Cover Irish novelists from different eras—Colin Barrett and Colm Tóibín—exchanged thoughts and ideas, making the mentorship process a fruitful one

By exchanging ideas with and being mentored by seasoned masters, aspiring artists are poised to achieve greater heights

In the 19th century, apprenticeships were already common as crafts and trades were very often governed and managed by powerful guilds. Craftsmen would offer training, shelter and meals in exchange for the labour of a young unskilled worker, many of whom become indentured to their masters for years. Over time, many of them would then learn useful skills that led them to a better life.

Today, apprenticeships have evolved with these learning opportunities presented to individuals with aptitude and flair, who are seeking to upgrade themselves. Take famed French chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud, for instance. His culinary career started in 1969 when he apprenticed with chef Gérard Nandron at Nandron, a two Michelin-starred restaurant in Lyon, France. He slowly worked his way up, earning his chops in different kitchens. He now boasts establishments in various cosmopolitan cities, including Singapore.

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Such informal mentoring programmes ensure that the young craftsman pushes the envelope and tests his own abilities. This was what young American musician, composer and drummer Marcus Gilmore achieved under the supervision of acclaimed Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. The initiative is an international arts mentorship programme that pairs recognised masters in various fields with aspiring artists. Under Hussain’s guidance, Gilmore, a music prodigy himself, managed to create his first composition for an orchestra.

“I spent some time at [Hussain’s] place, and he created a safe space for me to figure out my creative process. He kept me grounded and focused, which was really, really imperative,” said the grandson of legendary American drummer Roy Haynes, adding that writing for an orchestra for the first time in his life gave him such a big learning experience. “Because to have all the melodies in your mind is one thing, but to find out a way to articulate them [into] what you want is a whole different thing. Also, dealing with ranges, different instruments, textures and sound design [is not easy].”

I spent some time at [Indian tabla great] Zakir Hussain’s place, and he created a safe space for me to figure out my creative process. He kept me grounded and focused, which was really, really imperative

—American musician Marcus Gilmore 

Meanwhile, Niger-born architect Mariam Kamara was mentored by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye. Both of them worked on Kamara’s plan for a major cultural complex in Niamey, the capital of Niger—a country in West Africa—a city with few public community buildings. Adjaye wanted her to have full control over the project, which was largely based on her own ideas, but he offered advice and guidance to shape and strengthen her thought process. As a result, the project, which will involve the local community and be built in a sustainable manner using available materials, has been approved by the city’s authorities. It is slated to start construction work this year.

“I feel enormously privileged and grateful. There was just something about both the generosity that David had, and his openness that just made [the whole process] so effortless—he treated me like a colleague,” said Kamara, who noted that Adjaye wanted to hear her views and exchange opinions during the mentorship process, ensuring that it was always a two-way traffic. “The freedom that I enjoyed in approaching him when I needed advice about something, or when I wanted to pick his brain [for ideas was amazing]. He created a comfortable, safe environment where we could just talk about work, challenges or different issues we were interested in [such as] history.”

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Learn from the best

Even someone as established as Adjaye, whose works include the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, US, and the Idea Store, a chain of educational community centres in London, took part in mentorship programmes in the early days of his career.

He admits: “Working for [British architect] David Chipperfield was such a memorable moment. It was amazing to be able to rummage through his library, which is, kind of, one of the most extraordinary libraries in the world on architecture.”

Having Portuguese architecture great Eduardo Souto de Moura mentor him in the early 1990s was also a highlight for Adjaye as he reminisced about “the kind of incredible conversations we had on how one makes architecture profound."

Canadian dance choreographer Crystal Pite, who mentored Senegalese hip-hop dancer Khoudia Touré under the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, concurred. “Dancers particularly benefit from such a mentorship programme,” she said, admitting that she had picked up a lot of pointers through a series of apprenticeships as a young dancer, and when she was starting out as a choreographer.

“It was really through doing and watching people ‘ahead’ of me creating things that I really learned how to [do it myself], and then a lot of the rest is through trial and error,” said Pite, who has snagged various awards, including the prestigious 2018 Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production for Flight Pattern. “We work in this strange, wordless form. It’s all unspoken, and so much of what we do happens in the present moment with each other in the studio.”

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Generation to generation

For such apprenticeships to be beneficial to both the mentee and mentor, it has to be an open exchange of knowledge and perspective. A selfish attitude from either party will only impede the progress of potentially groundbreaking ideas. This personal transmission of knowledge thus forms the basis of the Rolex’s Arts Initiative.

“The idea is that art is a continuum and that artists learn from those who went before, and they will in turn hopefully pass on what they know. And this programme gives emerging talents a unique opportunity to work one on one with recognised masters in their fields,” explained Rebecca Irvin, head of the Rolex Institute, which manages the company’s educational and philanthropic activities.

Since its launch in 2002, the international arts mentorship programme has enabled artists of different generations, cultures and disciplines to cross-pollinate, produce creative spark and pass on artistic heritage. “Mentoring in the arts is the oldest and, we believe, the most effective form of arts education.”

Watch how Zakir Hussain and Marcus Gilmore benefitted from the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative below. And the journeys of the other mentor-protege pairs can be viewed here

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