During the last decade, street art has emerged as the latest trend in the artistic world and has soon become a controversial issue of discussion for anyone involved in the cultural dialogue.
The impetus with which it has sprung, alongside with the element of illegality that it usually involves, have provoked a torrent of reactions and have given rise to numerous legal or semi-legal questions, in an effort to delimit the phenomenon.
As an art form, street art has emerged through graffiti, the stylized letter composition also known as tagging, which flourished in the 1960’s Philadelphia. The contemporary phenomenon of graffiti, whose original form can be found in pre-historic cave paintings amongst the world, goes beyond the mere action of writing one’s pseudonym on the walls of the block. Often associated with gang related practices of marking territory or linked to the raise of the hip hop culture that flourished during the same time, graffiti has a long and disputable history, far more complex and socially interesting than the one it is usually attributed.
After the graffiti boom of 1980 in N. York however, different artworks begin to appear; artworks created outside the concept of street culture and not limited to artistically elaborate lettering. The shift from text-based works to visually conceptual ones marks the appearance of a new term as well. Despite the countless discussions on the topic, the definition of the term “street art” remains a challenging venture and seems to be fashioned in dependence to the views and objectives of each commentator, thus creating additional disputes. It is usually dissociated from the terms “graffiti”, “post-graffiti” or “neo-graffiti” due to the negatively charged character that the word “graffiti” bears as explained above, as is from “public art”, which in the mind of the many relates to state initiatives or commissioned projects.
What becomes evident to anyone researching this artistic movement is that the respective local community develops a significant level of involvement with the street art that features its walls. The reactions may vary from rejection of street creations to appraisal and incorporation in the tradition and historic course of the place. One of the most evident examples of the said attitude is the events related to Banksy’s artwork Slave Labour that in 2013 was removed from its place and sold at an auction. In this case, the local community was largely activated; it protested and fought against the removal of the artwork thus, claiming the rights it held upon the piece “that was given to it by the artist” and beautified the neighborhood since.
In this context of admitting the importance of street art for communities and cities, there are researchers to support the view of street artworks being recognized as cultural heritage and protected as such. Cultural heritage in general entails any source and evidence of human culture and history or namely any tangible and intangible property worthy of preservation. While in any international convention on relative matters a different definition of the term is provided, what remains a common ground is the significance such property presents to comprehending and safeguarding human history.
Under this framework, street art could qualify as newer cultural heritage, according to the view of the writer. Its aesthetic value is now widely appraised with new levels of artistic interest being reached due to the new 3d street art that emerges. At the same time, its historic value cannot be denied; street art narrates the story of the city and its very existence is a sign of urban development and an action of renegotiating public space. For what is more, the majority of street artworks have a contemporary character, since they make reference to current social, economic and political developments on an international basis. Hence, street art becomes of great interest for anyone researching the history and trajectory of a city or a community and, as a carrier of multiple and multileveled messages, it seems to slowly acquire the merits of cultural heritage.
A characteristic example used to demonstrate this role that street art can acquire is the Berlin Wall, a monument of great significance for the history of the world. Along its walls, are featured numerous street artworks-homages to the events and victims of this troubled period of time. In 2013, a developer was granted permission by the State Monuments Office and the Supreme Heritage Authority to remove parts from the East Side of the Wall, for reasons of urban development. The result was a grand protest against the destruction of the wall and the exaltation off its historic and cultural value. More importantly, it led protesters to call on UNESCO to protect the site and grant it World Heritage status. It is the first time that UNESCO will consider the issue of street art qualifying as cultural heritage and its decision may very well determine the future of street art.
However, as it has been evident worldwide, including the USA, states tend to focus their cultural heritage related interest towards the past, developing a relation of totem and worship with ancient artifactsand a more relaxed and indifferent one concerning modern creations. What is more, there are practical difficulties in attributing the merits of cultural heritage to street artworks, difficulties that vary from the issue of who would apply for the said recognition to what criteria would be invoked to decide relevantly. These matters are perplexed enough without inserting the complex status of ownership in the equation, the obstacles of illegality and the conflicting relative opinions that street art arises.
One should bear in mind though that, in contrast to current governmental policy, cultural heritage is a fluid concept that evolves and changes according to the growth and advancement of civilization. It is a mistake to confine it and obstruct its conformation to the needs of contemporary culture. With a more open-minded approach towards cultural heritage and a socially based interpretation of the need to preserve it, street art would have found an umbrella of protection and a friendlier regime of confrontation. I feel though, that societies have miles to go before adopting such views.
Strengthening Sino-Russian Ties
During her speech at the New Year’s celebration, hosted by the Russian Cultural Center in Beijing, in late December 2017, Olga Melnikova, Counsellor of the Russian Embassy and Director of the Russian Cultural Center in Beijing, said Russia has many cultural symbols that come from China. In her opinion, Sino- Russian bilateral relations are an example of “the most stable, healthy, mature and lasting relationship between countries in today’s world.” The Russian Cultural Center for years has organized cultural, educational and science- related activities to stimulate Chinese citizens’ interest in learning the Russian language and culture.
In her recent interview with Women of China (WOC), Melnikova said she hoped the Sino-Russian strategic partnership would be strengthened, and that cultural communications between the people of the two countries would be enhanced.
Had you visited China prior to assuming your post as Director of the Russian Cultural Center in Beijing in September 2017? What is your impression of China and the Chinese people?
I first visited the capital of China, Beijing, in 2012. I was a tourist at that time. Beijing impressed me as a modern metropolis that also kept well its traditional Chinese flavor. I saw magnificent ancient temples and palaces coexisting with modern buildings and small cozy streets. The architectural styles of many buildings, the decorations on streets, and the designs of parks clearly showed how much Chinese people had been respecting their history and traditions.
Now, I look at Beijing through the eyes of one of the city’s residents, not as a tourist. In modern Beijing, people are paying great attention to physical education and sports, and to taking care of their health. I have watched, many times, the Chinese citizens who gather in the morning to exercise together. They perform qigong , a system of deep breathing exercises that Chinese use to train their bodies and properly maintain the energy flow in their bodies.
My job has pushed me to travel around China, and to meet people from all walks of life, including government officials, diplomats, representatives of academic institutions, professions, teachers, students and schoolchildren. Based on my personal communications, I think Chinese are friendly, polite and kindhearted. Chinese always l isten attentively to interlocutors’ opinions, and they know how to correctly defend their points of view.
Please tell our readers about some of the events your center has organized in China to promote Russian culture.
Under the circumstances of globalization, culture becomes an important “language,” or factor, that lays the foundation to build the whole system of international relations. Cultural exchanges include communications in tourism, the scientific and educational fields, business contacts, and cooperation in the sports, mass media, art, music and film industries.
Russia is a country that has a great cultural heritage and centuries-old traditions. Within the framework of popularization of Russian culture in the world, our Russian Cultural Center regularly hosts events, such as concerts of Russian folk artists, music and dance groups, meetings with Russian celebrities in the cultural field, exhibitions of contemporary artists, photo exhibitions of Russian museums’ archival materials, film screenings showcasing the latest achievements of Russian cinematography and theater performances for both children and adults.
Every year, we celebrate our victory in World War II, the day of the first space flight of cosmonaut Yuri Garagin and the launch of our first space satellite. Soon, we will celebrate the date of lifting the blockade of Leningrad and the anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad. Those events are great and memorable, not only for Russian people, but also for humanity all around the world.
Are you interested in Chinese cultural symbols?
Developing mutual interest in our cultures helps us strengthen the “ties” between our peoples. For example, the Chinese horoscope, which includes the tradition and meaning related to the Spring Festival, is very popular in Russia. Some symbols of good fortune, such as the dragon, fish and frog, can be found in decorations that Russian people place in their houses, offices and private shops. Although the images with auspicious hints are used as decorations, most Russians do not fully understand the meanings that those images imply. Perhaps the most popular auspicious inscription is a picture of the upside-down Chinese character of “fu,” which means “happiness.”
What roles are women playing to enhance bilateral communications between Russia and China?
It is a global trend that women play more active roles in different spheres of life — business, politics and diplomacy … In some countries, women occupy the highest positions in government. There are women ministers, prime ministers and even heads of state. Women and men should complement each other while they are dealing with political issues.
Actually, the Russian- Chinese Commission on Humanitarian Cooperation is chaired by Olga Golodets, Vice-Premier of the Russian Government, and Liu Yandong, Vice-Premier of the State Council of China.
The Russian Cultural Center is the representative office of Rossotrudnichestvo — the State Agency, which is headed by Eleonora Mitrofanova, a Russian diplomat of high level with significant experience in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and in international organizations. Our center will continue to make contributions to strengthen the ties between Russia and China, advance the promotion of the Russian language and culture in China, and stimulate the development of mutual exchanges.
Reviving the Spirit of Mosul
Last week, the world made a great commitment to rebuild Iraq following the recent defeat of ISIS. Recognizing the immense courage of the Iraqi people and the depth of their suffering, the Kuwait International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq pledged to rebuild infrastructure so that the country can once again prosper.
Mosul is the living symbol of Iraqi’s pluralistic identity. For centuries, it was at the crossroad of culture in the Middle East. From the Sumerian cities to Babylon, from the walls of Nineveh to the Silk Road, the region has been a melting pot of people and ideas. For the last three years, this story of peace – the true spirit of Mosul – has been overshadowed by another story of hatred and violence.
The conference stressed the importance of putting the human dimension at the heart of our efforts for sustainable reconstruction. So we launched “Revive the Spirit of Mosul”, an initiative for the reconstruction of the Old City, both its physical infrastructure and restoring the dignity of its people. When war is waged against culture and education, response must be culture and education. This is the only long-term solution against extremism.
The destruction of the University of Mosul Library, the dynamiting of the Al-Hadba minaret and the pillaging of the Nabi Yunus Shrine, emblem of the religious coexistence of the three religions of the Book – shocked the world. Public libraries were burnt, music was silenced, artists attacked and cafes closed.
Thousands of children have learned war and been indoctrinated with an intellectually corrupt ideology. They have not received an education – the essential tool for building the future. To avoid raising a lost generation, we must teach peace but also reinfuse these communities with the culture of peace, steeped in Iraq’s rich history and cultural life.
The revival of the Old City of Mosul is the cornerstone of our initiative, supported by both UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi. This initiative means restoring architectural symbols that bring the Iraqi people together, in all its diversity. Many key actors like the European Union, neighboring countries and international organizations expressed great interest in participating in this effort that UNESCO will coordinate.
UNESCO will bring its expertise in damage assessment to restore and reconstruct the emblematic sites of the historic center. We will work hand-in-hand with the local population and the government to restore bookshops, cultural centers and museums – including the Museum of Mosul, which was tragically ransacked.
We will provide opportunities for technical and vocational training, particularly in traditional building techniques, so that Iraqis will have the skills to actively contribute to this reconstruction.
The great civilizations of this region defined the course of humanity, through a thousand-year dialogue, which gave birth to the wheel, writing, mathematics and law. We will work with our Iraqi counterparts to ensure future generations will learn of their proud heritage, through the school materials that we are developing, including a new school curriculum, which puts humanities at its core along creativity, critical thinking and values of respect. This is the only way to ensure that fanaticism does not prevail once more.
This “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” initiative will be UNESCO’s main contribution to the United Nations’ Response and Resilience program designed to help Iraq’s government fast-track the social dimensions of reconstruction.
Later this year, we will organize an international conference at UNESCO Headquarters, with the Iraqi government and all our partners, to design a blueprint for this reconstruction.
Through culture and education, we can restore trust and create the conditions for a common future. This reconstruction will take time but, brick-by-brick, lesson-by-lesson, together we can revive the true spirit of Mosul.
First published in Asharq Al-Awsat
Music and art from the country of peaks and legends: Day of Afghan Culture
On 8 February 2018, the SCO Secretariat hosted the Day of Afghan Culture. Addressing the guests and participants of the event, the SCO Secretary-General thanked top leadership and the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for all-around support in organising the Day of Culture.
“Afghanistan is populated by wonderful and courageous people, descendants of ancient ethnicities who cherish their sacred traditions, lifestyle, unique culture and art,” Rashid Alimov said. “The entire SCO family strongly and unanimously supports the Afghan government and people’s efforts towards a peaceful, stable and prosperous state. We believe this day is near and wish the brotherly nation of Afghanistan peace, happiness and prosperity.”
In his remarks, Afghan Ambassador to China Janan Mosazai expressed his deep appreciation to the SCO Secretariat for organising the Day of Afghan Culture. “Events like this strengthen the Shanghai spirit in the growing SCO family,” he noted.
The main event of the programme, a concert of traditional Afghan music, delighted the guests with charming melodies from the ‘country of peaks and legends.’ The programme was presented by ten talented musicians from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music led by its founder and director Ahmad Naser Sarmast.
The guests also enjoyed a display of amazing colourful masterpieces of Afghan carpet weaving art, which goes back more than 2,000 years. A special photo exhibit showcasing the uniquely beautiful nature of Afghanistan and the rich legacy and contemporary life of its people was also very popular. The guests had a taste of the traditional Afghan cuisine.
The event was attended by extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassadors of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan, Syria, Bahrain and Singapore, as well as representatives of diplomatic missions, EU ambassadors, Chinese and foreign media.
The Day of Afghan Culture took place as part of the SCO Is Our Common Home programme.
Some 40 types of carpets were displayed at the Mosaic of Afghan Carpets exhibition. Afghan carpet weaving is known for distinct colours and traditional geometrical ornaments.
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