Updated: Jan 15, 2021
What does it mean to be a woman of the world? With Guianese and German artistic director and cultural producer, Vanessa Selk
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What is it like to grow up and live around the world? How can I explore cultures around the world? What does it feel like to be a multiethnic woman? What does it mean to be multicultural? How can I be accepted by people of different cultures? How can I invest my time into different types of art?
In this interview, we got to talk to the lovely Vanessa Selk, who can definitely be called “a woman of the world”. Born in Spain and coming from Guianese and German parents, Vanessa has traveled and lived all around the world. Her insight into so many cultures is admirable, that's why I loved listening to her perspective in this interview. Apart from that, Vanessa is an independent cultural producer and political arts consultant. She has also written and directed theater plays, organized film and art festivals, as well as exhibitions, while also being involved in international affairs as a former diplomat at the United Nations and for the French government.
Vanessa’s current mission is the Tout Monde Foundation, which she recently founded. The Tout Monde Foundation is a non-profit organization and public charity supporting Caribbean contemporary visual and performing artists through socially impactful projects dedicated to our 3E-values: Ecology, Education and Equal Rights. Learn more here: https://www.tout-monde-foundation.org/ .
This is the final episode of season 1 of the Collective Drift podcast. We are looking forward to season 2. Make sure that you have subscribed to Collective Drift on your favorite listening platform.
Here are a few of my favorite parts of the interview:
Collective Drift (CD) / Vanessa Selk (VS)
CD: How would you describe yourself?
VS: I'm definitely a citizen of the world. I do not belong to one particular country, or a city, or even a particular community. I really feel at home wherever I am at the moment. And every time I travel, I feel like I belong wherever I go because my goal is to adapt to the local culture, understand it, and generally try to speak the language as best as possible. Though it's not always as easy when you're an international citizen and work for a government at the same time.
CD: How has your upbringing allowed you to be so open to being a citizen of the world?
VS: I think I became open to this because my parents are very open-minded. I like to call them Bohemians because they love to travel. Both of them were already traveling when they were young, and that's when they met each other in Spain and where I was born. Then afterward, they continued traveling and they really wanted me to learn the importance of both of their cultures considering that I’m half German and half French Guianese. That’s why my parents agreed to live in both regions and countries.
CD: If someone really wanted to experience French Guiana, when should they go there?
VS: It's hard to say because I don't think you can experience it all together in one event, but there's a very famous French Guianese carnival, which is something very specific. It's called Touloulou, celebrating the queen of the carnival. So, it's very much about women because women are asked to dress up in a costume from feet to the head, in order to not be recognized anymore. So, it's a lot about these balls where the women get dressed up, and we don't know who they are because they’re totally covered so that even their husbands would not recognize them. So, that is different from any other carnivals as it is very particular, has its own traditions, music, and dance style.
CD: How have the women around you influenced you regarding the French Guianese culture?
VS: Regarding French Guianese culture, I’d say I was influenced by my grandmother, who is typically French Guianese. She’s got the typical mixture of French Guiana in the sense that she’s half black and half Chinese. She was a very strong and independent woman who I really admired when I was a child. At one point, when I was five years old, we would open up the balcony terrace in front of the sea and she would meditate there. I think at that moment, she gave me a lot of strength, hope, and positive energy. And from my mother, I think I have learned to be independent and free. She taught me to always follow my heart. When I was a young student, I felt both of my parents were way too free and cool with me. I wanted stricter parents but they always said, whatever choices you make, following your heart is going to be the right decision. I didn't understand it at that time but now I think following your heart, it means to trust your passions. Trust what you like and love what you believe in. Once you have found this, and you trust yourself, you're able to go in that direction. This is very fulfilling and eventually makes you happy.
CD: What does it mean to be a woman in German culture to you?
VS: The one thing that has marked me a lot is the environmental consciousness in Germany. So, in school, when I was a child, we were really taught how to respect nature. So, we would have our own garden, cultivate vegetables, flowers, and the earth. And later on also in school, it was always very important to use recycled materials and to not buy any cans or plastic bottles. I think I lost this consciousness by traveling and leaving Germany and living even in France, or the US where I think this consciousness is less developed. So, I think there's something about women being connected a little more to the earth, to the planet, but more about being aware. And when I recently returned to Germany after nine years, I felt that the women there were very independent, very self-confident, and were not struggling in terms of power. I felt like there was a little more balance between men and women. There were fewer clichés about women trying to be sexy and behaving in a way that is expected from women.
CD: How much time did you spend living in all these countries? How did it feel?
VS: In French Guiana, I was literally a little girl, from three years to six years old. And by then, we returned every year, so I stayed really connected to it. My family and a lot of cousins are still there. As for Germany, we went there when I was six years old, so we lived there from six to twelve years of age. And then I also went back there frequently, almost every year. So, right after Germany, we returned to the French Caribbean, in Guadeloupe. We spent a year there, but it seemed like 10 years. Every time I return to it, it feels like home, like my other home country. It was because of the connections I made there that were so strong. I was only 13 years old but the connections were so strong that my closest friendships are still there. I also learned that the connection between nature and society was very strong there. I just loved feeling that connection and going on hiking, visiting a volcano, or being in a waterfall. Then, after Guadeloupe, I returned to the other part of France, Continental France, Paris, and Paris suburbs and neighborhoods. This is where I also studied and started working.
CD: What was it like becoming a woman in France? How did it transform you?
VS: My closest friends are French women but they are from different countries, are half-French, or have traveled a lot to have an international profile. So, considering being affected by French culture, it’s hard to say specifically because the school I went to was also in the suburbs of Paris, and was an international school that wasn’t typically French. I think I realized what it meant to be French when I left that international school and started studying in Paris. This is where I felt that I may be different because I have a different background. I've always been in an international environment which was also a closed environment. The university I attended back then was an institute of political sciences, which is very open and international today but at that point, it was starting to open up and was still very French. And that is where I felt that this is different, I didn't know I was in France. So, I would say that the first impressions were not necessarily positive. Because there was a lot of judgment about where I came from, or how I spoke. So it was a struggle, and I had to force myself into another role to be accepted. So, that was the shift where I thought alright, I'm going to learn your language, I'm going to learn and speak your codes, I'm going to behave like you and how you expect me to think and write everything.
CD: How did you get involved with art so many ways?
VS: Since I was a child, I've been drawing and have also attended different shows as I was interested in all forms of arts; visual and performing. I was working as a diplomat, but I also needed to do something in the arts. This is why always, in parallel to this official track, I was working in theatre companies. So, I attended a theatre school, Center for Performing Arts in Paris, where I learned more acting methods and improvisation. There was also singing so it was very diverse. I integrated a theatre company in Paris after that. I started acting and then, eventually, I thought I prefer to be on the other side of the stage, and this is when I started writing and directing. So, this was the performance side of the arts. I think the other side, visual arts, was something I was just always interested in. I have attended many different exhibitions, shows, and events since I was very young. I did not choose to study the arts initially. But eventually I did a course on contemporary arts at Sotheby’s. That’s when it all came together. Also, when I was living in New York, I integrated a theatre company where I directed and wrote plays. As an artist, I was also into a little bit of painting but I left that very quickly to focus a lot more on the writing and directing part. I felt like I needed more space and time to really dig more into the visual arts. Working with visual artists also taught me that it's not something you can just do on a weekend. It's a full-time job that needs development and research.
CD: What are some of your favorite places in Miami to go to?
VS: My favorite places are definitely the museums here because they generally have a terrace or a restaurant. The Pérez Art Museum is amazing. It has a beautiful terrace and I love to hang out there. The Wolfsonian Museum, in terms of history, shows a very different face of Miami because not only is it about the objects but about the whole history that you can walk through, especially the Art Deco history. I love South Beach for its Art Deco, architecture, and atmosphere. I love the street I'm living in (Art Deco Historic District) because it is full of Art Deco houses, and it's fascinating that they built it in the 1920s and there are very few places where this actually still exists. There’s a very beautiful story about Miami Beach and how they fought to preserve it when everything was torn down, and when they wanted to construct new buildings, this is what happened to Miami. Here, they fought to preserve this Art Deco neighborhood and they continue to preserve it by protecting it. I think this is beautiful and that's why I love being here. I also like that there's a flea market on Lincoln Road and there’s a fruit market which is lovely. I love the Latin and Caribbean culture here.
CD: What has been one of your favorite experiences while traveling and experiencing another culture?
VS: Many places have influenced me and the way I think but maybe, as a woman, I would say the consciousness of being a woman came to me when I was in Turkey. I was in Istanbul, a very internationally and culturally beautiful city. The history and everything are so fascinating there. Politically, however, it is complicated. So, I was working in Turkey at that point at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I learned a lot about the administration and the women there. There is one Turkish author who has this fascinating book explaining the situation of women. In France, there has been this whole debate about wearing a veil. For me, I don't understand that debate or stand up for it, but I'm a little bit sad about the direction that is taken by not allowing women to wear that veil. And in Turkey, what it taught me was that wearing a veil can also be a matter of choice. It can be, of course, also a symbol of religious or male domination. Every city, every single situation, is different and complex… There was also a mixture of women wearing veils while wearing a shorter skirt. So, when I was in Turkey, it really struck me how complex all of that actually is, and we cannot judge anyone about these choices, or even when they're not choices, you don't know what's behind this movement.
CD: What is a question Vanessa would ask other women?
VS: What does your heart want?
CD: What does it mean to be a woman?
VS: It's a privilege because it's a challenge. And it has been a challenge because of years of domination, centuries, and we're still carrying that burden. This is a very heavy burden that we're still struggling with but I think it gives us a lot of strength, and all burdens make you stronger.
Where to find Erica and Collective Drift
Where to find Vanessa
Places mentioned in the interview
French Caribbean https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_West_Indies
Pérez Art Museum https://www.pamm.org/
Wolfsonian Museum https://wolfsonian.org/
South Beach Miami https://www.miamiandbeaches.com/neighborhoods/south-beach
Art Deco Historic District Miami https://mdpl.org/
Lincoln Road Miami https://lincolnroad.com/
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The Collective Drift platform was created by Erica Knowles to celebrate all women, the beauty of their cultures, and international travel experiences. I believe that women possess magic, that gives them strength and grace to change the world. We learn how to tap into our power in various ways based on our cultural backgrounds and our journeys. Join me and an amazing collective of multicultural, multiethnic, and multigenerational women that are artists, cultural leaders, and travel enthusiasts as they tell their stories about their culture, their tribe of women, their passions, their art, and their favorite international experiences. Welcome to Collective Drift.