Jessy Koeiman is a curator and visual artist. She has been the Curator Collective Learning at Kunstinstituut Melly since 2018. Graduated from Grafisch Lyceum Rotterdam (Graphic design 2009 – 2013) and the Willem de Kooning academy Rotterdam (Lifestyle & Design 2013-2017), focused on photography, graphic design and interior design with a more specific aim on visual culture and critical studies. As visual artist, the projects are directed at social cultural intersectionality, being and spirituality. In this interview, she talks about her time at WdKA, the importance of crossovers and her style as a curator.
How did you end up at WdKA?
"After finishing high school, I wanted to join the Royal Navy. I did apply, but I was only 17 back then and did not get accepted. I got influenced by my family to go into healthcare and started studying nursing. I did that for a year, but soon realized it just was not for me.
As a child, I always loved making art. I decided it was time to follow my passion and study art! My dad did support me in this and so I went to Grafisch Lyceum to study graphic design. After this I felt like I wasn’t ready yet to get into the work field so I searched for art schools. At that time I still lived in the Hague so it made sense for me to go to KABK. But I liked WdKA more and I started to love Rotterdam. I applied to both and got accepted at WdKA, where I started studying Lifestyle & Transformation Design. I thought this would be a great addition to my basic graphic design skills, since it is a very broad programme where different disciplines are combined."
Where does your love for art come from?
“As a child, I used to have an old school computer in my room. Every time I came home late or misbehaved, my parents shut off the internet connection. If that happened, which was quite often, I had to entertain myself in other ways. That’s when I started to create: music, paintings, drawings, etc. It became a way to express myself. I was very shy and closed off as a child, so this helped me to calm down and feel free and safe in my own bubble. But I only did this when my internet got shut off as a punishment. When I became older, my creativity shifted more to lens based expressions like film and photography. I never imagined it to be anything more than a hobby, but my connection to art and creativity never left. It was really a way to express myself, because visuals and sounds go beyond words.”
How did you experience your time at the academy?
“I was in one of the first Lifestyle & Transformation Design classes, so you could notice that the programme and department were still in development. That made the programme a bit chaotic and unclear sometimes. There were multiple course leaders following up each other in a short period of time, what led to a lot of confusion. Luckily I am very flexible, so the chaos didn’t get to me too much. But for a lot of students the situation led to a lot of stress and pressure, what made them quit. That wasn’t nice to witness.
I am happy that I chose this programme though, it was very dynamic and gave me the space to unfold and develop into the creative I am today. I definitely learned a lot. During my studies, I got very interested in interior design and did an internship at Design Studio 5.
I think the last year of my studies was the most meaningful. I chose the Visual Culture minor, which was the first time in my student life that I was taught by a black woman: Nana Adusei-Poku. I felt I was being truly recognized by her. She introduced me to a lot of black literature and art and there was more space for me to express my blackness in my school projects. This was truly eye opening, not only for me but for the entire class. This is also the moment I realized I didn’t want to get into the field of interior design, but wanted to do something with education myself as well. It just felt more meaningful to contribute to society by bringing more black representation in the field of education and art. That minor really changed a lot for me and I’m still really grateful for everything Nana taught me.”
What was your graduation project about?
“It was a visual research into colorism that existed out of a film supported by spoken word. During my research proces I still had a lot of contact with Nana, who did not even work at the academy anymore at that time. She helped me a lot with finding literature and references. I was happy with the end result, but did get the feeling that the examinators (who where white) did not really understand my work. I graduated, but it did not feel as fulfilling as I imagined it to be. It was hard to again experience this feeling of not being understood and seen as a black artist.”
Did you suffer from the black hole feeling after graduation? What did you start doing after graduation?
“Yes, I do recognize that feeling a lot. I graduated in 2017 and felt a bit lost for a few months. In February 2018, a vacancy at Melly (Witte de With back then) opened up. A friend of mine encouraged me to apply for the job. Although it was really exciting, I also felt really calm. During the job interview, I was fairly bold and critical towards the institute; I had a strong view and a list of ideas. I think they liked that, because soon after that I got the call with the good news.
So, I started in May 2018 without any experience as a fulltime curator. I was the youngest in the team, and the only black person. That made it hard for me to ground there in the first year. In my second year it grew on me to do things a bit more differently. I wanted to use my own authentic power and skills to bring new energy to the institute; attract new communities, change the old image and create a more open and diverse space. This was definitely not an easy task, it actually took a high toll on my health eventually. In 2021 I got a burn out (and Covid) and I was not able to work for half a year. It was a huge wake up call for me though. When I got back in September, I decided to do things differently again and respected my own boundaries and position more. I am really open about these topics, because I think it is important to speak up about (mental) health within the workspace.
What characterizes your curatorship at Melly? Where do you get your inspiration / motivation from?
“I’m very focused on new and emerging artists, ‘the underdogs’. I get a lot of energy from discovering new, inspiring creators. Also, I tend to focus on art and artists related to Africa or the Caribbean. The first exhibition I organized, back in October 2021, was about celebrating African heritage: ‘Back in the Day is our Future’ amplified Black voices who manifest resistance by celebrating the richness of Black culture and history. It was an ode to the past and joy to the future, by offering a positive perspective that allows room for healing from the emotional labor associated with trauma. It included works of artists who encounter several anchor points from the movement, which they have translated into acts of solidarity, healing and self-love as part of their resistance. It showed examples of reinventing black bodies, dealing with diaspora and discovering personal archives. I am very passionate about creating community and finding solidarity through art. This exhibition is very characteristic of me as a curator.
Within Melly, I try to do so as well. Invite new communities. Combine music with art and performance. Education and representation are very important pillars to me. Currently I am working on the Fellowship Programme: where I work with young makers and students on a diverse range of art projects. This year I will be doing the CLIP project: an educational program with the aim of ensuring lasting change in the institution together through inclusiveness and a collective learning environment. This educational project offers eight to ten young people from Rotterdam between the ages of 17 and 24 with an mbo educational background the space to tell stories. This year, participants will explore and ultimately present history stories and storytelling in relation to filmmaking. They will do this through formative sessions and practical training. The result of the project is a film script written by the participants, which will be further developed by Uriel Matahelumual in collaboration with the group into a short film that will be released in early 2024. I hope that I can be what Nana was for me at WdKA.
Your website says that your main goal is to facilitate crossovers between disciplines; why do you think this is important?
“Yes, I think this is very important especially within a visual art institute like Melly that used to be a very traditional ‘white cube’. I wanted to change the ‘high art’ standard and bring more music, spoken word, dance and movement into the building. Because that is art too. By working in a multidisciplinary way, artists can also learn from each other. That’s what I love to see: people exchanging knowledge, creating something together, building strong connections and communities.”
How do you balance your work, being an artist, curator and model?
“Being a curator at Melly is my main job (five days). I do want to develop my own practice more, but I have a hard time finding the time and energy for it. I am currently working on a photography series and I would love to exhibit my work more. I also do modeling jobs on a very sporadic basis. Which I actually want to do more as well.
What was the most valuable thing about your time at the academy?
“I think that one of the most valuable things was that I could experiment freely with all kinds of material in the work stations. Here you could get help with your works, make as many mistakes as you want and just feel free to create whatever. When I look back, I think I did not make enough use of that opportunity. But it is very cool that WdKA has spaces like this for their students. And of course the opportunity to follow classes of a person who stood for representation, diversity and anti-racism within the arts."
What advise would you like to give to current WdKA students that aspire a career as a curator?
“Start with networking as soon as you can. Make sure people know your name and face. Talk to a lot of people and don’t be afraid to get rejected. Speak up and reach out! It is so valuable to know people within the industry. Also, follow your own passion and interests and stay true to your own authentic voice. This is what makes you unique and what gives you strength!”