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Redefining Cultural Heritage: Street Art as Cultural Testimony

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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.

wallsoffreedomWhat 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.

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Arguing Over Petty Things: Turkish Pop or Poop Art?

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Selfie-Taking Ottoman Sultan Statue (Photo Credit: Global Voices)

Talking about the relationship between art and politics corresponds to an intellectually provocative action for the vast majority. When we view history, we can see that art in Nazi Germany legitimized the position of high culture and added many symbols and images to the cultural missions of the Nazis. According to Walter Benjamin, fascism can be called as “aestheticized politics“.

Art in Turkish context has been instrumentalized by the ruling elites most of the time so far however this time it also seems that art is also used as a tool by the unaudited local governments. This article is an attempt to address the current debates around controversial sculptures dominating Turkish social media.  The headline of this article has been given as an inspiration from the recent debates circulated on Twitter.

Turkey is famous for its plethora of historical places and impressive monuments. However the controversial sculptures built in some cities raised debates. A prominent Turkish artist Gürkan Coşkun has defended sculptures and statues that mostly stand at the entrances of the cities depicting things those cities are known for, saying that they were “examples of Turkish pop art.” According to Coşkun, “these artistic works are popular and absolutely creative,” and “Turkish contemporary art must follow these works’ steps. These are the symbols of the people of this region expressing themselves in their own ways.”

Some people reacted on social media over the artist’s evaluation and called these sculptures and statues as “poop art”. There are quite bizarre sculptures and statues built in some particular cities. For instance, in capital Ankara there is a T-Rex dinosaur statue and researcher Mete Sohtaoğlu in an ironic way says that it replaces ‘Transformers’ robot.

A statue of “boy in watermelon” erected by the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality (Photo Credit: Hurriyet Daily News)

Journalist Arzu Geybulleva argues that Turkey’s spectacular city statues raise questions about art and corruption. In a detailed news-analysis she wrote, she said that “The watermelon statue in Diyarbakir reportedly cost 4.4 million Turkish Lira (517,000 US dollars)… The budget for these statues is not transparent and is often associated with corruption at the local government level.”

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UNESCO open exhibition “The World in Faces” at its Paris headquarters

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On Thursday, July 8, at the headquarters of UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Paris, the exhibition “The World in Faces” of the famous Russian photographer Alexander Khimushin opened. The author personally presented a collection of more than 170 artistic photographic portraits of representatives of different peoples of the world, shot in authentic national dress in places of residence. The exhibition is dedicated to the upcoming International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and Their Languages. It is a celebration of multiculturalism and our incredible ethnic diversity at its best.

“In the photographs from the project “The World in Faces” I express my philosophy of life, which has been formed over the years of travel. It was through meetings with representatives of different nationalities, contact with their cultures, that I came to understand that all of them – with an incredible ethnic diversity – are people just like you and me. They are simply trying to artificially divide us by borders and ideologies,” explains Khimushin.

The exhibition is a great way to tell the world about indigenous peoples and draw attention to their problems.

The people in Khimushin’s portraits managed to preserve their originality, traditions and former way of life. But it is more and more difficult for them to do this – small peoples are rapidly approaching complete extinction, the languages ​​and traditions of their ancestors are forgotten. “The world in Faces” reminds how important it is not to let them disappear without a trace.

The idea to create a collection of photographic portraits of indigenous peoples in national dress and in their native environment was born in 2014, when Alexander had already accumulated a considerable amount of work done in the most exotic locations – from Samoa and Fiji to Swaziland. Since then, he has never stopped traveling around the world, and his project is growing and becoming a phenomenon.

“Initially, when I started working on the project, I had a dream – to exhibit at the UN. UNESCO is a UN structure that deals specifically with cultural issues and, accordingly, since I am engaged in the preservation of cultures, traditions, languages ​​that are disappearing today – it was important and honorable for me to exhibit my works at UNESCO. I don’t know what will happen next. In principle, I think that these should be large international platforms, since the project goes beyond Russia. The project is worldwide. I’m not going to complete the project. I plan to travel and collect stories, photographs, from all over the world – and I will be glad to consider proposals for global exhibitions that would show us – humanity – that we live in this world are different, each has its own culture, traditions, we must respect people who belong to other cultures. At the same time, the general humanistic component is that the whole world is one and all people are brothers,” notes Khimushin.

In 2018, Khimushin went to the Russian Arctic – Taimyr. The result was a series of portraits of the region’s indigenous inhabitants – Dolgans, Nganasans, Enets, Nenets, Evenks.

“Taimyr is unique in that it is a distant, cold place. For me, this was not something new, since I grew up in Yakutia (the Far East of Russia is the cold pole on the planet), but it is the peoples living there – the Nenets, Dolgans, Nganasans, they have a unique culture, their way of life and reindeer husbandry have been preserved. It was interesting to visit, thanks to Norilsk Nickel (The world’s largest high-grade nickel and palladium producer), to get to these places. I would like to return to Taimyr, shoot more there, if there is such an opportunity,” the artist noted.

The Norilsk Nickel company, which takes an active part in the fate of the small peoples of the Arctic, supported the Khimushin project.

“Our company supports the work of Alexander Khimushin, because thanks to his work, the whole world can see amazing, beautiful people living in remote corners of our planet. Including representatives of the indigenous peoples of the North of Russia, who managed to preserve a unique, original culture and traditions. The preservation of nature, traditions and culture of indigenous peoples, support and new opportunities for the development of ancestral activities – these are the themes that bring countries, international and commercial organizations, artists and creators together, “said Tatyana Smirnova Head of Public Relations MMC Norilsk Nickel.

Khimushin became the first Russian photographer to have an exhibition at the UN headquarters in New York. Works from The World in Faces project were exhibited at the University of Lille in France, and for six months were broadcast on the screen of the world’s largest digital art center in Bordeaux.

The exhibition at the headquarters of UNESCO will run until the end of August 2021.

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Russia, Egypt Launch the Year of Humanitarian Cooperation

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Russia and Egypt have opened the next chapter in their bilateral relations as the Assistant Foreign Minister for Cultural Relations, Ambassador Mahmoud Talaat, described the launch of the Russia-Egypt Year of Humanitarian Cooperation as a “bright spot” in the history of joint relations.

Addressing the launch ceremony on behalf of Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Talaat said the event comes within the framework of strategic relations between the two countries that reflected in a humanitarian exchange document, which was signed by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi.

Both officials reviewed Cairo-Moscow distinguished relations that have been growing in all fields, mainly at the political, economic, scientific, cultural and social levels. They pointed out to the close historic ties binding both counties and their peoples.

Russia’s Deputy Minister of Culture Olga Yarilova who led the Russian delegation in the meeting emphasized the strength of relations between Cairo and Moscow. She added that the agenda of the Cairo-Moscow year of human exchange will include several cultural, tourism, sports, youth and educational events and activities among the two countries’ cities and regions.

Culture Minister Enas Abdel Dayem and Russia’s Deputy Minister of Culture Olga Yarilova jointly launched the kick-off event at the Cairo Opera House, in the presence of Chairman of the Cairo Opera Magdy Saber, alongside a number of ministers, ambassadors and leaders of the Ministry of Culture.

Beryozka (Berezka) Dance Ensemble, one of the internationally renowned and oldest Russian dance troupes, presented a number of artistic shows on Russian folklore. The Ensemble is a troupe of female dancers founded by Russian choreographer and dancer Nadezhda Nadezhdina in 1948 in the Soviet Union which specializes in performing in long gowns and moving across the stage as though on wheels or floating.

It is worth mentioning that Russia has been chosen as the guest of honor for the Ismailia International Festival for Documentary and Short Films, set for June 16-22.

The Egyptian culture and foreign ministries and Russian bodies concerned have prepared an agenda, including 23 cultural and artistic events throughout the whole year, with the participation of the culture ministry’s sectors and authorities. The cultural programmes will run till May 2022, and as part of the preparations for the second Russia-Africa summit planned for next year in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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