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Belgian-Turkish artist Shen Özdemir, who recently won the international art prize of the city of Tournai, just came back from a residency in Rio de Janeiro organised by The Bridge Project. Founded by Brussels native Julie Dumont, the nomadic curatorial initiative based in Brazil wants to give visibility to artists through exhibitions and residencies both in Brazil and Belgium. Özdemir, whose colourful, magnetic and playful universe we first encountered during the last edition of the Brussels Gallery Weekend, spent a whole month at the Copacabana. “I lived just a stone’s throw from Arpoador beach in Ipanema, where I spent quite a bit of time”, she says. Here, the up-and-coming artist tells us why Brazilian beaches are more than holiday destinations, what her work has to do with the Rio Carnival, and more. 

How did you find out about the residency and what made you want to apply?

I found out about The Bridge Project last September when I was exhibiting with Generation Brussels in the context of the Brussels Gallery Weekend. Julie, the residency curator, discovered my work and we started talking. She has been living in Brazil for about a decade, and right away she proposed the idea to organise a residency in Rio, something entirely in line with the imaginary carnival my work revolves around: the Karnavalo. You can imagine the many emotions I felt at that moment!

Photo by Benoit Dochy

What was your first impression of Brazil? 

Very positive. A friendly welcome, an intense human warmth, a very accessible approach, and a vibrant artistic scene. I felt people were bubbly, with a desire to share and get to know you, and also proud to show me the beauty of their country.  From the start, I found the Cariocas (Rio residents) to be very enthusiastic and curious. If I get the chance, I will go back.

What did you exhibit? Did you already decide what you wanted to do there before, or did you start working on-site? 

We agreed on the objectives of the residency before I went there. Julie had prepared a program that was in line with my work and my production capacities on-site. In addition to the Rio carnival experience and certain research and discoveries made on-site, three projects were planned before my arrival. Firstly, an exhibition of five flags at Alalaô Kiosk on Arpoador beach (La Troupe HARPLENA, 5 flags, 1.50 m/3m, textile printing, 2023.) This kiosk is renowned for the consideration it offers to the arts as well as its sustainable approach. In Rio de Janeiro, the beaches are important in local popular culture. That’s why it’s a great idea to exhibit on the beach, in this kiosk that champions the arts. 

Photo by Shen Özdemir

Secondly, Julie put me in touch with a gallery in Rio’s Gávea neighbourhood: Anita Schwartz. Bianca Bernardo, the gallery’s curator, invited me to participate in the collective exhibition “Dialetos do Firmamento”, where I presented the Troupe EKSTERE, two papier-mâché heads which I created on site. Lastly, I was also invited to create a new Karnavalo flag troupe (the ZILO Troupe, 8 flags, 90 cm/1.30 m, textile printing, 2023) for a performative procession together with the magnificent Bloco Céu na Terra. For one hour we paraded through the streets around the gallery, marking the beginning of the exhibition but also the end of my residency.

Did you learn anything new during your time over there?

I discovered the blocos, local street carnivals in Rio. During my residency, I mainly participated in these blocos instead of the internationally famous samba parade at the Sambadrome that we are used to seeing depicted in European media. I was caught up in these street parties, local celebrations and parades taking place throughout the entire month of February.

La Troupe EKSTERE, 2 têtes, 70 cm/110 cm, papier mâché, 2023

How would you assess the importance of residencies for artists these days? What role can they play in an artist’s career?

Personally, as someone working on new folklore that is fictional and without territory, I find international residencies very important for my work and career. By travelling to the other side of the world, I discovered things that are completely apart from our reality in Europe, but also the magic of folklore that brings together all kinds of different people of all social classes. I saw many differences, but also multitudes of similarities that bring us closer together and create strong human connections. Plus, I think it’s important to leave your comfort zone and discover other cultures. Thanks to my artistic practice, I had a certain ease in expressing myself in a region where folklore is of immeasurable importance. During my stay, I met many people with whom I will, maybe, create other projects in Rio in the future.

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