Art Works Blog

Celebrating the Arts of Tradition

2005 NEA National Heritage Fellow Michael Doucet with his portrait by Alan Govenar at UNESCO's Recognizing Our Cultural Heritage exhibit. Photo by Barry Bergey

NEA Director of Folk and Traditional Arts Barry Bergey represented the NEA several weeks ago at an UNESCO exhibit celebrating NEA National Heritage Fellows and Flemish tradition-bearers. Here's a note from Barry on the exhibition:

A couple of weeks ago I attended the opening of the exhibition Recognizing Our Cultural Heritage: An American and Flemish Dialogue at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. This exhibition resulted from a collaboration between Documentary Arts, a not-for-profit arts organization based in Dallas, Texas, and FARO (Flemish Interface for Cultural Heritage), a non-governmental cultural organization in Belgium. Alan Govenar of Documentary Arts has spent more than 25 years documenting the NEA National Heritage Fellows through photography as well as audio and video recordings. More recently he?s collaborating with cultural specialists in Flanders who consider the NEA's  program and the documentation by Documentary Arts as a possible model for their work on intangible cultural heritage and cultural diversity.

The UNESCO exhibition featured 24 life-sized portraits of NEA National Heritage Fellows and 16 human-scale portraits of tradition bearers from Flanders, all photographed by Alan (who also was recently named a Guggenheim Fellow). In addition there were groupings of photographs showing six of the individuals at home and in their work space. Two video monitors also presented work and performance of NEA National Heritage Fellows. The visual images of U.S. artists included Native American basketweavers, Chinese opera performers, and bluegrass and blues musicians, among others. The Flemish subjects included a carillon player, a baker of local pastries, and a participant in carnival celebrations, to name a few. Due to their large dimensions and the dramatic lighting, when the space filled with people, it was hard to separate the photographs of the master artists from the crowd. Many attendees enjoyed having their photograph made with the Heritage fellows.

The opening featured welcoming remarks from the Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, and Ambassador of the U.S. to UNESCO David Killion, culminating in a performance by NEA National Heritage Fellow Michael Doucet, a Cajun fiddler and bandleader. The Director General linked the exhibition with her recent proclamation declaring 2010 the International Year for Rapprochement of Cultures celebrating ?the equal dignity of all cultures? and promoting ?mutual respect and cooperation for lasting peace through dialogue.? More than 300 delegates and UNESCO staff members attended. Over the next two days there was a longer performance by Michael Doucet, whose presence was supported through NEA funding, and screenings of films documenting a number of NEA Heritage Fellows with follow-up discussion.

Just outside the large exhibition space at UNESCO stands Alberto Giacommetti?s sculpture L?Homme qui marche (Walking Man), a life-sized bronze sculpture typical of the sculptor?s style. I remember it as the cover to William Barrett?s Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, the first introduction written in English to existential thought. As Barrett explained, this sculpture reflects the 20th-century view that modern life is increasingly devoid of meaning and empty, man alone and man disengaged. There is a certain irony in the fact that this visual icon of existentialism, as it stands at UNESCO, faces a room full of life-sized portraits of individuals who reflect a different sense of the world---a world rich with artistic vitality, cultural diversity, and sense of community.

Check back on the blog next week for video from the event, and learn more about the NEA National Heritage Fellowship here.

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