Subject: IPS: Art under Reconstruction Too

ARTS WEEKLY/EAST TIMOR: Art under Reconstruction Too

Sonny Inbaraj

DILI, East Timor, Apr 24 (IPS) - Art is being revived in the reconstruction of East Timor, thanks to the efforts of a Swiss painter who started the fledgling country's first art school in what was formerly the United Nations field military hospital.

At the Arte Moris Free Art School, paintbrushes, palettes and easels have replaced the camp beds, drips and bedpans. The hospital's pharmacy is now a classroom for budding Timorese artists.

The art school, run by Luca Gansser, is located near the Komoro airport in East Timor's capital Dili.

''I visited East Timor in June 2002 and when I was in Dili I saw that there were very little opportunities for the Timorese youth,'' says Gansser. ''Since I am a painter, I thought the best thing would be to start an art school.''

For budding Timorese artist Ceciliano da Silva, the art school has opened new opportunities.

''I want very much to be an artist and sell my work. Before coming to the art school, I was unemployed and just wasted my time hanging around with my other unemployed friends,'' he recalls.

''Now the art school is helping me realise my dream. For an unemployed person like me who has no money, the free school is God-sent,'' Da Silva adds.

The United Nations Development Programme puts youth unemployment in East Timor at a staggering 75 percent.

East Timor gained independence in May 2002 after a two-year interim administration lead by the United Nations. For 25 years, East Timor was occupied by Indonesia. The Timorese in a United Nations-sponsored referendum opted for independence in late August 1999.

But when the ballot results were announced in September 1999, Indonesian military-sponsored militias went on an orgy of terror. The United Nations estimates more than 1,000 East Timorese were killed in the rampage.

But nearly two years after independence, the country is one of the poorest nations in the world. According to U.N. figures, life expectancy in East Timor is one of the world's lowest at 49 years, infant mortality is one of the highest at 12 percent and illiteracy is 70 percent.

''This school is not only to create artists but also to create a sustainable livelihood for people who are talented in painting, in drawing, in handicraft. The school gives them the confidence that they are able to make a product they are able to sell and make some money,'' Gansser stresses.

As a fundraiser for his pet project in East Timor, Gansser staged two exhibitions in Singapore and Switzerland. ''The exhibitions were successful. I actually raised enough money to finance the school myself without having to look for initial funding,'' the self-taught artist reveals.

Gansser's biography states that he studied 'thanka' painting in Bhutan and between 1989 to 2000 he travelled extensively in the Asia-Pacific region while staging exhibitions in prestigious galleries in Singapore and Australia.

Returning to East Timor early last year with art materials purchased in Bali, Gansser started the Arte Moris Free Art School in a rented Dili house.

''In the rented house, I got students together who were already painting and started Arte Moris. The school is for free because I think education in East Timor, especially for young people, should be free because they don't have means to pay school fees,'' says Gansser.

Adds Gansser: '' I knew that after a couple of months of running an art school you could show to people the result of the school, because it is a visual art matter. You have 20 students who paint and after two or three months you would have 100 or 120 art works you could show and then try to raise funding.''

Gansser's first break came when the Swiss ambassador visited one of the school's early exhibitions. ''The Swiss ambassador was here and was impressed and he said: 'Why not ask funding from Switzerland, I will back you up','' the artist recalls.

Help from the Swiss government came in the form of 60,000 U.S. dollars, which was Arte Moris' operating expenses for a year.

Then Gansser decided to apply to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports for the use of two buildings in the former U.N. military hospital at Komoro.

One ally that Gansser found in lobbying the government for the use of the former U.N. military hospital for the Arte Moris Free Art School was Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta.

''Jose bought a painting from one of our exhibitions and I told him about my plans for the school and asked him whether he could back us up in getting this space. He has been very helpful in lobbying for the school,'' he recalls.

Adds Gansser: ''Then everything fell in place last June. The government approved the art school's use of the two buildings and I moved out of the rented premises. So I'm getting help to run this place from the Swiss government and the Timorese government.''

The Arte Moris Free Art School has two groups of students. The first comprises 15 senior students who are considered the school's residential artists.

''The residential artists have been painting for a couple of years, even before I started the school. When I met them, they were very supportive of coming together to form an art community,'' says Gansser.

The second group of students are the juniors, and according to Gansser, over 200 are on the school's list.

Part of the curriculum of the senior students includes teaching the junior students in the day. ''So it's a 'train the trainer' concept I am adopting. I train the resident artists and they in turn train the juniors,'' stresses Gansser.

''The resident artists also have an opportunity to paint at night, after they've finished working with the juniors. For this reason you need an art community to give mutual support to one another,'' he adds.

The school seems to be making sales and close to a year, since it was set up, over 500 students' art works have been sold mainly to the expatriate community in Dili.

Gansser's vision for Arte Moris is that he be made redundant after two years.

''My vision for Arte Moris is that my necessity runs out. I don't have to be here and the school runs on its own with the Timorese taking care of it. I'll delegate and delegate until the day I don't have anything to do. Then I'm free to do something else. Hopefully after two years, I'll be free.'' (END/2004)

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