Art Works Blog

Seeing the Other: Promoting International Artistic Exchange

We see it on the news every night: international conflicts erupting across borders, people demonizing “the other.” Mistrust, miscommunication, and misunderstanding are rampant. And yet for centuries, the arts have offered a means to deflect some of those misses.

The arts encourage compromise and conciliation, enhance education, and foster tolerance of diverse cultures. They can offer a safe space to audition cultural differences and forge bridges of communication when language isn’t possible or useful.

Experiencing the creative expression of other artists is also important for an artist’s development offering opportunities for a greater commitment between artists and encouraging responsible global citizenry. Given the growing complexity and interconnectivity of our world, international arts exchange is even more critical today.

The NEA’s International Activities Specialist Guiomar Ochoa and Director of Presenting and Multidisciplinary Works Michael Orlove wrote in the summer issue of the GIA Reader about the NEA’s international work and will extend that conversation in an October 20, 2015 panel discussion at the upcoming Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) conference.

Jeff Leitner, founder of Greenhouse and innovator in residence at the University Of Southern California School of Social Work will lead the panel in a conversation about innovative plans to promote cultural exchange for American artists abroad and international artists in the US.

Also participating are Lena Slachmuijlder, vice president of programs with Search for Common Ground, an organization that works around the world with partners to develop solutions to conflict and violence; Elena Park, CEO of Lumahai Productions and supervising producer for Metropolitan Opera Live in HD; and Xiaowei R. Wang, an artist who participated in the ZERO1/U.S. Department of State's American Arts Incubator program and was a co-creator of FLOAT Beijing, a project combining art, technology, and environmental sensing.

As a sneak preview to next week’s panel, we asked Slachmuijlder, Wang, and Park two questions about the relationship between the arts and international relations. Here are their responses.

In your work, how do the arts work internationally across cultures?

SLACHMUIJLDER: The use of the arts reaches people through their hearts, not just their heads. In the contexts of war and conflict, people have lost loved ones, they are angry and they may have lost hope. Their trust in our common humanity has been shaken. The war may have reinforced negative stereotypes and prejudice, making people unwilling or unable to listen to the “other” in a more traditional peace-building activity, such as a workshop or a training. Lastly, in such contexts, words don’t suffice to enable people to express how they feel, and to articulate their hope for a better future.

PARK: The peculiar and beautiful art form of opera is uniquely able to sweep one into the drama of a production, compelling you to suspend disbelief (Is that a Korean man playing a Spanish nobleman raised by gypsies?) so you can experience the universal emotions of the characters and power of the music. Through modern technology of the HD Live series, a global audience can be unified in real time in a communal appreciation of whatever plays out on stage and behind the footlights.

WANG: Art is still a safe space where participants feel they have nothing to be embarrassed about and are excited and ready to let their imagination run wild. It inherently builds communities of trust, because unlike some product design, it’s not seen as capitalist or trying to sell people a better vacuum cleaner in the developing world. It opens up lines of communication because it is a channel of expression that intrinsically encourages free mentalities, criticality, and dissent. And if you codify some things enough in art, you can make political statements through the work while at the same time uniting a community around the issue without fear of censorship or retaliation.  

What is one example of how you’ve seen this happen?

SLACHMUIJLDER: I have used drumming festivals across the dividing lines in the African Great Lakes region, where six million people have lost their lives to war and genocide. The people of DR Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi were entwined in decades of war which made them see each other as enemies. We organized several regional drumming festivals, bringing together 100 drummers from DRC, Burundi, and Rwanda who performed to tens of thousands across war-torn communities in the three countries.

The drummers created performances where they not only celebrated their own traditions with grace and joy, but also co-created performances with the rhythms and dances of the “other” group, all together. These performances were able to bring together people who would have never come into a more traditional peace-building activity, to be able to see beyond their prejudice and stereotypes, and begin to restore their hope in the common humanity of people across the Great Lakes region.​

PARK: An extraordinary story played out on the Metropolitan Opera stage last Saturday in front of a packed house — plus 209,500 watching worldwide. It wasn’t just the drama of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. It was the sight of the Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, returning to the Met following treatments for a brain tumor and delivering a magnificent performance alongside his friend, Anna Netrebko.

This was the first time that many of his fans – gathered in 1,700 cinemas across 53 countries — had seen him since learning of his illness and he addressed them directly during the Live in HD intermission: “Thank you so much, thank you for loving me, thank you for sending me the good vibes for my difficult time.” When he took his curtain call, with his cast joining in the bravos, and orchestra members showering him with white roses, there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere.

WANG: Having worked a lot in East Asia, it’s been incredible to see the exchanges and communities that emerge through the arts, and how local communities absorb so many influences while preserving their own culture. We did an installation project in Beijing that was about buses, sound environments, and urban landscapes — experiencing the installation transcended language or cultural background and some of the most unlikely people got it, including elderly community members and people who wouldn’t necessarily go to art museums.

Follow the conversation at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference October 18-21 on Twitter with the hashtag #GIAArts. 

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