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Mona Khademi  

arts manager / administrator, U.S.A.

Painting by Jawad Al-Malhi
From the exhibition: "Building Bridges:
Israeli and Palestinian Artists Speak".
Photo: Courtesy of Meridan International Center.

The Arts as Pathways to Global Unity

In his old age, Charles Darwin wrote that if he had his life to live again, he would have made "a rule to read some poetry, and to listen to some music at least once every week.

" (Roy Shaw, The Arts and the People, London: Jonathan Cape, 1987, 21. )

He believed that artistic experience enlarges and refines our "repertory of feeling."

...Art is one of the world's greatest unifiers, it transcends cultural barriers and serves as a creative means of communication that helps people better understand other cultures. Art reminds us of our common humanity. Bahá'u'lláh, wrote that The source of crafts, sciences, and arts is the power of reflection. Make ye every effort that out of this ideal mine there may gleam forth such pearls of wisdom and utterance as will promote the well-being and harmony of all the kindreds of the earth.

(Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh , Comp., 72.)

.....How can this sense of common identity be reinforced throughout the world? One way is through international exchange programs that make the arts available across borders. As countries become increasingly interdependent, they need to foster the study of other cultures to ensure that their citizens learn not only to tolerate their neighbors but also to appreciate their differences. Cultural and arts exchange programs are especially needed in countries characterized by racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity....

Examples of Arts Cultural Exchange Programs:Three Art Exhibits

, 1992,
Reverse Glass Painting,
by Mor Mueye.
From the exhibition:
"Dream, Myth and
Reality: Contemporary
Art From Senegal".

Photo: Courtesy of Meridan International Center.

Here I will give examples from three major exhibitions that were held in Washington, D.C. between 1990 and 1997 and which then traveled to major cities. The exhibitions were: Dream, Myth and Reality: Contemporary Art from Senegal; Building Bridges: Israeli and Palestinian Artists Speak; and Panoramas of Passage: Changing Landscapes of South Africa.

Each exhibition will be discussed together with its ancillary and educational programs.

1. Dream, Myth and Reality: Contemporary Art from Senegal: Feb-June, 1993

The exhibition containing a selection of 68 works by 50 Senegalese artists was a survey of contemporary art from Senegal and an example of the vitality of Senegalese contemporary culture. It traced more than seventy years of Senegal's artistic heritage....

The press release for this exhibition stated, "Although the works represent a wide variety of styles and show some Islamic and Christian influences, all are African at the core."

(Traveling Service Press Release for "Dream, Myth and Reality," Meridian International Center, Washington, D.C., 1994. )

Senegal is rich in Sufi culture. Wars, migrations, and French colonialism has made Senegal rather cosmopolitanism. According to the exhibition catalogue, Senegalese reverse-glass painting is a popular urban art adaptation that originated in Persia and found its way to northern and western Africa via trade routes emanating from a medieval Italian city.

Arche de Noe (Noah's Arch), 1992, Reverse Glass Painting, by Mor Mueye.
From the exhibition: "Dream, Myth and Reality:
Contemporary Art From Senegal".
Photo: Courtesy of Meridan International Center.

Senegalese history, myths, customs and beliefs are expressed by the artists in characteristic designs and vibrant colors, evoking "those of the sunsets, the sea, the countryside, [and] the fabrics worn by Senegalese men and women as they go about their daily lives."

(David Barrows, "Meridian International Center - Dream, Myth, and Reality," Washington, D.C., InTowner, Apr. 1993.)

Informative labeling of the artworks gave insight into the cultural, spiritual and intellectual sources that had inspired the artists. The cultural events around the exhibit included a Senegalese dance performance, and lecture by the Ambassador. School tours dealt with Senegal's history, the slave trade, cash crops, clothing design and traditional art. 11 One day of the exhibition was devoted to the theme of Senegal with various Senegalese community organizations presenting their Senegalese food, glass painting, hair braiding, gold jewelry, music and dances, among other activities.

Analogic Painting Madrid Conference

1991, by Arnon Ben David
From the exhibition: "Building Bridges:
Israeli and Palestinian Artists Speak".
Photo: Courtesy of Meridan International Center.

2. Building Bridges: Israeli and Palestinian Artists Speak:
April-July, 1994

This exhibition included approximately 50 works by six Israeli and six Palestinian artists. The group of Israeli and Palestinian artists met in 1982 and created a joint exhibition on the theme of peace, "to see if a new language of understanding could be forged among their people to emphasize the role of culture and art in building bridges of understanding between peoples."

( Anne Bendheim, "Building Bridges: Israeli and Palestinian artists collaborate on exhibition," )

Some of the works related to religious themes and some were political, but most of the work was highly abstract. Fifteen years after they began, the twelve artists continue to exhibit together, sometimes even to paint on the same canvas....

...The artists wanted their works to be seen in both political and artistic contexts. In the exhibition brochure they state that, by exhibiting together in Israel and abroad, the artists have "sought to reshape the relations between the personal and the public, between the political and the artistic."

( ibid )

The exhibit was complemented by a variety of cultural programs, including a concert series, a film on Jerusalem, a storyteller, interactive performances by a dance group, an "Evening of Poetry" and visits to the exhibition. Eight of the twelve artists participating in Building Bridges came to the U.S. for the opening and gave several presentations to different audiences. The exhibition provided a framework for organizations at each venue to design special educational and cultural programs. These included an exhibition of children's art, "Peace Around the World for the Holidays"; a singing performance at the museum by children's groups from a synagogue, a mosque and local Catholic and Protestant churches; a lecture on the exhibition by the museum's chief curator; and a panel discussion entitled "Islam, Christianity and Judaism."

3. Panoramas of Passage: Changing Landscapes of South Africa
Oct. 1995-Feb. 1996

The exhibition included 110 works by eighty artists, giving a wide variety of artists' impressions of historical events from the colonial period to the present. The South African show was timely and provided one of the first overviews of the art of that country to tour the United States during a "time of enormous political and social changes."

(Charles Dee Mitchell, "A light on 'dark' nation: Works display both old and new South Africa," Dallas Morning News, Mar. 30, 1996.)

Cane Cutting, Eshowe District, 1990, by Diamond Bozas.
Collection: Durham Art Gallery, South Africa.
From the exhibition: "Panaromas of Passage: Changing Landscapes of South Africa".
Photo: Courtesy of Meridan International Center.

The project began just before the 1994 free elections in that country.
The exhibition's ancillary programs in Washington, D.C. included a lecture by the South African ambassador on the "New South Africa," about the culture, history, economy and future of the country. An evening of dance and music from South Africa was also arranged by the embassy. The exhibition attracted many people wherever it traveled. The educational programs attracted the largest number of school groups. They attended a one-hour lecture on the background and history of South Africa. When the exhibition was shown at a university, the university brought in professors specializing in African art for a panel discussion. The exhibition received positive reviews in the local media, which commented that history and cultural consciousness, and democracy and reconciliation were among "the many themes of history, politics and culture coursing through the visually brilliant, often seductive, gritty and intellectually loaded exhibition."

(T .Owen McNally, "South African art embraces hope for reconciliation," Hartford, CT, Hartford Courant, Jan 26, 1997, (G) 1 and 4. )

The impact of the three exhibitions has been as varied as the themes and countries they represented. Through Panoramas of Passage, artists enabled Americans to better understand not only South Africa's past and present, but its hope for the future. "The likeness to our own historical memories of decimated natives and enslaved blacks is just too apt to avoid."

(William Wilson, "A Connection to Land 'Panorama'," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 4, 1996. )

...The collaboration of Israeli/Palestinian artists influenced the opinions of people who saw the exhibition and participated in the ancillary activities about the conflict in the Middle East. Seeing and hearing both sides of the issue brought focus and clarified some misunderstandings among the two groups...

...As evidence of the show's success, Jewish and Palestinian communities came together both during and after the exhibition. ... ...Talks, conferences, and seminars organized by the leaders of the two communities have continued since the exhibition.

The South African exhibition, to cite another example, attracted blacks, whites, and interracial school groups when it was shown in Washington, D.C. and on tour. The tour leaders explained the positive steps that have been taken by the South African community and how difficult it has been to establish peace and change prevailing opinions. Comparisons were made with racial issues in the U.S. The experience, thus, helped to increase understanding of race relations.

The creativity of Senegalese art served as a reminder of the rich contribution that African culture makes in an increasingly global culture...

Excerpt from Arts Dialogue, October 2000, Arts Dialogue. pages 17 - 19

For further information:
Contact Mona Khademi at:
  • Article: The Arts as Pathways to Global Unity, Arts Dialogue, October 2000

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