Around a year ago, multidisciplinary artist and native son of São Tomé and Príncipe, Kwame Sousa founded the two-island nation’s first art school, Ateliê M – Escola Informal de Artes Visuais. The venue was born out of necessity and speaks to wider issues on art education in the African continent, where limited institutional support for creativity leaves it up to individuals to fill a void.
Sousa – as an artist and founder of the country’s premier creative school – has an ethos of placing and understanding the role of visual arts as ‘human, social and economic development capital’ in his vision of art as a source of ‘self-esteem, vertical solidarity and social cohesion.’
In the conversation that follows, Sousa talks about his artistic motivations and the future of art education in this particular island country.
How has your creative journey shaped you as an artist?
I started painting very early on when I was at school and have since undergone various experiences with teachers and artists from around the world in both education and in my travels. I travelled more and more within Africa and discovered the diversities of architecture on the continent, which I found very interesting. I have had a long interest in architecture because it is related to the building of societies and influences the daily lives of today’s communities. I am addicted to this creative impulse. It gives me power and urgency in a world where you can control nothing.
Does the Ateliê M school feel like an expression of community building? How have the São Tomé and Príncipe residents reacted to it?
It has not been without some contestation as there were tensions between older artists who felt stung in the sense that this would replace their teaching and mentoring rather than fill the evident void. Ateliê M is not trying to do away with what was before, but rather it is there to fill a gap that has long existed and no longer does today.
Have you overcome some of these tensions?
It was important to start dealing with how one established basic art education in São Tomé and within an institution that supports the artistic movements (and developments) in the county. Ateliê M is seeking to challenge both existing approaches of how art is made in São Tomé and Príncipe, who is making art here and how they are making it? We want to look critically at this as well as reflect on the aesthetics and the form of what makes up what might be viewed as São Toméan art.
Are there specific arts school models in other world cities that have inspired Ateliê M?
Indeed, there are many kinds of art schools out there, but the studio model which Ateliê M is informed by isn’t very common. In Portugal, there is ArCo – Centro de Arte e Comunicação Visual (Ar.Co) in Portugal, which is known for its strong emphasis on practice in a daily multi-disciplinary atmosphere. We can say that art today has a lot to do with the places they originate from and context greatly influences the kind of art one produces. I feel that teaching art and establishing art schools should be mindful of the context, so that it is suitable for the people and the places they are being implemented. Teaching art to and with people is much more rewarding.
What are your visions for the future of the school and the wider arts scene in São Tomé and Príncipe?
The future of school I can talk about but the art scene here, not really. It took almost twenty years for this kind of an institution to be realised and I think It is important and urgent that the present artists are instigators of change in our continent, not only for our immediate localities, but beyond. We have to take this action now to create a brighter future for art, and life.
All images courtesy of @kwamesousa