A day at Delfina

I had been hearing about Delfina Studios in London since my student days as the ideal place for upcoming artists to learn and work in an international atmosphere. It was set up as a residency space in 1988 by Spanish philanthropist Delfina Entrecanales. It was initially above a jeans factory in East Stratford. Later, as its scope increased, it moved to Bermondsey Street and had 34 studios. Twelve of them were fully funded by Delfina and the rest were available to artists at discounted rates.

After almost two decades, she reinvented it as the Delfina Foundation and invited the dynamic Aaron Cezar to be its director. Aaron, who continues to lead the foundation, has devised its thematic residency programmes. In its latest residency, the foundation has supported several artists from the Middle East and South Asia, such as Khalil Rabah, Farhad Moshiri, Susan Hefuna, Haluk Akakce and Khosdrow Hassanzadeh. This time, during my visit to London, I was able to fulfil my long-cherished dream of visiting Delfina. I wanted to understand the mechanics and workings of such a successful space. And I was not disappointed, because Aaron, the perennially charming master of public relations, obliged. I had met him at various art-related events around the world and seen him enjoying drinks and dancing light-footedly with friends and rank strangers. Aaron is easygoing, fluid and interested in developing relationships and cultivating ideas.

Creating cultural spaces: Aaron Cezar, director of the Delfina Foundation.

I had informed him that I will be coming over with a couple of friends—Shafi Rahman, a London-based Malayali journalist, and Sara Moralo, a young photographer from Spain. The foundation is located at 29-31 Catherine Place, Victoria, London, and has been renovated and designed by Studio Octopi and Egypt-based Shahira Fahmy Architects. It is only 100 metres from the Buckingham Palace and within walking distance from many of London’s iconic landmarks. Aaron welcomed us with a warm hug and I introduced my friends. He then took us around explaining everything to the minutest detail.

The Delfina Foundation can accommodate up to eight residents at one time. With interchangeable spaces, the house is an ideal base for research and developing ideas. The entire house, from the kitchen to the gallery, is treated as ‘studios’. It has done away with the idea of having dedicated spaces solely meant for work. The organisers prefer to host a mix of residents with a range of backgrounds, from artists and writers to collectors. Therefore, the facilities are not equipped for specific practitioners. The house includes a 1,650sqft event and exhibition space. It also has a communal kitchen area, an outdoor terrace and a courtyard, the foundation’s offices, and a library/ resource room.

A place [like this] is created by committed patrons and visionary directors. Without the efforts of the 90-year-old Delfina or the dashing Aaron, this place wouldn’t have the glories it has. It is the largest and the most sought after residency space in London. So far more than 250 artists, writers and collectors have gone through the lived experience of culture in Central London. Among its alumni are a dozen Turner Prize winners and nominees such as Shirazeh Houshiary, Jane and Louise Wilson, Mark Wallinger, Anya Gallacio, Tacita Dean, Glenn Brown, Mark Titchner, Martin Creed, Goshka Macuga, and Tomoko Takahashi.

Aaron continues to knit relationships/ collaborations with North Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and South Asia. I have seen creative and passionate people take art institutions to new heights—Sir Nicholas Serota at the Tate; Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones at The Serpentine Galleries; Nicolas Bourriaud at Palais de Tokyo in Paris; Thomas Girst head of BMW’s cultural engagement department; and our own Jyotindra Jain at the National Crafts Museum, Delhi. With Delfina Foundation, Aaron has joined their ranks. Who could have imagined that Edwardian houses amalgamated into one property would become a hub for cultural exchanges.