KODA – A Focus on Artists

In Dialogue with Klaudia Ofwona Draber

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Klaudia Ofwona Draber at The Strange Foundation (https://thestrange.foundation). Photo by Willa Köerner

The idea for KODA has already germinated in Klaudia Ofwona Draber’s mind during her graduate degree at Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York. While researching extensively for her business plan, it has occurred to her that mid-career artists are not getting enough support and something needs to be done about it. She founded KODA in 2019 guided by her initial observation regarding the needs of mid-career artists. KODA focuses on artists who explore social related topics through rigorous research, providing them with exposure and enhancing their opportunities for scholarship through residencies, survey exhibitions, and community-based activities. Klaudia Ofwona Draber, KODA Founder and Board President, shares with Art Spiel the vision behind the organization and sheds some light on some of the affiliated artists.

How did this seed of an idea that started in grad school evolve into a cohesive plan and consequently into its current form as a dynamic organization?

Lots of thinking and planning, but most importantly, doing. Already during the graduate degree, as the business plan was being created, I went out to the world to speak with people and test ideas out. Of course started by creating a landing page, and printing business cards, as conversation starters.

The most critical thing was narrowing down the concept enough to be able to make an impact and finding the people who have experience to share. Alliance of Artist Communities (AAC) was the most valuable resource. So, in 2018 I took a trip to Philadelphia, PA, for the AAC annual conference. The whole week was just packed with so much knowledge exchange, enthusiasm, support, learning, networking, laughing, seeing art, etc. Such wonderful people, memorable experience, and definitely recommended to anyone working at an artist residency or even thinking about establishing one. People I spoke with, and stayed in touch with, were both founders of well-established residencies from around the country, arts administrators specializing in given areas of nonprofit management, as well as newbies like myself.

The next step was getting the team together. I find myself being extremely fortunate to work with such amazing people. Half of KODA’s board members are artists (Elana Herzog, Kenseth Armstead, and Tahir Carl Karmali), to ensure the organization keeps being aligned with what it is that artists actually need. Throughout the beginning stages there were also several friends and colleagues from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art who helped out with getting KODA off the ground! Their love and support kept ensuring me that this mission has a potential.

The very first staff member was Nadine Braquetti, who has recently become KODA’s Executive Director. KODA is growing in size, with new staff members on board, artist residencies, exhibitions, and exciting programs, so we are able to better provide value to the artists we serve. Nadine knows KODA in and out and is making the organization a better place every single day. Since 2013 Nadine has been volunteering with the United Nations in Europe and Africa, to support children in vulnerable situations and mother-child care programs, rural development in Cameroon, and women with HIV in Kenya. And since 2018 she has been an independent curator. And it is her dedication to social justice, and care for artists, their work, process, and concepts, that make her perfect for this role.

Before we get deeper into your vision for KODA, let us take a closer look at your roots – where you grew up and how in your mind it led to founding KODA. You mentioned in your interview for A Women’s Thing and in our conversation that you were born and raised in Poland and that when you were six years old, you visited Kenya for the first time. You describe meeting your Kenyan grandmother as a life changing experience, encountering a woman that has become your role model. A woman well ahead of her time, who was doing experimental and entrepreneurial work already in the 50s while raising 11 children “who grew up to be loving and socially-conscious people.” Can you elaborate on that experience of growing up in between continents and different cultures and how do you think that part of your life has impacted your decision to found KODA?

Growing up between cultures and on different continents, one learns to be attentive, notice subtleties, and, as in my case, one grows with a commitment to fight injustice. It seems that many people in the US have similar experiences.

When I visited Kenya for the first time, my father named me Aoko, after my grandmother, the fearless, educated, entrepreneurial, and creative Josephine Aoko Ofwona. It is a tradition of our nomadic tribe to give a Luo surname to your child. Mine meaning “born outside” or as my father says “born away from home”. Especially that first visit to Kenya was utopian, I was sorting out grains with my grandmother, with my hair out, eating sugarcane, chasing goat. It opened my mind to freedom and possibilities, and allowed me to seek the feeling of “home” in the in between state many mixed-race people constantly find themselves in. At KODA we call our lifestyle “nomadic”, not bound by a place, beyond borders.

Growing up between Black and White communities made me strong. It taught me to chart my own path, since I wasn’t really fitting in anywhere in particular. Further, both of my Kenyan grandparents lived completely against the grain. My grandfather was airlifted to the US in 1961 with other 800 East African Students, including Barack Obama Senior, to pursue advanced education. Upon returning to Kenya, after it gained independence, he became the very first African civil engineer employed by the Ministry of Public Works, and later became chief municipal engineer of Mombasa, supporting its development into one of the most important ports in East Africa. My grandmother also received good education in hospitality and management. She was a daughter of sergeant major, and attended school already in the 40s, as one of the very few girls. It was completely uncommon for girls in Kenya to attend school back then.

Most recently, Natalia Nakazawa, a wonderful artist, introduced me to her concept of 100/100. Thinking about how being multiracial doesn’t mean we are 50% (or less) of each culture, it means we are 100% each culture. Embracing my own identity, and accepting it’s transformations, have played a role in forming KODA, organization deriving its name from Ehreita acuminata, a tree that travelled from Africa to Australia, back in the day when the continents were still connected.

Natalia Nakazawa, Visual Heteroglossia: Infinite Flooding, Infinite Burning (2016). Jacquard textiles, digital collage, Faux leather, vinyl, concentrated watercolor and acrylic on wood panel, 40 x 30 x 2 in. Photo credit: Jeanette May

Social Justice is central in your vision of KODA. This term can be interpreted quite widely and by now it can be seen by some as such a ubiquitous term that may be in danger of losing its edge despite its evident urgency in our society. What does Social Justice in art mean to you? Maybe we can look at the artworks by your two artists in residence, Hidemi Takagi and Lina Puerta in that context?

We let the artists lead the way. Hidemi Takagi is one of these artists. She has been working with migrant and minority communities, putting them in the spotlight, telling their stories, and honoring their lives through her over saturated photography, and installations. To curate a survey exhibition, and develop and monograph of her work, we partnered up with FiveMyles, in Takagi’s neighborhood. Hanne Tierney is actually the person who first put the artist in touch with Saint Teresa of Avila Senior Apartments in Crown Heights, where Takagi developed Hello, it’s me–a project preserving stories and memories of the senior residents., through extended visits, in depth interviews, and portraiture. Hidemi Takagi’s work, deeply embedded in the community, surfaces such issues as racial injustice. Many of the places she photographs get erased, along with their people and histories, from contemporary landscape by gentrification. Takagi does the important work of speaking with her neighbors, documenting their stories, and, as Eva Mayhabal Davis says in the introduction to her essay about Takagi’s Bed-Stuy Social ‘Photo’ Club project, “…in a social context photography captures the social consciousness, social space, human relationships, and physical space. Hidemi Takagi uses photography as a medium that tells us personal stories of specific peoples and a specific time.”

Hidemi Takagi, Virginia from “Hello, it’s me” (2016). Digital C Print, 25 x 30 in.

It seems that a KODA residency involves teaming up with the artist and coming up together with a tailored program which enables the artist a period of experimentation, while also developing their career. KODA residency involves components such as public engagements, exhibitions, art fairs, and resources such as studio space if needed. Can you elaborate on how you team up with the artist, come up with such a plan and maybe you can give me specific examples?

We are here to serve the artists on their growth paths, as a guide and a liaison. One of the most important components of our residency program is a monthly production and curatorial consultancy with KODA’s team. When the residency starts, and throughout, we ask the artists what it is that they need in the current moment of their careers and artistic practice. The residency seasons focus on particular socially minded topics, to ensure enough time to partner up with organizations that make real contributions, and to enhance impact-making, through providing the artists with the right resources, to, most often, share awareness about societal issues their work addresses.

One of the themes we have been working on in depth is environmental preservation, and advocating for climate justice. The intention for the residency with Lina Puerta has been a preparation for the survey exhibition we’re planning for Fall 2021. Lina Puerta’s intention has been to continue the work relating to Indigenous cultures, ancestral knowledge, and care of the Earth. One of the first opportunities we found for Lina Puerta was presentation of an artist interlude at a UN-related Leaders Event for Nature and People, by the invitation of WWF. Further, in collaboration with the artist, in partnership with New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), and with a support from Humanities New York, we organized a series of programming referencing themes of her work, including an all-Latinx women panel on Women’s Suffrage, and a food justice conversation with farmer Karen Washington, in partnership with Rainforest Alliance.

During the Food Justice panel Lina Puerta showed works from her Farmworkers series, raising awareness about interconnectedness of food justice and racial justice, and the unacceptable conditions of immigrant Latinx farmworkers and their lack of labor rights. Our livelihood relies on these people, they are essential workers, as Lina Puerta says, “we all rely on their labor and their bodies, and service for the food we consume”. These Farmworkers series (portraits), advocating for food justice and workforce equality especially amongst Latinx communities, are mostly made out of Pigmented cotton and linen pulp. sequined fabric, food packaging nettings and wrappings.

Most recently Puerta’s work is focusing on the Indigenous knowledge regarding humans’ relationship to the natural world, food growth, and environmental justice. In part, to honor and reflect the labor-intensity of the food system, in her work she uses labor-intensive and traditional Indigenous and South American techniques of weaving, embroidery, hand-sewing, from the regions her family is from. These techniques and practice are slow, repetition-based, and as such also spiritual in nature as it also transmits ancestral knowledge, and lessons.

Lina Puerta, Untitled (Blue) From the Latino Farmworkers in the US – Portraits Series (2018). Pigmented cotton and linen pulp; sequined fabric, food packaging nettings and wrappings. 18 x 15 in.

You mentioned in your interview for A Women’s Thing that your vision for the near future is to focus even more on the artists, “on the long form.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that and how do you plan on serving mid-career artists?

Our first social practice residency open call entitled Land + Environment is live until (deadline: March 12, 2021). You can read more and apply here. At KODA we program long-term, we already have exhibition plans for 2022. And once we start working with an artist, we act almost as if we were representing them.

Especially since we work with contemporary artists, who are mid-career, we place lots of focus on art historical contextualization of their works. Most recently we have published a monograph Hidemi Takagi: Stories with contribution by legendary photographer Jamel Shabazz, who shares his memories of weekly visits to a barbershop with his father, and community-focused essays by curator Eva Mayhabal Davis, third generation Bed-Stuy resident Saijah Williams, and reflections on immigrant perspective by arts professional and Hidemi Takagi’s long-collaborator Jim Furlong.

And coming up is the new residency and programming season: Trauma + Healing. Two artists in residence Ewa Harabasz, and Billy Gerard Frank will be focusing on war, conflict, discrimination, and displacement. The season opens with a survey exhibition on March 18-April 18, 2021—You are in the war zone with artist Farideh Sakhaeifar, organized in partnership with Trotter&Sholer at their Lower East Side gallery (168 Suffolk St, Ground Floor, New York, NY 10002). The exhibition encompasses the last seven years of artist’s work, and addresses the politics of conflict, the heritage of war, and the feeling of displacement.

Through sculpture, video, installation, digital collage, and collaborative practice with Hekler. Sakhaeifar raises awareness about the critical war state, questions violence and injustice, and advocates for peace. Commissioned essays in the accompanying catalogue will further discuss Sakhaeifar’s collaborative practice, life in the war zone, displacement, and US foreign policy in the MENA region.

Farideh Sakhaeifar, You are in the war zone., 2016-17. Gelatine Silver Print, 8 x 10 in.

All photos courtesy of KODA and the artists unless otherwise indicated

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com