Reclaiming narratives and identity through creativity

Co-founders Catherine Dunga and Marleen Palmaers talk about the projects they were able to put together in the past year and their artistic response to the country’s political climate in 2021.

Fari Sow: Could you start by describing your organization and the way you work?

Marleen Palmaers: Catherine and I created Kitambo three years ago, and we would like to tell the signification of the name: Ki of Kinshasa where Catherine grew up; “am” is Amberes”, Antwerp in Spanish, where I was born; “bo” is Bogota, where we met each other, and Kitambo refers to a cross point in Kinshasa.

Catherine Dunga: A cross point that goes across three big streets where you have a lot of people, a lot of music, a lot of traffic jam. It’s very noisy. And so that’s what we want to do with it, a lot of noise, people meeting, cultures crossing, dialogue…

Marleen Palmaers: That’s what we are doing in Kitambo. We want to promote artists coming from the African continent and put them together with the Colombian creators here through visual arts. Because here in Colombia, there’s a lot of things done, and we are not inventing anything, we are supporting. We are contributing to reinforce that collaboration. So, we are inviting artists, as well as curators such as Simon Njami who has already come over. In the same way we are promoting those artists here to collaborate together. But also, the idea is to invite artists and to promote Colombian artists interested by African heritage and memory and identity, to invite them to events in Africa and other places in the world.

Catherine Dunga: About the African diaspora in Colombia, Cali is the second city in the world with the biggest African diaspora after Salvador in Brazil, and it’s not well-known even for Colombian people, they don’t really realize how African we are in Colombia. And there is a lot of collaboration, of dialogue from music, of course, from musical heritage or from dance, but not from the contemporary visual arts. So that’s why we were interested in doing that. We want to collaborate not only with artists, but also cultural or educational institutions. And we have the same focus as the Moleskine Foundation.

Marleen Palmaers: It is very important for us, because we are based in Bogota, the capital, but it is very important to go to the regions and de-centralize our activities. With Simon Njami, we didn’t stay within Bogota. He didn’t understand why in the beginning. But when he was in the second city he understood, because there’s such diversity of African diasporic people living here between the Pacific and the Caribbean. Nothing is the same, it’s important that we go to the regions. We just invited a big artist from Mali, Fatoumata Diabaté for a program. We started in Cali and then went deeper in the regions, and we ended up in Bogota. She was very inspired, but surprised also to see a lot of Black people living here with a lot of similarities. She didn’t expect that.

Catherine Dunga: People from African origin in Colombia want to know more about Africa. And that’s why we created Kitambo, because we could see that the references that Afro-Colombian people have about African countries were more like from the past or exotic, but not really the reality of the continent today, a young, creative continent. We wanted to highlight all the positive aspects of the continent for Afro-Colombian people to have some positive reference and not only the reference of African people coming and becoming slaves.

Marleen Palmaers: So that’s why in our way of working, it’s also important that we work with educational institutions. Additional projects like yours are very important, but also here, going to schools. One of the projects Simon designed was with schools here in Cali. But because of the pandemic, we can’t continue, but we would like to continue working with schools in the future. And this project with Moleskine was like an education project.

Catherine Dunga Because we decided to work, not with artists, but young people and we wanted them to have some tools to begin. We choose the cities because of the actual context in Colombia, it was very important for us to work with the cities that were very touched by the political situation in Colombia. They were very happy to receive these tools.

Fari Sow: You’ve talked about the Diaspora and Afro-Colombians but then you also talk about young people in schools. Who is your primary target, who would you say you’re focusing on more? Is it the diaspora aspect of this community of Black people and Afro Colombians, or is it mostly the young people in Colombia?

Catherine Dunga: Both. At this moment. We have an exhibition with the Fatoumata works with four young photographers and three of them are from the Afro communities. So it’s our two main targets.

Marleen Palmaers: It’s very important to show this because in Bogota you see very few Afro Black people. So, it’s very important also go towards the Colombian population, to talk about the regions, to bring the regions to the capital.

Fari Sow: So your community is a mix of this Afro diaspora and the general young population of Bogota. How did the political situation in Colombia, with the strikes and protests that impacted young people, affect your work and your projects, or the community you operate in? Have you felt the effects of those circumstances in your work?

Catherine Dunga: Yes. It was blocking us in our projects. And then after that, it waslike a boom of creativity. At this moment in Cali, you have a lot of artistic exhibitions, and it’s the result of this year.

Marleen Palmaers: Yes, and in that way, it was very important for us to receive as soon as possible the Moleskine tools to begin the project because we really saw that it was an expression for them that they needed. And they don’t stop. They continue, they buy more notebooks now because they realized it was very healing for them. Also structuring their ideas to tranquilize. Like Catherine said, in the beginning, it’s like the world stopped. But after that, it was very necessary, like therapy.

Fari Sow Because they were speaking up and were revolting against something, that also pushed their creativity?

Marleen Palmaers: They realized that drawing and writing helped them.

“It’s being able to transcend traditional ideas and come up with new rules, interpretations and ways of doing things. Art transforms, heals, transcends everything. It helps express a lot of emotions.”

Catherine Dunga The leaders of the workshop, the writer Javier Ortiz, told them “Don’t look outside for an incredible story. Your own story in your own environment, it’s more important and valuable.” And the graphic workshop leader, Yeison Riascos, the artist, said “If you just have a spot of coffee on one of the pages, it’s not a problem. It’s part of your creation.” So, it was very important for them to receive this kind of advice and it helped them to be comfortable with the idea of receiving the magic of the Moleskine notebook because for a lot of them, receiving the notebook was very precious. The books, the pen, it was really an important gift. That’s why they don’t want to give it back to us.

Marleen Palmaers: They’re scanning notebooks. They don’t want to send them, they want to continue, it’s like a diary, it became personal.

A very nice aspect of the project also was that we were working with eight cities. The connectivity, the physical connectivity in Colombia’s very difficult and not everyone can travel in Colombia. So, to have the virtual workshops, they knew about the manifestations and the strikes in other cities so that they could connect, and they could exchange with people from other cities which is quite new also for them.

Catherine Dunga: Colombia’s a big country. One city can be very different than the other. We decided to put some groups together who didn’t have anything in common. And who we chose as the leaders of the workshops, they didn’t know them either. One of them writes in a renowned newspaper in Colombia, and it was important to have this image for them. And one of the people who works with us, Monica, is Afro-Bogotan and one of them said that, for them, having a Black reference in this project was really important.

Fari Sow: There is this aspect of representation that you can bring that’s very important. So, because you have a particular political context compared to the other beneficiaries of this program, did you have different expectations from the program? Did it impact you in ways you were not planning?

Catherine Dunga: It gave us the opportunity to begin a relation, a connection. Because we are interested in having long-term relations with people. And for us, the project of Moleskine gives us the opportunity to open doors for other projects.

Marleen Palmaers: One of the groups participating in the project was one of the front fighters of the protests. We also went to them directly with Fatoumata, not in the bigger cities but to regions with a more complicated context. One of them was Siloé, and it was very important for them to participate. And the two projects, with Moleskine and Fatoumata mixed together.

Catherine Dunga: And from the beginning, it was important for the young people from Siloé to be able to tell their stories because they are really stigmatized, they are associated with the world of violence and danger, and they want to show something else from their region. The Moleskine project helped them to tell their story as they wanted to tell it, and to show it to the people.

Marleen Palmaers: Yes, and that’s really the reason why it’s so difficult to get the notebooks back because it’s like their lives. So, the ones that will share it are sharing it virtually.

Catherine Dunga And because we worked with an artist who was also close to the project that we did last year with Simon, and she’s a leader who decided to do a project with them. That’s how we could get in and connect with them. Otherwise, it would be impossible because they don’t trust people. It was really impressive when we were there, and they showed us what they were saying about the police, everything. It’s because we got a kind of trust with them that they did it. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to have them as part of this project.

Marleen Palmaers: Siloé was one of the most difficult cities or regions. But in other cities it was very important. So, the structure was, we had eight organized in eight cities. Each organization, each organization had a leader and then, the two moderators. But it was very important also to work with local moderators, to get trust, to get confidence.

Catherine Dunga: In Cartagena, we worked only with girls who are from a foundation to help young mothers to get an education and to get a job in the city after that. And they were very happy to be able to create from the drawing, from the writing because they use a lot of tools to help them to educate, but not this artistic part. So yes, we had the opportunity to work with organizations or leaders who are very engaged and with the communities, and they have a very deep process of years of engagement and empowerment.

This part was very engaging for all of them. They took the workshop, they met with the leader. And now, they are supposed to send us the notebooks, and that part is not easy.

Fari Sow I get that it’s not easy to get them back, but I also think it’s beautiful that they became so attached to it and they made it so personal that they just don’t want to give it up. But just back to what you were saying, because this rejoins the Moleskine Foundation’s mission and what you were saying about helping areas that are stereotyped for being violent and helping this population express their own story with these tools, and providing education to those who can’t access it, fixing gender inequality issues, it joins this concept of creativity for social change. So, would you say that this is something that is also at the core of what Kitambo is trying to do?

Marleen Palmaers We are trying, if you read some testimonials, I think we are succeeding in some ways, yes. And with all the future projects we will have, it’s the idea.

Fari Sow: Are you able to develop new initiatives thanks to those tools? Or are they implemented to programs that you’re already doing?

Marleen Palmaers: We are creating, and it’s something we have to continue. I think workshops like this, with people writing and creating, are very important and now we have to continue this project. We would like to do some exhibitions. We hope to go to the regions, come back and show them there with 80 notebooks over the country. That’s one of our objectives, we would like to, but we need some of the notebooks. And otherwise, we are thinking of, because they are sending them virtually, maybe we can a virtual exhibition. This could be possible.

Fari Sow: This is something that the Foundation did in 2020. There was a virtual exhibition on the Instagram page of all the results of the AtWork tour. A lot of things became digital in the past two years, so it’s an option now.

Catherine Dunga: We did a virtual exhibition last year, for us, it’s possible. What some of the young people told us also was that if you think about the Afro communities and the arts, you always think about music and dance. And so, it was very valuable to receive a notebook and be able to express their creativity in another way. Being able to write and to draw on because some of them are studying in the city and when they have the opportunity to participate in an artistic project, it’s always dance and music. So it was very interesting to be able to do something else.

Marleen Palmaers: Moleskine inspired a lot of people. They want to continue; they really want to continue. Even the writer Javier Ortiz, from the workshop, has a dream, like all writers, to work with Moleskine.

Catherine Dunga: Because we worked with young people more than artists, a lot of them use the notebook in a conservative way. I think we have seen only one or two just deconstruct it and then send us a picture with a 3-D object. And we send them a lot of pictures of examples from the collection. We didn’t want to tell them to just do the same, but that they could do what they wanted to, you can destructure it. But they used it more in a conservative way, though, it was also a comment that Javier Ortiz told them at the beginning. He said that in the Colombian educational system, you have to do everything in a perfect way in a notebook, no graphic errors. So it told them from the beginning that they don’t need to have a perfect product. Otherwise, everybody is going to use it really as something very precious, very clean,

Fari Sow I think it is a natural reaction, when you’re given a notebook. The first idea is, I’m going to write or draw in it. The next step is not to see it as this instrument of writing but to use it as a means of expression, whatever that means for you personally, if it means you’re going to burn all the pages or you’re going to make a sculpture out of it. That’s what it’s going to be for.

Speaking of, do you have next steps, anything coming up for Kitambo?

Marleen Palmaers: Yes, we are preparing a big project with a Colombian artist living in London, and he will work with it will be more a sensory, smell and sounds installation. And based on oral language, not writing

Catherine Dunga Because you have a lot of native languages in Colombia from the indigenous communities or from the Afro communities. And the idea is to recollect some of the native language and, from this sound memory, make an installation

We are really, really grateful for having received the notebooks because we completed a very nice project both for the people here and for us, because it was very interesting for us also to know a lot about people living here in very difficult times.

Fari Sow I am glad to hear that, it’s very inspiring work that you do, and we’re trying to give more visibility to the work of our partners in general. And if I can just finish with a more general, maybe philosophical question. Do you think creativity can change the world?

Marleen Palmaers: It’s a big statement. By definition, creativity is seeing things differently. It’s being able to transcend traditional ideas and come up with new rules, interpretations and ways of doing things. Art transforms, heals, transcends everything. It helps express a lot of emotions. As we have seen with people with notebooks, they are not used to expressing themselves this way, and we see the transformation.

Catherine Dunga: They needed it, for some of them it was the first time they stopped and had a moment to think about their own lives. And be heard afterwards.

In 2021, Moleskine and the Moleskine Foundation teamed up to create a long-term program to help creative communities worldwide. The Creative Tools for Social Change program targets non-profit organizations that use creativity as a tool for social change in their communities and provides them with tangible instruments to further their programs and missions. A few months after the first launch, we follow-up with select organizations to discuss how the program impacted their initiatives and communities.

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Moleskine Foundation

Moleskine Foundation

The Moleskine Foundation is a non-profit organization that believes that Creativity and Quality Education are key to producing positive change in society.