Colonialism in Artist Residencies

by Brittany Arrendondo

Artist residencies have become an increasingly popular way for artists to travel, engaging in focused and creative work, free from the distractions of daily life. However the history of colonization and colonialism affects artist residencies, furthering problematic power structures, and impacting local communities.

Colonization and Traveling

The colonization of indigenous lands and peoples around the world have also contributed to the creation of contemporary artist residencies. Artists from colonizing nations travel to other countries with their set of skills and expertise, often to exoticize, romanticize and appropriate aspects of the local culture in their art. This echoes colonial structures, which aimed to dominate and exploit the resources and way of life of colonized peoples.

Yinka Shonibare’s “The Confession” modeled after Fragonard’s “The Love Letter,”. Shonibare’s intellectual choices–the use of wax print trade cloth that tied Europe to Africa and figured in both the slave trade and economic colonialism or the headless mannequins prefiguring the guillotining of aristocrats–as well as his art historical references require decoding for both Western and African audiences. Photo Kirsteen, 2007. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0. Now in the collection of W. George and Margot Greig. Commissioned by the Musée du Quai Branly for the exhibition “Jardin d’Amour.” © Yinka Shonibare MBE.

Power Imbalances

Although artist-in-residence travel with the best intentions, when they arrive to countries with a history of colonization, structural racism can be reinforced. With the rise of Airbnb and new forms of traveling, artists frequently subject artist residencies to touristic expectations. Rather than adapting to a different environment, they expect immediate access, comfort and entertainment. This phenomenon has increased gentrification and the amount of pressure on many artist residencies and local neighborhoods. Although tourism seems to be a solution to stimulate local economies, power dynamics can further perpetuate colonialism in artist residencies. Considering that the imbalance of privilege, marginalization, and exclusion is reinforced. Many artist residencies have lost autonomy and creative freedom over the last few years, and sadly many closed their doors.

Exclusionary Practices

After the 2016 U.S. presidential election, many Americans decided to leave their country. This had a direct impact in gentrification and also artist residencies. Many expats decided to embrace their new home and open an artist residency.  However, this has also become an exclusionary practice, welcoming artists with a touristic mentality and intensifying the impact of colonization. On the other hand, artists from marginalized communities may find it challenging to access these programs due to financial barriers, lack of diversity and inclusion, or requirements that may not be accessible to them. Colonial perspectives are exclusive, fostering a “gatekeeping” mentality in which artists from colonized or otherwise marginalized communities are not given the same opportunities as privileged groups.

Palace des Nations, Geneva. Credit: Victor Barro/Friends of the Earth International

Redefining Residencies

To address these issues, artists, organizations, and institutions must work to reimagine artist residencies in a more inclusive and equitable way. This can include reassessing financial structures, diversifying selection committees, and creating more opportunities for underrepresented groups. Many Indigenous artists are decolonizing their practice to reclaim their cultural heritage and collaborate directly with other Indigenous people and artists. This approach provides an opportunity for non-Indigenous artists to learn from these practices, and for Indigenous artists to empower their cultural people.


Colonization and its resulting power imbalances continue to have a significant influence on the art world, including artist residencies. However, by acknowledging the impact of colonialism and working to redefine these programs, we can create a more inclusive and equitable space for artists to create, collaborate, and grow.

Published by Subverting Mobility

Navigating Artist Residencies. Subverting Mobility is a source to understand the experience of artist in the ecosystem of artist residencies.

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