Creating Safe Haven

Creating Safe Haven

by Todd Lester
as published in Trans Artists Newsletter 18
Summer 2007

FreeDimensional is an arts and human rights service group, which creates safe havens at residential art centers for exiled artists, activists, writers, poets and citizen journalists in need of assistance. The group is located in New York City and established as a non-profit organization in 2006. Founder of freeDimensional Todd Lester shares his thoughts on using artists' residencies as safe havens.

A Dance in Khartoum

In 2005, I was in the Sudan working as the International Rescue Committee's advocacy coordinator on issues pertaining to Darfur and the north-south peace accords. While living in Khartoum, I met Gadalla and Sara Gubara, a father and daughter filmmaking team. The Gubaras had just received legal permission to reclaim their filmmaking workshop, Gad's Studio, which they had been fighting to win back for over ten years. I helped connect the Gubaras with a theatre troupe in need of rehearsal and performance space. The studio needed repairs and the young theatre members were willing to spruce the place up in exchange for having a new hang-out. I clearly remember how Gadalla, a blind man in his 90s, danced with his daughter Sara at the first public performance in the back courtyard of his old studio. She explained that the day the state police confiscated Gad's Studio, the first independent film studio in the country, was the day her father went blind. While in Khartoum I also met a painter named Afifi who told me that the police had closed his calligraphy shop, in reaction to a political art piece he had created and installed on an overpass in the city. The piece decried the poor conditions faced by local artists.

Creating Space for Free Expression

Those two situations helped me to understand that in Khartoum the authorities used eminent domain to close spaces of free expression and censor alternative viewpoints expressed through art. The events of that 2005 profoundly affected me and I was motivated to put my ideas for freeDimensional into practice. Recognizing that there was a way to help these and other individuals, the freeDimensional concept started to grow with a vision to create community space for free expression.

Safe Haven Residencies

Since we started freeDimensional we've managed to organize an international network of artist residency initiatives to provide safe havens for artists, activists and human rights defenders during crucial periods, when they are censored in and ultimately exiled from their own countries. In that way freeDimensional creates a bridge between the human rights advocacy sector and independent artist residency initiatives in order that the accommodation dilemma experienced by the former may be resolved by the accommodation capacity of the latter. freeDimensional placements not only bring awareness of human rights defenders and the issues they represent to the communities that host artist residency initiatives, but also establish a unique experience for local youth and fellow artists to further ideas of communication and exchange of critical information on an international level.


By using their space, artist residencies also benefit through this unique collaboration with an enriched community, youth and environmental programs. We believe that concrete social change can result if even a small percentage of artist residencies are willing to participate by contributing down time and available space, equipment and the important ingredient of hospitality. With these contributions, the dilemma experienced by artists of conscience and risk-taking communicators can hopefully be mitigated. Todd LesterfreeDimensional executive director

More about freeDimensional activities on: