Freehouse Neighborhood Workshop

Artist: Jeanne van Heeswijk
Location: Afrikaanderwijk district, South Rotterdam,
The Netherlands
Year of completion: 2015
Leon Tan

When docks were built in South Holland in 1900, Afrikaanderwijk came into existence as a housing development for workers. Since the 1970s the area witnessed an influx of immigrants from Turkey, Morocco, and the Dutch Antilles, among other places. Afrikaanderwijk became one of the first multiethnic and multicultural neighborhoods in the Netherlands. As is the case in many other parts of Europe, the rapid transformation of society through immigration, globalization and deindustrialization created social tensions and new challenges. A critical issue in this neighborhood, according to the artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, is that “less people feel connected to the public space and the public domain.” Freehouse Neighborhood Workshop is a project conceived by Heeswijk, and realized between 2009 to the present day with a community of artists, designers, and residents of Afrikaanderwijk, as a series of workshops “that challenge people to play a more active part with respect to the space outside.”

The workshops are diverse but share certain commonalities. For instance, they are based on the identification and enhancement of skills or talents that already exist in the neighborhood, and they attempt to connect individuals with different skills to employment opportunities. Workshops also stick close to a “keep it local” ethos, supporting neighborhood suppliers and businesses whenever possible. The most successful workshops were based on brokering partnerships between residents with, for example, sewing skills and knowledge of materials, and professional fashion designers, to produce clothing collections for the catwalk as well as for retail. These workshops were accommodated in the Freehouse, a former store with a distinctive open storefront.

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An outstanding feature of this project is the high level of professional expertise brought into collaboration with so-called “amateurs” from the neighborhood, and the success of a number of these enterprises. To date, the workshops have worked with over 50 designers, including Jean Paul Gaultier, and contributed to catwalk and other presentations at Paris Fashion Week and the Chabot Museum. Freehouse Neighborhood Workshop not only stimulated local and high quality cultural production, it also economically benefitted the neighborhood and its residents. In this way, it works against strong currents of globalization responsible for deindustrialization and the outsourcing of manufacturing from Europe to, among other places, developing countries in Asia.

As a placemaking initiative, there is little doubt that this project is successfully transforming Afrikaanderwijk. It is also developing a scalable model for urban revitalization based on local cultural industries, a model that may well be exported and adapted to different neighborhoods facing similar challenges. By placing the neighborhood on the map as a location for high quality fashion and textile production as well as object design, it provides residents with a shared identity that they can be proud of, in place of a communal identity fractured by social and racial tensions or conflicts. In terms of the artistic intention, the project has helped to develop a greater investment in, or commitment to, the public domain and public activities. Its success may be attributable, at least in part, to the artists’ immersion in the local community, the extensive research conducted to identify skills and resources in the neighborhood, and the expertise with which the workshops, as relational interventions, were conceived and executed.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency