Five artists honored by the State Department gathered Thursday night to discuss the power of art in cultural diplomacy and international dialogue.
The artists – Cai Guo-Qiang, Jeff Koons, Shahzia Sikander, Kiki Smith, and Carrie Mae Weems – and their discussion leader, Museum of Modern Art Director Glenn D. Lowry, gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building as part of the State Dept.’s 50th anniversary festivities for its Art in Embassies Program.
Poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph opened the night with a performance that combined dance and spoken word poetry, recounting a four month trip to Senegal where he learned to communicate exclusively through his hip-hop-style dancing with villagers who couldn’t speak English.
In Haiti, he said, they called him “negrime,” which comes from the Haitian word meaning “a tunnel connecting Haiti to Africa” (meaning he is genuinely “African”), whereas in Senegal, they called him an “American African” – in other words, a “white” African.
The art community, explained Lowry, exists outside of the geo-political one, and AIE underscores how artists are fundamentally connected even if they have different political beliefs.
“Sometimes, art can do things that politics cannot,” Guo-Qiang said through an interpreter. Just a month ago, he traveled to Japan to receive the Praemium Imperiale, the country’s prestigious national arts prize. Although Chinese-Japanese relations are at an all-time low due to a territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, the Chinese ambassador still attended the ceremony to see Guo-Qiang, the first Chinese recipient of the Imperiale. In 2008, AIE commissioned him to create a sculpture for the U.S. embassy in Beijing – a project he loved because “No Chinese government agency has ever commissioned me to do art for one of their buildings, but the Americans were the first to ask.”
The Pakistani-born Sikander, who has lived in the United States for nearly 20 years and created paintings and tapestries for the American embassy in Karachi, said her upcoming work for the embassy in Islamabad is “less about being provocative and more about creating a meaningful partnership out of the project.”
After growing up in Pakistan, she said that the strained relationship between the U.S. and her native country constantly informs her work. She wants to incorporate local culture and local artists in her Islamabad project, and feels the collaboration and the fact that the work will be publicly displayed – versus behind fortified embassy doors – is important in creating a dialogue between two countries with a difficult relationship.
“How do we break down the boundaries between us? And how do we do it in a respectful way?” asked Weems, who has installed pieces at U.S. embassies in Liberia, Madagascar and Mali.
Koons, who creates metallic stainless steel productions of everyday objects, has frequently been criticized as creating art that lacks meaning or message. However, he said his art “lets everyone experience their own possibility.”
“One of the first things you try to do as an artist is to try and remove things that cause barriers and segregations,” he said when explaining the value of public art, because AIE has worked to bring art from behind the closed doors of embassies and into the public eye.