Is this Art?

I slayed as an Artist-in-Residence in Cape Town, South Africa—  and here’s how

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Table Mountain and the Woodstock Neighborhood in Cape Town, South Africa

Who am I anyway that I can give you advice?

My name is Kieran Elise O’Brien. The thing you should know about me is that I moved from my hometown of Victoria, BC to Montreal, Quebec in 2011 to get back together with my ex-boyfriend, which was exactly as bad an idea as it seems. When we broke up a year later, I ran away to Japan. In Japan, I fell in love (again) and in fairly short order I moved to Da Nang, Vietnam to chase that love (good news: we lived happily ever after). I want you to know that I have made some impulsive travel decisions (why yes, I am a sagittarius) and as much fun as it is to fly blindly into adventures: I propose that an Artist Residency is the best way to travel.  

Why?

  • Break out of your routine: You perceive time differently on vacation. I think there is nothing more inspiring than traveling. If you feel creatively stifled, If you feel bored by your day-to-day routines, then I am talking to you, dude. You don’t need to plan a trip to another continent. You can look for artist residencies in or near your own town. Look for short-term artist residencies. This one in Banff is only eight days long: https://www.banffcentre.ca/programs/winter-writers-retreat/20170213
  • Make time: You have a great idea for a novel. You used to paint and you’ve always meant to pick it up again. Take your creative work off of the backburner! Enter into an exceptional space where you can prioritize your creative work- and perhaps most importantly, where you can set yourself a deadline.    
  • Get access to resources: The architect behind Side Street Studios, Elad Kirshenbaum, was extraordinarily helpful to me. He was my host, tour guide, patron, collaborator and friend during my time in Cape Town. Through him, I had access to resources and connections that I would never have been able to source on my own.
  • Get to know a place: By setting aside a week (or four) to visit just one city, you are allowing yourself to fall in love with that place. Go for the thrill of something new and stay long enough to become a regular at your local cafe, to learn the street names, to notice all the glorious little differences made by a rainy day.

How it all began…

I had it in my head from the very beginning that I wanted to travel and be a graduate student. I am writing about my mother’s immigration to Canada from South Africa, and I study African Literature, so given my research interests, Cape Town became my desired destination early on in my academic career. I might have applied to a conference there, or applied to be a visiting student, both are good options for graduate students. Instead, I applied to be an Artist-in-Residence on the recommendation of my friend Zola (who writes a naturalist newsletter and is an all-round magnificent human being). She sent me a link to the website resartis, a “worldwide network of Artist Residencies” with a database that you can search by country. Unfortunately, there were only three residencies in South Africa listed on their site and none of them was quite the right fit for me. I decided to broaden my search. I googled “Cape Town Artist Residency” and from there I found Side Street Studios. Yes, that’s the big secret to my success: I literally just googled it.

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The Rooftop Residency at Side Street Studios in Cape Town, South Africa

Warning: Plan your trip well in advance to access travel grants

I contacted Side Street Studios by email and I sent them a project proposal. After that, the trip came together quickly- so quickly that I was not able to apply for the travel grants available through my department and through the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto. I also missed out on applying for funding through my city, province and country. For example, I might have been eligible for funding through the Ontario Arts Council, which offers a “National and International Residency Projects” grant of up to $10,000. Don’t make the same mistake I did! I suggest you plan your residency a year and a half in advance, keeping funding deadlines in mind, as well as the particulars of your destination. For example, it’s a good idea to plan around weather conditions and national holidays.

Although I was not able to apply for the grants I’ve mentioned above, I did run a successful gofundme campaign. Through my campaign, I was able to raise enough money to cover the residency fee. Some Artist Residencies have fees, some don’t. Even those that don’t will certainly have associated costs like travel to and from the residency. Although some residencies have financial aid or honorariums to help you with your expenses. While you’re considering a particular residency, I recommend making a budget and estimating potential costs before you apply. It will come in handy when you try to access funding.      

40 days in Cape Town

With the help of family and friends, I made it to Cape Town. There in ‘the mother city,’ I met distant family members and I charted out a family tree that goes back six generations. I did as much sight-seeing as I could, and of course, I made art. I published a small zine that included the work of three local writers. I hosted a poetry reading and panel discussion with those same writers- and I designed a neon sign! It was my first foray into visual art. Looking back on my time in Cape Town, I am both proud of the work I did and grateful for the collaborative spirit of the many, many people who encouraged and inspired me to get creative. I hope that I can be one of those people for you. Go and get weird, my friend.

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home is no longer here. 2016. Neon sign. OneK collection. Cape Town.

P.S. Here are a couple of Artist Residencies that have caught my attention:

  • Cafe Tissardmine in Rissani, Morocco: The most important information we need is the reason you feel the desert is the right place for you to be.” 
  • The Kerouac Project in Orlando, Florida: Each residency consists of approximately a three month stay in the cottage where Jack Kerouac wrote his novel Dharma Bums.”

Good Luck,

Kieran

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Kieran Elise O’Brien is a poet and a student at the University of Toronto where she is pursuing an MA in Creative Writing. She loves flowers, ice cream sandwiches and the pond in the courtyard at Massey College. She is currently working on a collection of poems about the adventures of her alter-ego Bad Cowgirl. You can find her on tumblr, twitter and instagram.

 

My First Punjabi Wedding (in photos)

 

Living in India, I saw a lot of sights (and smelled a lot of smells) that will stay with me forever. Now back in Canada, I’m often asked, “So, how was India?” I can only shake my head in retrospective awe. India is impossible to summarize. I believe this is why there are so many travel memoirs written about the country; you need at least 300 pages to even begin to explain. But when people ask if anything stands out, I immediately have an answer: my first Punjabi wedding.

Indian weddings are generally explosions of glitter and pink and ladoos

You’ve probably heard about the colour and pop of Indian weddings. In contrast to the white dresses and formality of western nuptials, Indian weddings are generally explosions of glitter and pink and ladoos. Punjabi weddings certainly hold true to this form and, some may say, go even further. My fiancé Jaimal being half Punjabi himself, I have had to study these traditions in preparation for our own wedding celebration!

In February, Jaimal and I were invited to a wedding in rural Punjab by a new friend of ours Jassi. Her bud Baldev was getting married in the village where he grew up and, in true Indian fashion, everybody was invited. The photo essay above details the three days of the 10 day event (!) that we attended in the small village of Sukkar Chak, 12 km from the border of Pakistan. While each hour of our visit produced a story unique and worth telling, these photos summarize the wondrous experience. Click on the images for snippets of what we were part of that weekend.

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Why I Cut My Hair

 

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“Your hair is your beauty.”

 

“Why?”

She asked, fingers in my curls.

“Why would you cut it?”

It had been a decade. Ten years.

“Your hair is your beauty,” my gramma said, seeing my long curls for the first time.

For ten years, I wore my hair well past my shoulders. I dragged many a comb through it, grunting at the knotted sections, and mouthing “fuck,” at the familiar sound of plastic snapping.

For ten years, I stacked the compliments (long hair oooh, long hair aaah) atop one another, proof that any beauty I possessed was root-deep.

For ten years, I gawked at women with short hair—friends, lovers, family, strangers. The perfectly shaped mini ringlets, glazed with oil, burnt gold, or holding true to their rooted colour, spinning forth from the scalp like a preened locus.

Yes, it was more than just hair.

Being biracial with the palest of skin, my big hair was an ode to my mother’s blackness. Being bisexual, my long hair was a wall thick and dense, built to keep out crazed homophobes.

Then, I had an excuse.

A short film.

A spoken word short film.

The short film goes something like this… there are 3 women carrying a legacy of suffering: a housewife, a jazz singer, and a narrator. This woman—in her various forms—loses it. She can’t stand the generational pain latched to her skin like a leech.

The Artist is crippled by the marriage between $$ and Art. The Housewife in her genes, the one that really wanted to run the world (and could have) is bitter as hell. The Narrator has jeweled eyes and she wears her purpose around her neck, in a fearless gold loop.

The purpose is a demand for change, for the kind of Art that lives to inspire not enrich, for the kind of world that beckons the ghouls of slavery to obliterate the hatred that remains.

As these interweaving stories are told in rhyming lines, under an entrancing piano loop, I cut my hair off as a symbol, a gesture, a ridding of displaced ancestral meaning—in favor of the narrator’s meaning, her owned truths.

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…her owned truths

That’s what happens in the short film. That’s why I cut my hair, or so I said.

But what happened to me? Why did I do it really?

I was bare. Cold neck. A chrysalis of insides. My whole face felt different, looked different. And, I wanted shorter still. I wanted the pixie cut, shaved neat and clean, and close to my head.

And, I knew something new.

Something I couldn’t have known, when pulling my head back from brush smacks for  fidgeting, while my mum wrangled my hair into tidy braids and smooth buns.

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Nothing I could see in the mirror would ever be my beauty. 

I knew then, staring at my steady lips and dark eyes that nothing had changed. That my hair was never my beauty. Nothing I could see in the mirror would ever be my beauty.

I was never my hair.

With a bob of swirls coated in coconut oil and a freckled frown, I looked closer still, at the weariness in my eyes, at the wobble in my smile.

I was never my hair.

So why did I feel like I’d lost a finger, a limb, some whole and attached piece of me?

I had lost something, you see. I’d lost a decade of hiding. A decade of questioning. A decade of linking cultural heritage to something transient, impermanent, fallible.

A flash of scissors and the tufts of hair left behind had brought back a lifetime.

I relived the pixie cut my mother gave me as punishment. I relived the dragging of an iron over my hair to flatten my coarse, unresponsive mane. I relived the ooohs and aaahs and the ‘Is that your real hair?’ and ‘Can I touch it?’ I relived the bonding – oh, the bonding, with too many women to count (especially the If She Dreams team), over products that worked and didn’t, over the dreaded humidity, how to bottle the ocean air and how to quench my ever-thirsty curls.

The memories livened my face. My fingers felt the new short ends, just below my ear, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d go shorter yet.

“Why? Why would you cut it?”

“Why not?” I thought to myself.

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