Rolex Mentor and Protégé – what does it mean ‘cross-generational interaction’ ?

The Rolex Mentor and Protégé initiative was set up to make a contribution to global culture: international artists take part in a one-to-one mentoring relationship by artistic masters

Mentor and Protégé – a Rolex initiative 

The Rolex initiative Mentor and Protégé, launched in 2002, identifies young artists and puts them into close contact with leading exponents of their art for a year. And that is how Colin Barrett, one of the new voices in Irish literature, can today meet with and ‘learn’ from a recognized master of European fiction like Colm Tóibín, another Irishman, from Enniscorthy, son of a nation which, though small and sparsely populated, has for centuries produced some of the world’s most influential authors (Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, John Synge, and today John Banville, Colm Tóibín and Roddy Doyle). 

While today Tóibín is a master for many, the writer rejects this label, preferring the title of mentor, namely a wise, trusted advisor, a sort of father figure.

Nicola Manuppelli interviewing Colm Tóibín

It is a winter’s morning in January, when Colm and I start talking about masters and all that follows. We use modern technology, being separated by an entire ocean, as happens to the protagonists of one of Tóibín’s most famous novels, Brooklyn, because now Colm lives in New York, where he teaches at Columbia University (as well as the professorship in creative writing at Manchester University, to succeed Martin Amis). 

«I’m not a master», Colm tells me. «The truth is that I really admired Barrett’s first book, Young Skins, and so for two years, thanks to the Rolex initiative, we have had the chance to get to know each other, to talk, and learn from one another. Since I have published nine novels and Colin is working on his first, I hope I can tell him something useful. I am not a master. Nobody thinks I am». 

When I ask him what he thinks a master is, Colm says he wouldn’t be able to define it. Even though he is the son of a teacher and one of his most important books, about the figure of Henry James, is called The Master

Henry James and the subject of homosexuality

«Yes, my father was a teacher, and he was also very popular. He put a lot of energy into his work. But he died when I was twelve. Later I had many good English teachers at secondary school and at university. But master is a broader term than teacher. I really wouldn’t know if it has anything to do with me and my writing. In The Master, the title is almost ironic. Henry James had written a story called The Lesson of the Master, published for the first time in 1888. Not long after that, young writers in London began calling him master. And the final volume of Leon Edel’s biography on James is called The Master. But the years my novel deals with, from 1895 to 1900, are essentially the years of failure for James, years in which the writer didn’t feel like the master of anything, neither his work nor his life».

What interested him in Henry James’ life was the subject of his homosexuality (Colm is openly gay and has often explored the events and possible future of homosexuality in his stories, underlining how there is no contrast between tradition and religion) kept hidden and dealt with in a different way from that, for example, of Oscar Wilde.

New Ways to Kill Your Mother: adults and young people

«I am fascinated by James’ ambiguity. He loved his family, and yet he abandoned it as soon as he was able. He was wealthy, yet was constantly worried about money problems. He sought solitude yet often dined in high society and loved company. He was homosexual but liked to frequent women. And he was neither fully American nor fully English».

Of writers, Colm has spoken about them in some essays, like in New Ways to Kill Your Mother

«When I wrote The Master, I realized that talking about a person that really existed requires the same effort and imposes the same limits as talking about an invented character. The conclusion that can be drawn is a sort of paradox, which means that nothing in fiction is completely invented, because most of what you write comes from life, and nothing is completely real, because much of what you write is imagined».

In New Ways to Kill Your Mother, as well as in Mothers and Sons, the study shifts to focus on the relationship between adult figures and younger people, in other words the mother-son relationship. 

«The essays in New Ways were mainly commissioned by the New York Review of Books and by the London Review of Books, therefore there were editors deciding the subject and the authors I spoke about, often Irish or gay writers (including Cheever, Yeats, Synge, Tennessee Williams), while much of the pages of Mothers and Sons I wrote immediately after the death of my mother, when my relationship with her, and all the details of that relationship, were still fresh in my mind».

William Butler Yeats and the novel Brooklyn

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats is obviously one of his authors of reference.

«He is a constant presence in my life. I keep going back to his poetry, his letters, essays, and plays. He had a great life and Yeats is a marvelous source of inspiration».

Colm claims that his writing springs from silence. 

«I come from a world where the most important things are the unsaid things, where words are a way of masking your feelings. In novels, you can play with all this, you can show what a certain character is thinking and what he then says. The difference between these two things creates the drama».

America appears in his novel Brooklyn (also made into a film) and in his biography. Since he is now talking from New York, I ask him what the United States means to him. 

«There are many writers I love. Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Gluck. But the fact that they are American doesn’t count. What counts is that they are great writers, or ones that mean a lot to me. But even though I live partly in the United States, I still consider myself an Irish writer».

Gianni Biondillo in conversation with Sir David Adjaye and Mariam Kamara 

Renzo Piano once told me: «It is something that has always happened since the time of renaissance workshops. In our line of work, you learn by doing, and you turn to your mentor for advice and instruction». 

The Rolex philanthropic project, called Mentor & Protégé since 2002, aims to create links between different generations of artists, designers, and thinkers. Helping them work together and so ensure skills and know-how are passed down, something that benefits individuals as well as an entire community.

It aims to ensure no artist remains shut away in their own private space: society is always behind them and within them. Over the next two years, mentor and protégé will share and compare aspects pertaining to one another, be they dancers, writers, musicians, or architects.  

David Adjaye

David Adjaye was born in Tanzania, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat. He lived in Egypt and Lebanon before growing up in Great Britain. He is a citizen of the world; an architect. But he points out, to dispel any doubt: «I don’t believe in the idea that a construct we call a nation actually represents a specific architectural style; however, there are regional and cultural characteristics that are the outcome of lessons learned about a given place».

So the subject is not the nationality of talent, but its ability to understand the territory where they work. Sir David Adjaye became part of a global pop imagination after his involvement in designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, a building whose sense of monumentality is not tied to the tired notions of classical Western architecture.

Eduardo Souto de Moura

If you become a mentor, you have to have been a protégé first. «I never worked formally with a mentor», he explains, «but there have been people in my life who encouraged me since I was at school, or people I met when I was a young man with whom I still work today». He talks to me about the school of Peter Alison, about the influence that Richard Rogers has had on his work over the last decade, about working in Portugal with Eduardo Souto de Moura, about his generosity, and the long chats on the road. All ways that a mentor and a protégé learn from one another. 

David Adjaye choosing Mariam Kamara as his own protégé

Sir David Adjaye chose Mariam Kamara as his own protégé. I remember seeing one of her designs for a new model of urban housing: it was called Niamey 2000 Urban Housing. A project making clever use of technology and local resources, with no psychological subordination to European models. Kamara is a young, African Muslim.

She was a wise choice for Adjaye, one with symbolic impact – but from what I gathered, he is interested in her talent, nothing more. He certainly knows that «being an architect in Africa today is both a responsibility and an opportunity».

Together, they will be designing a cultural space for the public at Niamey, the capital of Niger. It will mean working together, side by side, for two years. I asked both of them how do you manage to go beyond a set of customs that are so overpoweringly rooted that our notion of architecture has become standardized at a global level.

African architecture: quitting the replication of Western architecture

Kamara replies «in Africa, the focus tends to be on replicating what is going on in cities in the West, but it is not possible to replicate what was built there. It is common knowledge that many of the cities in Africa were built during European colonization; as a result, they are based on models that are culturally alien to us».

I say that perhaps it is time for us to start thinking of Africa as a place of opportunity, starting with the Africans themselves. Kamara also thinks the same way. «There is a new economic drive in the continent giving us the opportunity to create new infrastructures and new models of housing. It is our responsibility, as well as an opportunity, to avoid making the same mistakes as in the past and to create a new way forward».

Western Imperialism and Colonial culture 

The borders of African countries were marked out by a Western Imperialist and Colonial culture – in reaction, Adjaye is not interested in the subject of nationalism. The only form of African architecture that interests him is a direct result of the geographical conditions of a specific area, of its culture. And the architect’s ability to master the technology best suited to the environment, instead of imposing technology on it.

«As a result of the industrialization of architecture and the mass use of technology, we have reached a point where we have lost interest in the place where we are working. We design buildings for the desert or anywhere else in exactly the same way, using the same materials».

All of this is not sustainable (anymore). Architecture, he wants me to understand, has to be capable of being more specific. It has to respond to the diversities, to the complexities, of the community. Starting with an analysis of the environment, of the carefully-considered use of the most appropriate technologies: «Africa is a continent of rapidly expanding cities, that has always inherited some terrible buildings – there are obvious solutions taking into account the local geographical and climate conditions». 

Architecture is about places to live and work

Kamara nods in agreement: «David considers Africa like a continent of climate zones» – describing the concept better: «If I am working at Niamey, or in Burkina Faso, Mali or Senegal, it is highly likely that you’ll note some similarity in the designs because they have the same climate, they have the same needs. Their culture is also similar. For example, people in Niger cook outside in the open air; and guests can pop in at any time of day – these are things that a designer has to take into consideration. I think that an earlier generation of African designers lost its way amid a rationale based on image. For me, it is about designing buildings where people want to live, creating inspiration, experience».

Adjaye concludes: «We have to remember that architecture is not an exercise in branding. It is about places where people live and work». Where they meet and interact. This will be the subject of discussion between mentor and protégé for the next two years. How to design a space that is genuinely cultural and genuinely public. Basically, where architecture can create community, experience, and identity. 

Micol Beltramini in conversation with Marcus Gilmore and Zakir Hussain

«My father loved the tabla, – says Zakir Hussain – the ancient Indian drum, and he wanted to pass the knowledge onto me: I could connect with my instrument as and when I wanted, rehearse for ten minutes and then go out to play. My father would wait patiently for me to come back and ask him my questions, which he always answered in great detail, getting lost in tales that captivated me, as if they were bedtime stories».

Zakir Hussain’s mentors:  the Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart

Zakir Hussain acknowledges having had two mentors. The first, the Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, is introduced to him by his father, who held music courses in the United States in the late sixties. «Mickey Hart was studying with my father and asked him to play on his record: my father told him to take me in his place, and this was my gateway to the world of music. Mickey and I entered the recording studio for the first time in 1971. Forty-eight years later, we still work together, and I consider him among my closest friends». 

A second mentor: John McLaughlin

The second mentor is guitarist John McLaughlin. «He wanted to study Indian music, so he showed up at one of my workshops and asked me for information. After a short meeting, we then sat down to play, like two brothers. It felt as if we had rehearsed at least a hundred times before playing. John was thrilled and took me to New York to play with him and a young Indian violinist: Shakti was born, which is still our band».

The rhythmic structure of Indian music, explains Zakir Hussain, is an ancient and scientific system. «We have three hundred and sixty different rhythmic cycles, and each cycle is given its own set of syllables that all Indian percussionists, instrumentalists, singers and dancers must memorize. The syllables come from the language of the tabla, our ancient two-piece drum, and as with any dialect in use in the world, there are grammar rules that regulate written and spoken language. As students, we spend a lot of time learning this language, understanding how to form words, sentences, and paragraphs. Each syllable is connected to a designated finger of the right or left hand, and the two hands combine to create complex patterns on one drum or the other».

Marcus Gilmore

Marcus Gilmore is an American drummer. In 2009, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff included Gilmore in his list of drummers who are ‘finding new ways to look at the drum set, and at jazz itself’.

Zakir Hussain

Zakir Hussain  is an Indian tabla player, composer, percussionist, music producer and film actor. He is the eldest son of tabla player Alla Rakha.

David Adjaye

Sir David Frank Adjaye is a Ghanaian-British architect. He is known for having designed many notable buildings around the world, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. 

Mariam Kamara

Mariam Issoufou Kamara is a Nigerian architect. Her designs focus on open living spaces and make use of locally produced materials available to African communities: cement, recycled metal and raw earth.

Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, critic, and poet.

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]