Interview with Sarah Markes, the artist behind Street Level Dar

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My mother comes from Tanzania and with a lot of family living in Dar es Salaam, it's a city that I have spent some time in over the years. I always love visiting Dar. Having grown up in Nairobi, I am always struck by the contrast I see in Dar in terms of the more communal nature of life. I am always delighted by how Dar neighbourhoods come alive, especially at night, with people sitting outside, catching up and interacting. 

Today, I am happy to share with you an interview with an artist who is celebrating this vibrant spirit of Dar es Salaam and specifically, its street life. After leading a nomadic lifestyle travelling in Asia and South America, Sarah Markes decided to apply her creative skills in the international development context. This led her to voluntary work in Malawi and years later, to a job in Dar. There, she fell in love with the city and has been putting her artistic talents to use  in documenting its culture and heritage, in a project called Street Level Dar.

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What's your passion?
It's hard to narrow it down to one thing but, I am passionate about using my artistic skills to inspire other people, to try and share my enthusiasm for beautiful and quirky things and, to use my artwork as a way of promoting and encouraging positive ideas i believe in.

What inspired Street Level Dar Es Salaam?
I visited Tanzania briefly in 2000 and though i only spent a few hours in Dar es Salaam, I loved my first glimpse of the architecture and the atmosphere of the city. When I moved to Dar to work in 2002, my office was in the town centre. Every lunchtime I would head off on foot to explore and was captivated further. But I soon realized that much of the architecture that i loved was being demolished to make way for generic new modern buildings. So 'Street Level' was inspired by a desire to document the old architecture before it was too late and to try and capture some of its context in the vibrant street life of contemporary Dar es Salaam. I also hoped to raise awareness of the situation and to use the art to assist those working in heritage conservation, if possible.

In addition I felt that so many visitors and even temporary residents of Dar es Salaam rarely ventured into the town centre, that I wanted to share my enjoyment of the city with others and try to inspire them to appreciate it too. Having met some of the writers living in Dar, I also wanted to create a forum for their work in a creative context, without the constraints of a more commercial or development-led project.

What has been your greatest challenge in carrying out the project and putting the book together?
I am not hugely business minded, so for me the hardest part was figuring out how to finance and produce the book. It took me a long time to weigh up the options and make a final decision. 

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How have you dealt with/overcome it?

One of the most inspiring aspects of Street Level was working with different writers and creative people. Some of them were amazingly helpful, advising me on the pros and cons of different options and figuring out the best way forward. I finally signed a contract with Mkuki na Nyota, a Tanzanian publisher and am learning from their extensive experience of publishing as we go through the process together.

What has been your greatest achievement?
In the context of Street Level, I think one of the most satisfying outcomes has been indicated by the response to the drawings. I have had feedback from many people both in Tanzania and beyond, thanking me for highlighting the often unappreciated aspects of Dar es Salaam, in addition to reawakening an interest in their heritage. I am honored that the Tanzanian Antiquities Department are engaged with the project and believe the book will make a contribution towards their awareness and conservation work. At the Street Level exhibition in November, I was overjoyed that so any people were engaging with the heritage conservation aspect of the work rather than just the aesthetics of the art.

Where will you be in 10 years?
I am not very good at long term planning and have constantly itchy feet so, who knows really! I dream about doing a series of 'Street Level' books based on some of my other favorite cities around the world but, would also like to do a lot more artwork inspired by wild places and the natural environment. I would love to use my art to contribute to conservation efforts such as addressing address climate change or biodiversity loss in some way.

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How does Africa inspire you?
I have only worked and travelled in Sub-Saharan Africa so from direct experience, Malawi and Tanzania specifically have inspired me by the incredibly welcoming nature of people and their positivity against so many odds. I find that there is more of a 'live for the moment' approach to life in this part of the world, which, while there are pros and cons to it, I find very inspiring as a juxtaposition to the longer term and often more cautious thinking prevalent in Europe.

Likewise, I find the relative flexibility of rules in Tanzania very liberating and believe it allows more creative space for people to explore than the more regimented 'can't do' attitude that is increasingly prevalent in the north. I never cease to be amazed by the entrepreneurial spirit and ingenious solutions that people come up with in Tanzania.

The beauty of the landscapes, the space and the amazing flora and fauna that inhabit them are also a constant source of wonder and inspiration for me. And though perhaps it's yet another cliché, so do the rhythms, the music and the sunshine.

Anything else you'd like to share?
Ok, I know it's cheesy but, I am eternally grateful for the chance to live and work in Tanzania. I know I am very lucky to have this opportunity and so I try to make the most of it whenever I can.

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Anything we should look out for in the coming weeks/months/year? When does the book come out?

The book should be available by June 2011. both in Dar es Salaam as well as online. There will be a launch event in Dar too – check the blog for details. I am also working on developing the range of postcards and prints that I sell from the Green Room shop in Dar, as well as planning a series of bag and t-shirt designs. And of course I want to start working on the next book – the problem is deciding on the theme so, if anyone has any suggestions I would love to hear their ideas!

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Images copyright and courtesy of Sarah Markes

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