Peter Hall, Nicholas Hlobo the protégé to Sir Anish Kapoor and during the recent cycle, Londiwe Khoza, our protégée from Cape Town, was chosen by mentor Ohad Naharin to work with him for the past year at his Batsheva Dance Company in Israel.
     Showing her work to the packed audience in the Studio Theatre of the Kammerspiele, it was clear that Londiwe Khoza was loved and admired as she made a dramatic entrance, emerging to the crashing sounds of a guitar. ‘Do You Want to Dance?’ the song enquired, and Khoza did just that, flying around the stage in a solo simultaneously sharp and soft, that revealed both her ballet training and her work during the past year.

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Thao-Nguyen Phan and Joan Jonas

     Introducing her, Naharin talked of her immense talent and the way he had tried to give her keys to unlock ‘the treasure of that talent’. Khoza stood beaming by his side, stretching her feet as he described their work together. ‘Why do you dance?’ someone asked. ‘Like a writer writes, this is how we say what we want to say,’ said Khoza, simply.
     New-York based performance and video artist Joan Jonas accepted Rolex’s invitation to be a mentor because, she says: ‘I enjoy meeting young artists and am curious about their concerns in this chaotic and difficult time. I hope to have a dialogue that might clarify thoughts and ideas.’ She chose the visual artist Thao-Nguyen Phan in 2016 to be her protégée. Moved by Jonas’s ‘extraordinary power to reinvent, being so groundbreaking from one work to the next,’ protégée Thao-Nguyen Phan described meeting Jonas as ‘something like destiny.’
     Despite being from two different eras and two different parts of the world – one born in Vietnam in 1987 and the other in New York in 1936 – they were able to inspire each other and find a common desire to tell stories across multiple media. For a year, Thao-Nguyen Phan had the opportunity to participate in numerous projects with her mentor, and produced her first personal exhibition, Poetic Amnesia, reflecting her own vision of Vietnam and its social issues. It consists of paintings, sculpture and video installations that challenge the viewer in different ways to reconsider the uses of stories and language in building a view of the past.

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Mia Couto and Julián Fuks

     Her pale watercolours showing scenes of contemporary Vietnamese life are painted on the pages of a book written by the 17th-century Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes, who invented a romanised script that fundamentally altered the development of Vietnam. An accompanying video – entered through heavy bamboo curtains and called Tropical Siesta – explores the same theme by imagining a school full of children who transform his stories into make-believe games.
      Visitors to the Arts Weekend witnessed the premiere of Empire, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, shown by protégé Matías Umpierrez the Argentinian director. Walking into a room, one is first confronted with a series of video portraits of actors warming up for a performance. Among them is Robert Lepage, Umpierrez’s mentor, who effectively plays the part of Lady Macbeth in this radical, contemporary production. The great Spanish actress Angela Molinas is the star, playing a mayoress corrupted by ambition, in a thrilling version of the play that unfolds across four huge screens. It is a truly dramatic idea. Shakespeare’s words are mixed with a contemporary script. When Macbeth fires a gun, the bullet seems to fly over the head of the viewers, watching the action from the centre of the room. A Macbeth in modern times, this version, which takes place in post-dictatorship, 1990s Spain, reveals fiction as political and social mediation tool, creating a mix between the entertainment industry, the current mechanisms of power, and the rage caused by the clash between tradition and globalisation.
Umpierrez created Empire, the first in his Museum of Fiction series, with Spanish actors in Madrid where he lives. By challenging fiction’s temporal-spatial limits, it tries to find a possible ‘museumification’, or a unique way to keep the dramatic construction for the present and future collective memory.

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Robert Lepage and Matías Umpierrez

     A sense of engagement and collaboration between the mentors and their protégés was visible in talks over the weekend. Sir David Chipperfield and his architecture protégé, Simon Kretz, have produced a book as a result of their collaboration. It discusses, as did their lecture, the use of architecture to promote civic good, taking London as an example of a city where a different attitude towards planning could help to preserve the city as a centre of diverse culture and community cohesion.
      The literature pairing of novelists Mia Couto and Julián Fuks – the first mentorship in the Portuguese language since Couto is based in Mozambique and Fuks in Brazil. Fuks, who had written books based on his family’s experiences as exiles from Argentina, wanted to write a different kind of fiction. ‘I was beginning a new journey and I thought I needed new principles,’ he explained.
     Couto, sitting quietly beside him, told a story that he felt illustrated his principles of mentorship. He described meeting two men sitting on the steps of his home. He asked one what he was doing. ‘I’m doing absolutely nothing,’ he replied. And what are you doing, he asked the other? ‘I’m helping this guy,’ he said.
     In a talk in the wood-panelled lecture hall at the Staatsbibliothek, film mentor Alfonso Cuarón described his relationship with Chaitanya Tamhane as ‘horizontal, not vertical’. He said that Tamhane, who spent a month on the set of his new film, Roma, became ‘a compass on the set for me’.

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Alfonso Cuarón and Chaitanya Tamhane

     For Indian protégé Chaitanya Tamhane, his mentoring year with Academy Award-winning film director Alfonso Cuarón was a stroke of fortune. He describes his mentor’s image-based filmmaking as ‘like watching magic’. Tamhane says his approach to cinema will never be the same again.
     The warmth of the relationship between the two men was revealed by a conversation full of laughter, and a serious analysis of filmmaking, illustrated with excerpts from Cuarón’s work and from Tamhane’s strikingly strong debut Court. Though one man is working with almost nothing and the other with the infinite weight of a Hollywood studio behind him, they discovered much common ground.
     The highlight of the Arts Weekend was, without a doubt, the closing performance of the electro-acoustic project GAMA by young Peruvian composer and music protégée, Pauchi Sasaki. She was the protégée of composer Philip Glass, a most impressive, generous and dedicated mentor, who introduced her and the performance.
     Slowly, as if guided by a ghost, a petite woman moves from the entrance down the ramp to the stage. Her strangely stiff dress makes sounds reminiscent of feedback, only more harmonious. It is not made of fabric but of speakers. With every step, every movement of the arm, every inclination of the head, the sound changes; it is a sight – and a sound – experience that one does not forget so quickly. Musicians who are so passionate about ‘merging with their instrument’ are a trite cliché, but Pauchi Sasaki is right. The 36-year-old Peruvian designed the speaker dress herself and composed music for it. The music is just as other-worldly, strange and thrilling, an evocation of space, that shifts and evolves as Sasaki and her talented musicians perform her composition against a swirling black and white background.
A stirring conclusion to the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Weekend showing that a relationship between a great mentor and a gifted protégé can work and produce wonderful work.

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Pauchi Sasaki and Philip Glass
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