Culture trip

People The Arts

August 31, 2023

Fifteen local artists prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa as part of a new international arts exchange program.

by Page Leggett

Art is an easy way to expose people to other cultures.  

So says Joanne Rogers, the owner/curator of Nine Eighteen Nine Studio Gallery at the uptown VAPA (Visual and Performing Arts) Center she and her husband, Arthur, co-founded along with other local arts leaders. She’ll prove it on a grand scale next April when she kicks off the first Charlotte International Arts Exchange (CIAE) program. 

Rogers will lead 15 Charlotte artists on a trip to Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya, for 10 days. Some of the artists have never left the country. One has never been on a plane. The cultural exchange is in partnership with Art Affair for Development Goals, a Kenyan arts organization. The visit will include studio tours and the development of a permanent public art project.

In July 2024, 15 Kenyan artists will visit Charlotte and teach, give school presentations and be immersed in the culture of the Queen City. Rogers has engaged community partners, including The Mint Museum and the Harvey B. Gantt Center, to help introduce the Kenyan artists to Charlotte culture.  

“There will be skills learned, networks built,” Rogers promises. Though future groups of exchange artists will be more diverse, the inaugural group is composed entirely of people of color. “A lot of Black people have little sense of their ancestry,” Rogers says. She plans to introduce them to what, for many, is their ancestral home. (As for Rogers, she’s from Trinidad, and her family’s a mix of Congolese, Syrian, Irish and English.)

Charlotte-based fashion designer Will White is among the chosen artists. White’s ancestors are from Africa, and he’s eager to become only the second person in his family to visit the motherland. 

Each Charlotte artist will be paired with a Kenyan artist for a one-on-one cultural exchange. White doesn’t know who he’ll be matched with, but since he’s the only fashion designer in the group, he knows it’ll be with an artist who uses a different medium. He’s excited to learn from someone “who works in a completely different realm.” 

The Charlotte and Kenyan artists have been meeting over Zoom to get acquainted before meeting in person. The groups held simultaneous art auctions and sold a combined total of $18,000. 

CIAE is in the thick of its fundraising campaign and has applied for grants. The group needs to raise between $250,000 and $300,000 and are currently nearing the $100,000 mark, Rogers says. 

Fashion designer Will White is one of 15 local artists who will visit Kenya next year as part of the inaugural Charlotte International Arts Exchange. This photo of an African-inspired kimono created by White earned him a spot among ArtPop Street Gallery’s 2023 selected artists.

In the meantime, Rogers is already planning the 2025 artist exchange. This time, there will be a call for submissions. And she’ll choose fewer artists. There’ll be 10 total — five from the Carolinas and five from throughout the country. Her group will head to Germany in 2025 and partner with Moving Poets, a multimedia arts collective founded in 1996 by dancer and choreographer Till Schmidt-Rimpler and his wife, the visual artist MyLoan Dinh. The group is based in both Charlotte and Berlin. (The artistic couple divides their time between the two cities.) 

“We want to expose, and be exposed to, all different art forms – not just visual art,” Rogers says. “Art is a language. It can be a bridge to so many things.” 

One artist’s journey 

When Rogers approached White to tell him about CIAE, he thought it would be an amazing opportunity for the lucky artists chosen. When Rogers told him he was among those she had in mind, he started crying. “I’ve never been to Africa,” he says. “And it was one of my life’s goals.”

He already feels a connection. In Kenya, he’ll still be thousands of miles from his ancestral home of Liberia, but he’ll at least be on the continent. “I’m down with the journey,” he says. “I love discovering new things and have always felt like a citizen of the world.”

He’s determined not to be that American — the one who’s loud and demanding — and will learn to say “please,” “thank you” and other useful phrases before he goes. He knows he’ll acquire African fabric and souvenirs and is planning accordingly. “I’m a chronic overpacker,” he says. “This time, I need to avoid that, because I want room in my suitcase to bring home treasures I find … I’m leaving room for wonder in my suitcase.”  

White created a garment that’s a mashup of two cultures — an African-inspired kimono made of patchwork textiles he bought locally and through a New York distributor. Authentic African fabric isn’t easy to find in Charlotte, but White discovered a source — Koubix African Fashion & Fabrics on West Sugar Creek Road. “They have an amazing selection of bold, beautiful fabrics,” he says. “Pictures do not do it justice. It’s owned by an African woman, and she sells textiles the way they do in Africa. You don’t buy it by the yard; you buy it by the bundle, which is about 6 yards long.” 

That one garment has been lucky: He took a photo of it, submitted it to ArtPop Street Gallery, and was chosen as one of this year’s artists whose work is featured on billboards across the region. (In February, the work was featured in Times Square.) Rogers bought it at the recent auction, and it’s now on display in the VAPA Center. But she has a Will White original in her closet: She commissioned him to design a dress for her 55th birthday celebration, held at the gallery in February. She and her husband have also commissioned White to rework their wedding outfits for a vow renewal ceremony in September. 

Travel dispels misconceptions

White knows he’ll have his eyes opened in Africa. That tends to happen when you escape your comfort zone. While a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., he was exposed to international students from all over the globe. “There are so many shades of Black,” he says. “You realize how small your world has been.”

He met students from Africa who showed him photographs of where they were from — and they proved a revelation. “You’re ignorant until the point of your awakening,” he says. “I thought Africa would look like something from the Stone Age, and instead it looked like the future.” 

Rogers expects the artists to have a few epiphanies while part of this program. “We all have so many misconceptions about other cultures,” she says. “We’re going to learn the truth. We want to demonstrate that we shouldn’t fear the other. When you immerse yourself in another culture, any fear goes away.”  SP

Help spread cultural understanding: If you’d like to see work by the 15 local artists bound for Africa or donate to the international arts exchange, visit Several levels of sponsorship are available, including sponsoring an individual artist. In addition to Will White, the artists heading to Kenya are Abel Jackson, Ani Todd, Anthony Burks, Arthur Rogers, Brenda Pinkston, Bryan Wilson, Chad Cartwright, Clayton Singleton, La’Porscha Smith, Nellie Ashford, Sabrina Tillman, Shawn Etheridge, Sloane Siobhan and J. Stacy Utley.

Featured photo: Downtown Nairobi

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