Could you please provide a bit of background information about yourself. Where are you from?
My name is Levi Gikandi and I am from Mombasa, Kenya. My family has lived in Mombasa since I was born, but my brothers and I have traditionally pursued higher education abroad in various countries around the world. I came to Penn in 2010 and expect to graduate in 2015 with a Fine Arts and African Studies Double Major.
Did you know that you wanted to study Fine Arts when you arrived at Penn?
My mom would tell you that I was always going to be an artist, but I truly began my academic journey at Penn as a prospective Anthropology Major with my eyes set on sociocultural and international development research. However, Visual Arts was one of my International Baccalaureate higher-level courses in grades 12-13, and I have always had an interest in expressing myself artistically in some capacity.
At some point that now seems far from tangible memory, this interest evolved into an appreciation for the video medium and for filmmaking. I then quickly became inducted into the Fine Arts program through the Fine Arts video concentration and the wonderful mentorship of Professor Ellen Reynolds.
I owe my introduction to photography to Fine Arts Senior Lecturer Gabriel Martinez, or just “Gabe” as he quickly told us photography greenhorns to call him when we first gathered for his Intro to Photography class. Indeed, Gabe exemplifies what has made me very willing to call the Penn Fine Arts department my second home for the remainder of my time at Penn.
I have never experienced such a willingness to empathize with my personal trajectory and background and to prioritize my academic and professional wellbeing as I have as a Fine Arts Major. There is a sense of community fostered by the administration and faculty that has grown on me and has been absolutely fundamental to both my growth as an artist and my ability to cope with academic and professional pressures.
You’re a double major in Fine Arts and African Studies. Can you please talk about the intersections, and how African Studies influences your artwork?
When I first started practicing photography, I used it as a way to address the fetishization of the black body in art history and the history of ethnography, which I had encountered for the first time as an African student in the USA.
Today, the broad tenor of my work has become about the negotiation of the border space that I live in, between a de-contextualized sense of belonging to my country of birth, Kenya, and the challenges and pressures of assimilation that come with migration.
Fine Arts practice, African Studies concepts, and personal experience, with an emphasis on the lattermost, all fluidly mix to affect a lot of my work.
Could you please talk a bit about your experience in the Silverstein Photography Studio Abroad during 2012-2103, your trip to Istanbul, and the exhibition that followed?
The Silverstein Photography Studio Abroad program was possible due to the sponsorship of Howard A. Silverstein and Patricia Bleznak Silverstein, and I am very grateful to them for their support.
As part of the class, seven undergraduate Photography students, including myself, and seven graduate students from the Graduate School of Design traveled to Istanbul and embarked on realizing individual photographic projects that we had been developing throughout the first half of the semester. My project focused on representing the complex identities of African transitory migrants in Istanbul.
Thinking about the experience in retrospect, my initial intention was to somehow use academic discourse on the African Diaspora in order to contextualize the images that I would make by seeking out the migrants in Istanbul. Of course, the situation on the ground rejected my binarized approach, and I found myself struggling to make artwork with the images that I took. This is not surprising considering that my work until then had been primarily studio based.
Documentary is a challenging medium, and this trip elucidated the shortcomings of not only my initial approach to my project in Istanbul, but also of my studio work. Eventually, my piece at the exhibition that culminated the course was a project that openly engaged with my insecurities as an artist, and as a student of Africanist discourse. In the end, a flawed performance that acknowledged my relationship to the subject matter was the most honest response I could give to the trip, and I was happy with that.
During Summer 2013, you went to Yale for a program in the arts. What was that experience like?
The Yale program was a six-week residency at Yale’s Norfolk summer school of Music and Art, which I attended along with 24 other selected artists (mostly college juniors). The program was interdisciplinary in painting, printmaking, photography, and drawing. It was a challenging and generative experience. I immediately felt weaned off the familiar validation that I received as a Fine Arts student at Penn. The faculty at Yale did not know who I was outside of each piece that I made at the residency, and, although they were not disinterested, they maintained a “distance” that demanded a negotiation between their feedback and my need to “hold my ground” with respect to my personal beliefs.
One of the most impactful things about Yale was the energy of the program. This was cultivated by the student artists from a diverse range of backgrounds and artistic mediums who shared their varied experiences and approaches to the process of art making. Often, it was all I could do to not be seduced by the potency of their personal approaches.
Ultimately, Yale was an exercise in finding what it is that I enjoy about art, and making art, outside of the obligations that we have as artists. This may sound lofty, but I believe that this is an important part of developing my understanding of why I practice art. I am grateful to Larry Shprintz for his generous sponsorship, which made this experience possible.
Also during Summer 2013, you went to Jamaica to work on the Tivoli Stories project with Professors Ken Lum and Deborah Thomas. Please describe that project and your specific role.
The Jamaica independent study is an interdisciplinary project cross-listed between Fine Arts (Photography) and Anthropology. The broad knowledge base that Professors Ken Lum and Deborah Thomas provide together has been very helpful in situating myself in the context of the complicated and politically and socially charged subject matter of the course. Working in tandem with Professor Thomas’s inspiring long-term research in the area, the course involves a documentary excursion into Tivoli Gardens, a garrison community in Kingston, Jamaica. In May 2010, in collaboration with the U.S Drug Enforcement Agency, the Jamaican military and police force mounted an armed assault on Tivoli Gardens to extradite local drug lord and community leader Christopher Dudus Coke. The assault resulted in the death of over 70 people. The memory of this event is something that the residents of Tivoli struggle with both as individuals and as a community.
This is the situation you can learn about by doing a brief Google search on Tivoli Gardens. However, meeting the people who live with this legacy every day is a completely different dimension of understanding the situation. It is a potent emotional and visual experience. Created in the 60s as an idyllic, self-contained community space, Tivoli still carries some of the visual optimism of its original planners with a dark realism of physical degradation and evidence of ongoing violence. The people themselves I find hard to describe without digressing into generalizations and platitudes about bravery, resilience, and kindheartedness. For this, I only have my inability to escape being an outsider to blame. However, my general experience was one where I felt welcomed, protected, stimulated emotionally and mentally, and brightened by the incredible life-force of the residents of Tivoli that we interacted with.
As part of the class, my role in Tivoli [was] to co-teach a photography workshop with two other Fine Arts photographers and to create a photographic essay on my experience there.
Coming from the University of Pennsylvania, and the United States of America, and perhaps even approaching the situation from the point of view of an “artist” too easily relegates work that is made in Tivoli to visual economies of commodification and to a framework for the creation of intercultural knowledge that has historically disenfranchised the cultural subject being interrogated. Any attempt at “justly” approaching the issues that we face in Tivoli vis-a-vis our own professional and artistic goals and obligations requires a difficult negotiation of the principles of self and subject matter that I find very challenging, but that is also central to my growth as a documentary artist. I truly look forward to going back in January.
Let’s talk a bit about your senior thesis project. What direction is it going in? Are you working in photography?
My senior thesis project is in its nascent phase and so it is difficult to speak of specifics at this point. I do intend to work in photography, and possibly sculpture and video. Another promising possibility on the table is that Renee Cox, through a potential credit yielding internship opportunity, has asked me to write a book about her from the perspective of my artistic trajectory and our similar interests in African Diaspora related subject matter.
It may be too soon to answer this, but do you have plans for after graduation?
Right now it is too early to tell. A part of me wants to go back home to Kenya and teach photography and pursue my artistic career there. However, another part of me wants to continue learning as much as I have been from the opportunities that I have found and hope to continue finding in higher education and the art world here. Ultimately, graduate school is on the table, however I want to work for a few years first.