[This was written for Shawati magazine, which incidentally looks very chique and understatedly matte now that it has eschewed glossy bling in favor of wood-free paper grain. I approve]
Art inspires greater and better art, across generations and myriad forms of expression. Throughout the arts, there is a long tradition of mentorship. Ezra Pound taught Earnest Hemmingway, while Andrew Warhol was influenced by Salvadore Dali’s forays into pop art. Picasso, who mixed genius with an unrivalled eye for female perfection, made the young Catalan painter Joan Miro his protégé.
The relationship between mentor and student has withstood the travails of history. It is an enduring bond, allowing each generation of artists to break new ground and improve on their inheritance. Of late, however, this personalised form of learning has been supplanted by mass education, where the student body has been transformed from a group of discrete individuals to a collective.
The watchmaker Rolex SA has turned the craft of precision timekeeping into its very own art-form, and is now breathing new life into this age-old relationship through The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which has enjoyed continuous success since establishment in 2002.
The idea is as simple as the results are impressive. The initiative is an international philanthropic programme designed to help talented artists achieve their full potential. It seeks out artists from around the world and brings them together with great masters, for a year of creative collaboration in a one-to-one relationship. It is an initiative that crosses the boundaries of geography and culture to foster partnership that yields new artistic endeavour. The mentor and protégé develop an intimate relationship that explores the boundaries of their craft.
Since the initiative was inaugurated, it has hosted artists and cultural luminaries from over 32 countries. Rolex SA initiated the programme in keeping with a long tradition of supporting individual excellence. The organisation wishes to perpetuate the world’s artistic heritage in recognition of the ideal that it is possible to promote excellence without relying solely on financial philanthropy. Mentors are encouraged to offer their time, creativity and ideas, resources far more valuable to their charges than mere pecuniary assistance.
Masters of film, dance, literature, music, theatre and the visual arts are invited to offer individual guidance to gifted young artists. Each pair decides the best way to take the relationship forward. All Rolex asks is that the arrangement last a full year, with mentor and student spending at least six weeks together. The interaction ranges from protégé being granted access to master at work, to actual collaboration in artistic endeavour.To date, 173 artists, art-world leaders and other cultural luminaries have participated in the programme. Some 54 advisors have helped select mentors, and 91 nominators protégés. The programme’s participants span the globe in a community of art and creative exchange.
Middle East observers need not look far to find involvement from one of their own. In 2010, the initiative brought together Maya Zbib and Peter Sellars. The advocate of open space for dialogue was paired with festival- and theatre-director extraordinaire for results that surprised both. Maya Zbib brings a certain charm and openness to any space she inhabits. Though product of a Beirut that had seen its urban psyche rocked by civil war and a succession of conflicts – some self-inflicted, others wanton trespass by outsiders – she has created space for herself through art. Zbib is first and foremost a communicator, and her passion for theatre is born from an ardent desire to create channels for dialogue. With a Masters in Performance Making from Goldsmith University, she finally found a home at Beirut’s Zoukak Theatre Company and Cultural Association. That rarest of things, it is a completely democratic theatre company, deeply committed to sharing drama therapy techniques in the damaged communities and refugee camps of Southern Lebanon.
Of course, Peter Sellars hardly requires any introduction. The American director is well known for his interpretations of artistic masterpieces, and his collaborative projects with a range of creative artists. Sellars’ early work crossed genres and time with contemporary versions of works by Shakespeare, Brecht, Gershwin, Mozart, Handel and Bach. Recipient of the 1998 Erasmus Prize and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Sellars joined the pantheon of mentors in the Rolex Art Initiative in the 2010-11 season.
Zbib says her association with Sellars added nuance to the way she thought about theatre. It helped her better comprehend the breadth of the art, and its significance to different cultures. Perhaps even more importantly, Zbib says Sellars’ influence helped her recall that theatre was in essence a pleasurable exercise in self-expression and not an arduous, complicated task.
Going further back through the annals of The Rolex Initiative, one discovers the idiosyncratic pairing of Edem Awumey and mentor Tahar Ben Jelloun in 2006-07. Jelloun, the acclaimed North African writer, draws upon his experiences of alienation in his native Morocco and as an immigrant in France, combining them with psychological insights to create powerful works across myriad forms including novels, poems, plays, essays and articles.
Awumey, meanwhile, has also put the theme of disassociation and exile at the heart of his fiction. Originally from Lome, capital of Togo, Awumey lives in Quebec and writes under his first name. Experiences of exile drew the two together, with an e-collaboration quickly turning into close rapport. Jelloun described his protégé as a river in flood that needs to be channelled. Four years later, Edem might have quietened down, but in a way that has focussed his abilities and concentrated his writing abilities.
On a crisp New York day in November 2011, artists gathered to celebrate the successful culmination of mentorship and creative exchange with emerging talents in their fields. Trisha Brown, Brian Eno, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Anish Kapoor, Peter Sellars and Zhang Yimou were joined by their respective charges as they ruminated over a year of learning and profound change in the programme’s 2010-11 season.
November also saw Rolex SA announce the names of six internationally recognised artists chosen to lead dance, film, literature, music, theatre and visual arts in 2012-13. Each mentor will be given a choice of three finalists in each category, and will select a pupil from the short-list. A mentor’s choice of student has always been very personal, and Rolex SA would not want it any other way.
The mentor list reads like to a Who’s Who of the arts world. Canadian author Margaret Atwood, renowned novelist, poet, essayist and literary critic and a prolific writer, is on it. The Economist calls her a “scintillating wordsmith,” but one up-and-coming author will simply call her guide. Then there is French theatre director Patrice Chereau, heralded for his wide-ranging theatre, film and opera productions that delve deeply into human relationships. For him, experimentation with different media presages one unifying idea: that of narrating stories.
Also nominated is Asia’s premier choreographer, Lin Hwai-min, who has pioneered Chinese contemporary dance since founding Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre nearly 40 years ago. Film mentor is Walter Murch, revered for his work as an editor and sound designer, and as a craftsman who does not visualize as much as auralise when he thinks about sound in terms of space.
Legendary singer, songwriter and guitarist Gilberto Gil, one of Brazil’s most influential musicians, is taking on the musical responsibilities in the 2012-13 programme. He has released 52 albums, five them platinum and 12 gold, and has sold more than four million records. Finally, the visual arts are represented by William Kentridge, a man acclaimed for enmeshing the personal with the political in his narrations of pre- and post-apartheid South Africa. He is drawn by ambiguity, contradiction and uncompleted gestures; fitting then that he is an extraordinary exponent of political art.
The protégés for the 2012-13 season of the programme have yet to be decided, but Rolex SA has already initiated a worldwide search. Expert, international nominating panels of influential artists and professionals in each of the six disciplines are already at work, identifying and inviting young talents from around the globe to submit applications. The process is not open to unsolicited applications – all potential protégés are personally invited to apply. The protégés will be announced in mid-2012, and the year will commence soon after.
The personal nature of mentor and protégé has been diluted by the vicissitudes of modern life and the travails of modern learning. As a sign of its commitment to the importance of craftsmanship, Rolex SA has resurrected this most intimate and satisfying relationship, to the great benefit of global art and expression.