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Corporate Rigidity to Creative Freedom: My Experience Across Both Worlds

This image shows people attending an exhibition at Nafasi Art Space. Nafasi Art Space is a vibrant art center and platform for artistic exchange. Artists gather here to create, learn, inspire, and share their work with the world.

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My name is Justine Massaba. I graduated from Mbeya University of Science and Technology in 2019 with a background in civil engineering. In addition to managing partnerships and grants at Nafasi Art Space, I am a writer, poet, author, and leadership consultant.

I have been employed by one of Tanzania’s most profitable banks for over three years. Four months ago, I decided to resign from my position as a banker and work as a grants and partnership manager at Nafasi Art Space, one of the country’s top creative and artistic spaces. Even though I left the bank four months ago, I had wanted to leave since the end of 2022.

My motivation for quitting the bank was to find a place to express my artistic side rather than look for greener pastures or go up the corporate ladder at another large corporation. It was more important to find a place to be myself without pretending to be someone else.

Have you ever desired to share something yet been prevented by the circumstances? I experienced that in my last job. I wanted to be an artist in a place where people appreciated my creativity and art rather than taking it for granted.

“How did you cope so easily with this creative space while you were coming from corporate,” I recall Lilian Hypolite, our Managing Director of Nafasi, asking me this question during a casual conversation a few days before. Lilian, like myself, moved from the corporate world to the creative realm, but unlike me, her transition was not smooth.

It took her some time to adjust to the creative and art spaces after joining Nafasi in 2022. She battled for a while, but for me, the move from the corporate to the creative realm was quite simple.

Read Related: Accessing Financial Potential: Strategies for Monetizing Creativity in the Arts

Moving from a business setting into a creative one is, in my opinion, less difficult than the opposite. My intense desire to discover and exhibit my artistic abilities and capabilities drove my easy transition to the creative arena. This change may be difficult for some people, like Lilian, but it was a smooth transition for me.

Before I go further, do we all understand what Nafasi Art Space is doing in Tanzania’s artistic space? Have you ever heard of it?

“Nafasi” is a Swahili word for space. Nafasi Art Space is a vibrant art centre and platform for artistic exchange where artists come to create, learn, inspire, and share their work with the world.

Since its founding in 2008, Nafasi Art Space has been a premier art hub in the nation for artist empowerment for more than 15 years. In addition to artist studios and a plethora of vibrant places and programs for the production and appreciation of art, Nafasi Art Space is home to the Nafasi Academy for Contemporary Art.

Nafasi’s regular creative and public programming includes instruction, workshops, art discussions, and public gatherings for festivals, film screenings, exhibitions, concerts, and public art fairs. Through the Feel Free Grant and Incubation program, Nafasi has been supporting artists and groups in Tanzania with the help of the Swiss and Royal Norwegian Embassies.

Since opening its doors in 2008, Nafasi Art Space has been a premier hub for artist empowerment in the nation for over 15 years. Among the many active locations and programs for the development and appreciation of the arts is the Nafasi Art Space, which also houses the Nafasi Academy for Contemporary Art and artists’ studios.

Nafasi provides regular artistic and community activities, including cinema screenings, exhibitions, concerts, festivals, and public art fairs. Other programming includes training, seminars, and art discussions. Nafasi’s Feel Free Grant and Incubation program has been helping artists and groups in Tanzania with support from the Swiss and Royal Norwegian Embassies.

What are the differences between a corporate space and an artistic space?

When I think of an art space, freedom is the first thing that comes to mind. Before drawing conclusions, creative qualities, creativity, and inventiveness, all need space to explore and work on different concepts. Since artists are scientists, they require a laboratory to test their theories.

Their creativity inevitably dies when there is nowhere for them to try new things and build on their concepts. Artists use artistic environments as labs to test and refine their ideas before bringing them to life. Although artistic spaces provide this space, it can be difficult for corporations to do so.

As a former banker, I know that risk is one of the key issues in the industry. While risk assessment and adherence to procedures and regulations are important in the banking industry, creativity and innovation are also important. From my experience, banks have been using the same ideology of risk assessment and adherence to financial and banking procedures in places where they don’t need to.

For example, on Joel’s first day of work at Bank X, he observes that his coworkers begin their morning meeting with a prayer before moving straight on to discussing the agenda. Joel believes adding a different suggestion would improve the effectiveness and interest of their meeting.

He recommends that the sessions begin with energizer games, prayers, learning about each coworker’s family wake-up routine, and finally moving into a more engaged and interesting meeting. Joel has a good idea, but there is a problem.

First off, the bank has had these kinds of gatherings for a long time. They don’t see the need to change to accommodate the new meeting models. Second, before the management approves Joel’s new method, it must pass through a series of offices and desks. The new standard in the corporate world is bureaucracy. The bureaucracy rate rises with corporate size.

Joel illustrates how difficult it is for corporations to allow you the freedom to test out ideas or even work on them while adhering to rules, financial procedures, and risk assessment.

Even if your concept is well-reached, it may take several months to get approved since so many offices must review and assess its consequences for finances, operations, and budget — even for something as basic as a new meeting procedure.

Furthermore, corporate space allows you to learn as much as you want and develop a wide range of talents. One of the difficulties of working in the corporate world, particularly in banks, is the strictness with which you must carry out your duties. This may sound improbable, yet it is the reality.

The bank, however, claims that “you can learn a lot here.” Most of the time, you don’t have enough time or space to learn because your work is too demanding, and it seems strange to jeopardize it to learn something unrelated to what you do now. Correct? That’s precisely what business folks tell you. It’s similar to locking someone in a cage and allowing them to go anywhere they like.

I gained experience presenting in front of the camera for the first time. I’ve always been hesitant to act or face the camera. Only a few weeks prior, I confronted our manager of communications and requested that she produce a video to advertise the Swirtzeland Embassy exhibition at Nafasi Art Space.

Even though it was challenging, I succeeded. I also gained experience by overseeing the Feel Free grant display. The task and experience of organizing and executing the event proved to be beneficial.

Why do you think learning new things in an art space is usually easy? 

A startup is similar to an art space. My experience at Nafasi is similar to my experience dealing with startups. Regardless of your official position, you collaborate as a team at a startup. However, because you’re in the process of becoming a company, you also test out several ideas to see which one works best. I believe that startups and creative or artistic places may teach big corporations something, even though it may not be straightforward to apply.

Children learning to paint at Nafasi Art Space ( source: www.nafasiartspace.org)

You can explore and learn from your mistakes in a creative environment. Nobody sends you a warning letter if you propose a novel method for conducting a meeting or a strategy for finding new partners for the non-profit. The creative space serves as your laboratory, granting you the flexibility to learn and grow based on the outcomes of your experiments (ideas, initiatives, projects, etc.).

Another major difference between the art space and corporate companies is the application of too many formalities and micromanagement. While formalities are important to any work, too many formalities and micromanagement kill creativity. In my experience, people tend to perform well once they are given the power to work freely without being given negative, unconstructive feedback while doing their jobs.

People do not have that power in the corporate space because, for them, what matters is doing the work as the manager wants it, not the creative way of doing it. Creativity in a corporate space makes you seem like a different species.

Excessive formality and micromanagement are other significant distinctions between corporate businesses and creative spaces. Formality is necessary for every type of job, but excessive formality and micromanagement stifle creativity. In my experience, people typically do well when they are allowed the freedom to work without being interrupted or given unfavourable, unconstructive remarks while they are working.

People don’t have that authority in the workplace because, to them, the manager’s wishes should take precedence over creative solutions. Being creative in a corporate setting makes you appear to be of a different species. They perceive you as an extraterrestrial from a distant planet. They look at you like an alien from another planet, and you want to invade and destroy their space.

Compared to the creative space, the experience is very different. In the creative or artistic sphere, “aliens” from the business world are revered as geniuses and big thinkers. They are the driving force for change in the creative community overall as well as in their works. In their job, they are the change agents, and they have left their mark in gold ink.

In their creative laboratories, the “aliens” can hone their abilities, test their concepts, and present their findings to their communities. Their invitation to the community to join them in celebrating their work shows that they are not self-centred.

While many people’s main objective in the business world is to move up the corporate ladder, in the artistic realm, the aim is to inform the public that creative laboratories are available to them at all times and can offer solutions. The power of creatives is measured by the number of individuals or communities their projects positively impact, but companies focus on their financial statements to measure their power.

A discussion about how comic books teach young people to combat poverty, African-inspired poetry, a film about a young child who dug a well for his town, or a traditional dance honouring Dar Es Salaam’s Swahili culture might all be featured.

I do not regret leaving the corporate environment as a creative. I hope corporate firms adopt creative thinking before it’s too late, but I’m not sure when that will happen. Given the increasing presence of Gen Z employees in corporate workplaces, I see many concerns that will alter in the future, including workplace practices that support innovation.

Before my pen goes out of my hand, what do you think? How do you see corporations from an artistic perspective?

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Rutashubanyuma Nestory
Rutashubanyuma Nestory
19 days ago

I really enjoyed the narratives, and would like to know where are your alumni today just to gauge the productivity of the effort 👌

Last edited 19 days ago by Rutashubanyuma Nestory
Mr. Ancet Gerald Mushi
Mr. Ancet Gerald Mushi
18 days ago

I think you’re right, Limited minds can’t be creative.

Unfortunately it will take us more time to change how most corporate institutions operates because most of them are profit oriented.

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