Conversations | Ahmed Moneka and Martita Abril at Toronto Arts
The Iraqi-Canadian performance artist and the Mexican-New York based dancer participant of NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program (IAP) discuss their arts mentorship experiences.
Since 2010, Neighbourhood Arts Network, a strategic initiative of the Toronto Arts Foundation, has offered accessible arts programming, awards, and exciting partnership opportunities to Toronto-based artists, arts educators, and arts organizations.
The portal for their Community Arts Award opens at the end of June. This award—presented every fall—celebrates an arts organization that has made a significant contribution in Toronto by working with, in and for communities, while creating access and inclusion to arts and culture. Additionally, in July, they are continuing to offer their Mentor in Residence program, which will include mentoring sessions for artists hoping to create and direct newcomer artist organizations in Toronto.
Recognizing the alignment between NYFA and Toronto Arts in working to mentor newcomer artists, Neighbourhood Arts brought Iraqi-Canadian performance artist Ahmed Moneka and Mexican-New York based dancer Martita Abril (participant of NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program) together for a conversation about their arts mentorship experiences, moderated by William Huffman of Dorset Fine Arts. This was just one program of Neighbourhood Arts Network’s Newcomer Week: Virtual Edition, a lineup of events meant to center artists not necessarily new to their craft, but new to a place. Below are a few select highlights of this enlightening collaboration, divided into three topics.
Ahmed Moneka spoke to starting out in Toronto, searching all over the web for theatre arts opportunities, and initially not finding anywhere that seemed like the right fit for him. Neighbourhood Arts Network supports Toronto Arts Council’s Newcomer Mentorship program by matching newcomer artists with mentors. They matched Moneka with Jeremy of Driftwood Theatre, which began a beautiful mutually beneficial mentorship where both artists could provide their expertise on their home theatre scenes.
Martita Abril spoke to the necessity of asking as many questions as possible in order to get accustomed to the art world language of a new place. Putting herself out there by saying yes to as many opportunities as possible allowed her to absorb information from many different sources.
Moneka also highlighted the importance of cultural immersion outside of the art world, in order to develop ways of responding and reacting in a new language, as well as writing art proposals in one’s new context. Working closely with people from the area, not just newcomers, helps a great deal. “Newcomers have to learn a lot of things about the environment, about the culture, about the connection and network with the other people, to figure out how to survive in this life,” explains the artist.
Ways to Improve Support Systems
When Abril arrived, she felt that there weren’t many grants for immigrant artists available that would make it possible for them to focus on their art. She said that many grants are allotted for institutions, but not as many for individuals, and definitely not dancers who are not also choreographers; so, increased opportunities for individual artists in more disciplines would help newcomers gain autonomy more quickly.
Moneka spoke to the difficulty of surviving on an entry-level arts salary. He found out about and applied for a grant from Youth Employment Services, an organization that provides grants to companies that have hired young people, so that they can pay them a higher salary. Artists could always have more support in writing these grants, especially with regard to the language barrier.
Mentorship vs. Apprenticeship
Abril described a mentorship as more intimate and one-on-one, and as a place where one can build artistic community while receiving honest, generous feedback. She has been closely mentored by Ephrat Asherie through NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program, and through Yanira Castro through Dance New Amsterdam.“In the performing arts and dance scene, an apprenticeship would be when you’re with a company, so before they hire you to be a full-time company member, you do an apprenticeship. It leads to a job,” explains Martita Abril.
Moneka states that a mentor just guides, with no expectation of getting anything in return. Mentors give individualized, expert input, without any boss-employee dynamic. He suggests that mentorship also operates in a bigger picture for an artist than an apprenticeship, since the guidance extends to many different areas as opposed to a focused apprenticeship.
About the Speakers
Since arriving in Canada from Iraq just four years ago, Ahmed Moneka’s contributions as a performing artist in music and theatre have been notable and welcomed. The scene has warmly embraced his Afro-Iraqi artistic heritage—its stories and songs—into its own growing cultural narrative. Moneka is one of the founders of Moskitto Bar and the creator-leader of Moneka Arabic Jazz. He has been an Artist-in-residence with Driftwood Theatre Group and Stingray Rising Stars winner (2019) at TD Toronto Jazz.
Martita Abril is a performer, choreographer, and teaching artist from the border city of Tijuana, México. Her work considers abstract elements of physical and cultural boundaries. She’s been a mentee and mentor for the NYFA Immigrant Artist Program and a volunteer interpreter aiding families seeking asylum at a Dilley, Texas detention facility. Find her at martita-abril.org.
– Alicia Ehni, Program Officer and Kyle Lopez, REDC Fellow
This post is part of the ConEdison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter #130. Subscribe to this free monthly e-mail for artist’s features, opportunities, and events. Learn more about NYFA Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program.
Images from left to right: Ahmed Moneka, Photo Credit: Matthew Manhire; Martita Abril, Photo Credit: Aram Jibilian