Curating, collaborating, and making space for marginalized communities in contemporary art
Raffaella Carillo is an art curator and director of the Metropolis Contemporary Art Gallery in Brighton, UK. After working with the Moleskine Foundation and experiencing two AtWork workshops, she carries with her lessons of critical thinking and constantly questions her perspective on life. She opened her own art gallery in 2021 and strives to bring diversity to the art scene of Brighton.
Raffaella Carillo: My name is Raffaella Carillo. I’ve been working as an art curator for ten years now. At the moment, I am directing an independent art gallery in Brighton. In the past I have been working for several art galleries and non-profit organizations. And I also had a charity in Milan which was focused on realizing street art projects in the outskirts of the city was very fun, and I moved to Brighton four years ago.
Fari Sow: Let’s go through your AtWork journey. First, let’s talk AtWork Corporate in 2016. So how was that experience for you and what did you learn from it?
Raffaella Carillo: That was really fun and it gave me the opportunity to actually test the format on myself, since I had been working behind the scenes, and this format was an experiment for Moleskine Foundation as well. The group was divided in two and the first one had to start the conversation and start working on the notebooks and the second one just received the notebooks and they had to finish. It was like a conversation without talking to each other, just putting all our ideas into their notebooks and try to communicate with the person. Working with Charlotte was very fun because I think that she immediately got the sense of what I was trying to do.
The theme was “Concept vs Slogan” The first group was made of creatives, artists, curators, and the second group was people working in advertising So yeah, that was the idea. We started with something conceptual and they had to finish with kind of something more communicative. What I tried to do, instead of thinking of against the person, I wanted to play with them. I realized a jigsaw puzzle that Charlotte had to assemble and complete. When we met at the end, we were on the same page and we understood what the other contributed.
Fari Sow: You also participated in the Digital Masterclass later in 2021. For this format, you need to have a project, something you wish to develop. Yours was to open an art gallery in Brighton, which you did today.
Raffaella Carillo: Yes, the Metropolis Contemporary Art Gallery.
Fari Sow: Was the Masterclass the beginning of the journey, or did it reinforce something that you were already planning in terms of opening your gallery?
Raffaella Carillo: Yeah, it was a reinforcement. I think the workshop was at the beginning of July, and I opened the gallery at the end of July. At that time, I was refurbishing the space, painting and doing all sort of things. But I think it was the perfect moment to do the Masterclass because I had been thinking about it for a long time. Obviously I talked about it with my friends, my family, but in the Masterclass I had the opportunity to talk about it with all kinds of artistic people, so it was very useful too get feedback about my ideas. It was about Writing Your Own Novel, becoming the author of your life, being effective in your communication. It really helped me to focus on why I was doing what I was doing and how I wanted to I wanted people to perceive it, which was actually the main focus and how to communicate it effectively, so it was the perfect moment.
Fari Sow: And is there still something that you’ve learned from both AtWork chapters. That you still carry with you today? Or is the lesson that is still important for the work that you do today?
Raffaella Carillo: In general, working with Moleskine Foundation changed my perspectives on life. When I started working with them, I had just left university, I was 22 years old my mind was full of these notions and very strong ideas. And then I met Simon Njami and I started thinking in a different way, and realized that actually everything that I knew was to be questioned because of the approach I carried. Questioning everything can be is exhausting, but it is important it and this approach I carried this approach, it’s important to always question your knowledge and perspective. I understood that my perspective was just one of the thousands possibilities and that only with dialog and understanding the experiences of other people, you can grow and have an impact. I still live up to being a critical thinker and lifelong learner, at least I am trying to, in my job and my life.
Fari Sow: And I was wondering if you’re still in touch with other people from the AtWork community or the greater network of the Creativity Pioneers? What would you expect from such a community of creative thinkers, cultural organizations and individuals who are trying to generate social change through creativity?
Raffaella Carillo: Yes For example, I’m still in touch with some of them. For example, I exhibited Rana Ashraf, she participated in AtWork in Cairo and I showed her work here. It’s always nice to keep in touch with the community and learn from them and elevate their work.
Even though I do not consider what I do as radical, I’ve learned that, if you do something bold, people who follow you will at least be curious and lean into it.
Fari Sow: The first notebook you made was in collaboration with someone else and represented a dialogue as you said, and then the second one you did in the masterclass was a megaphone, and you described it as something to amplify the voices of others and with multiple handles to symbolize sharing. Both of those represent collaboration, sharing and embracing the work of others. As a curator today in the world of contemporary art, how do you view this spirit of collaboration in your work?
Raffaella Carillo: It is extremely important. As I was saying, I truly believe that only when you start a conversation with someone else, you can really grow and learn and make things happen. Because, you know, we are individuals. We have our limits, our comfort zones, our perspectives. Only through encounters with others can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and really grow as a person. I think that dialogue is the key to produce something that is meaningful not just for yourself, but for a broader audience. As a curator, I perceive my job as a form of activism. And if I want to be an activist, it’s because I think that there are things in society that needs to be changed. What I do is to try to address those things and to try to inspire change through art. Obviously, this means that I need to speak with people, I need to understand what they need, what they want and how I can facilitate all of this and how I can be useful.
Collaboration is is key. Actually, it is exactly what I’m trying to do at the moment with Metropolis because I opened it one year ago, and since then it has been mostly just me and obviously the artists that have shown. The behind the scenes is just me and my vision ideas so I’m trying to move to a collaborative approach, so I just started to have a conversation with another art curator and we are drafting a program for next year together and we are building a network with other organizations because as I said, especially if you’re a creative, if you are trying to inspire a change in society, you cannot do it by yourself.
Fari Sow: You’ve been a curator for some time now, and you’ve had your own gallery for a year. What is something that you’ve learned about the power of art to contribute to social change, to build communities?
Raffaella Carillo: I’ve learned that representation is extremely important. When I opened Metropolis, I had specific ideas in mind to support emerging artists because, in Brighton, there are two Art universities and no space for emerging artists, which again doesn’t make any sense. At the same time, there is the biggest LGBTQ+ community in the UK and no place for visual artists from the queer community. It’s is a very diverse city with immigration from all over the world, and again, no space for artists from minority communities and marginalized backgrounds, it doesn’t make sense. So I thought, okay, let’s do something about it. Let’s try to create a safe space for all these people to express themselves. And the feedback that I got is that this kind of place was much needed.
In Brighton there are around 40 other art galleries, but no one is challenging the street culture, no one is trying to diversify their roster in an effective way. When people come across Metropolis and come across all those influences and see themselves represented, they are just blown away. They cannot believe it because they’re not used to it. Yes, I learned that representation matters and it’s definitely one of the key for social change.
And the other thing that I’ve learned is that even people who are not from marginalized communities, at least in Brighton, are very open to see something new, to understand and to learn something new. I don’t really understand why other art organizations are not investing properly in diversification and inclusion. Even though I do not consider what I do as radical, I’ve learned that, if you do something bold, people who follow you will at least be curious and lean into it.
Fari Sow: What is something that you’re proud of achieving? I’m assuming it is opening your own art gallery, but is there anything else in the process that you are proud of? Or maybe a future project?
Raffaella Carillo: The gallery is definitely what I’m really proud of, even though it’s a very small organization. But I have reached out to a few people and I can see that, for them, this place makes a difference, even just for the day. And it’s not even me, but the artist I choose and I only try to empower them, let them talk and express their self by themselves. I’m just a facilitator. And to see how the artist’s vision or the audience comes together and beautiful things happen, this is what I’m most proud of.
Fari Sow: What is the next goal you are working towards?.
Raffaella Carillo: As I was saying, the goal at the moment is to advocate for moving towards a more collaborative approach test new ways to do things and to manage the gallery. We would also love to find ways to be more socially engaged than we are.
Fari Sow: Your first AtWork theme was “Concept vs Slogan” and the digital masterclass was “Write your own Novel”. This year’s theme for AtWork is “What comes first?”. How would you approach this theme, what comes first for you?
Raffaella Carillo: I thought about it, and it’s not an easy question. But I think I would say Curiosity. It is what drives me, curiosity comes first.