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BRICS and the establishment of a global socio-cultural architecture

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Several reports have already appeared on aspects of cultural dimensions of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Admittedly, BRICS has broadened its scope of operations and activities, indicating its strength and the level of its development. As already known, Russia has passed on the BRICS Chairmanship to India, which officially starts January 2021. That however, Kester Kenn Klomegah from Modern Diplomacy contacted to know a few more detailed developments in the cultural directions of BRICS.

Elena Marinina, Co-Chair of the International Cultural Exchange Group of the BRICS Civil Forum, Deputy CEO of the Roscongress Foundation and Director of the Innosocium Foundation, discusses the question of cultural diversities among BRICS members, the various initiatives that were adopted during the last interactive working session, and combined efforts to pave the way forward with the Association of NGOs as part of BRICS. Here are the interview excerpts:

Q: How do you assess the importance and the results of the online roundtable discussions on “International Cultural Cooperation for Strengthening BRICS Unity” moderated from Moscow?

Marinina: A lot of serious preparatory work went into the roundtable at the BRICS Civil Forum. The International Cultural Exchange Working Group collected recommendations and initiatives from representatives of various public organizations and institutions, foundations, and socially oriented businesses of the five BRICS countries. All of these recommendations and initiatives were presented during the roundtable, given a serious and balanced assessment.

Cultural exchanges, protecting the cultural heritage of our countries, getting young people involved in the culture of BRICS countries, and developing tourism are the priority focuses that formed the basis of our draft communiqué that was presented to the heads of state at the BRICS Summit under the presidency of the Russian Federation. All the members of the working group, which included more than 30 representatives of the alliance’s member states, agreed that we should join efforts to develop sustainable cultural cooperation between BRICS countries.

It is crucial that all the recommendations are very clear, whether it is the establishment of the BRICS Advanced Thinking and Research Centre or an internship programme for the different activities of young professionals, holding the annual BRICS Literature Fair, or the creation of a general register of cultural, architectural, and landscape monuments of BRICS member states with their subsequent inclusion in the World Heritage List. In other words, we not only outlined paths for further cultural cooperation between our countries, but also identified specific projects that will establish this cooperation.

Of course, we must also keep in mind that many of the projects that have been announced overlap with the competencies of other working groups, which once again demonstrates the diversity and breadth of the coverage of such a phenomenon as culture. Along with the economy, culture is the foundation on which countries build relations.

Q: In your opinion as a member of the BRICS Working Group on Culture, do you agree that there are some diversities in culture among the group? Russia, India and China are geographically close, Brazil and South Africa a bit distant – but do this present any challenges in realizing fully the expected tourism and cultural dimension of BRICS?

Marinina: The vision of man and the world is truly distinct for different nations, and sometimes even the exact opposite in some ways. If we are talking about culture, uniformity is unacceptable even within a single country. The main thing that unites the representatives of BRICS countries, though, is the desire to speak from a unified position on the global development of civil society and the establishment of a global socio-cultural architecture, and in this regard, the diversity of the cultural codes of BRICS is more of a unique advantage than a disadvantage. We understand this very well in Russia. As a multinational, multicultural, and multilingual country, Russia is always open to dialogue with other peoples. We see the same approach from our foreign partners.

We are already actively collaborating with representatives of BRICS member countries as part of the events of the Roscongress Foundation’s social platform – the Innosocium Foundation. For example, we recently launched the BRICS Women’s Business Alliance, whose agenda not only covers economic issues, but also cross-cultural exchange and the implementation of joint projects in creative industries and education. The upcoming Eurasian Women’s Forum, which will be held in September 2021 in St. Petersburg, will feature a discussion platform on women’s involvement in the creative economy. As the organizers of Russian Creativity Week, we are also looking forward to seeing creative representatives from BRICS countries at our event in Moscow in summer 2021.

As for tourism, the deterrent today is not so much the geographical position of countries as it is the closure of borders due to the pandemic. However, this is a temporary factor. The final recommendations of the International Cultural Exchange Working Group are designed for a longer horizon and contain a wide range of measures that aim to develop the tourism potential of BRICS countries. This primarily includes the BRICS Cultural Tourism project, which seeks to consider the possibility of direct communication between BRICS nations, simplify the visa procedure for citizens of BRICS countries, open guide schools, and develop tourism routes in the group’s countries. We are also planning to hold the annual five-nation ‘BRICS – Our Common Home’ Cultural Festival, the ‘Great BRICS Cities’ project, various championships, and several other interesting initiatives.

One thing I am definitely certain of is that with all the differences in lifestyle, mentality, and traditions, as we travel or communicate and learn about the culture of another country, we are building a policy of intercultural relations and erecting a big BRICS house brick by brick, where common moral values will shape its foundation.

Q: Could you discuss some of the initiatives that were presented during the meeting? What initiatives presented by Russia, the Chair of BRICS 2020? What were the reactions of your colleagues from Brazil, India, China and South Africa?

Marinina:First of all, I would like to remind you that the BRICS Civil Forum itself was launched in 2015 based on an initiative put forward during the Russian presidency in order to convey the priorities of society and present civil initiatives to the leaders of the five countries. Over the past years, this format has proven to be useful and effective for cooperation between the public organizations of the association’s countries.

The 2020 BRICS Civil Forum came up with public initiatives for healthcare during the pandemic as well as social equality and addressed issues concerning the environment and climate change, the development of green energy, civil rights and freedoms, in addition to the role of education and science in human development. As I already mentioned, we devoted great attention to getting young people involved in the culture of BRICS countries, developing cultural exchanges through literature and art, and protecting cultural heritage as the basis for international cooperation and tourism.

In addition, as part of the cultural focus of the BRICS Civil Forum, Russia presented a number of projects dedicated to the 75th anniversary of victory in World War II. These projects include an initiative to establish the ‘World Day of War Veterans’ under a UN resolution, the international project ‘Libraries as Witnesses of the Great Victory’ based on the materials of the national libraries and archives of BRICS countries, and the five-nation literary and historical project ‘BRICS Peoples: Dedicated to War Heroes’.

All these initiatives were included in the final recommendations and not only garnered broad support from our colleagues in BRICS, but also from participants who were invited from other countries in Europe and Asia. We had a comprehensive exchange of views and engaged in fruitful and interesting work.

Taking advantage of this opportunity, we also invited the working group members to the second Russian Creativity Week Festival and Forum in Moscow in summer 2021, which the Innosocium Foundation is organizing jointly with the Russian Cultural Centre. The event was held for the first time in September 2020 and immediately received international recognition, as evidenced both by the scale of foreign participants as well as their active involvement in the event’s programme.

Q: Now judging from the discussion, what could be the best way to systematize and to combine efforts in implementing all these new initiatives and recommendations arrived at the Civil BRICS 2020? In your view, how do you also see the way forward for the Association of NGOs as part of BRICS?

Marinina: The institutionalization of cultural ties is a key part of our draft communiqué. During the meetings, many Russian and international members of the working group from the five nations advocated for the creation of a ‘Union (Association) of BRICS Non-Governmental Organizations’ and the formation of a single network of BRICS NPOs. I am certain that this will enable us to engage in clear and properly coordinated manner, hold a constructive dialogue with the leaders of states and governments, and jointly implement the proposals and initiatives that received support at the BRICS Civil Forum. (Modern Diplomacy).

MD Africa Editor Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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Brazilian Favela Art Project – Global Project with Local Focus

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Brazilian Favelas, or shanty slums are some of the most underdeveloped and overly populated regions in Brazil with high levels of crime, violence, gender discrimination and poor levels of hygeine and sanitation. There is an urgent need to spread awareness about healthy lifestyle choices and improve the standards of living for people residing in these slums. This is not just the prevailing situation in slums in Brazil, but across slums worldwide. Inspired by the Misaal Mumbai project led by Rouble Nagi, aimed at painting Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, located in the suburbs of Mumbai, it is crucial to start similar projects in other slums across the world, like in Brazil. Artwork is a great way to bring about social change and also enhance the landscape of slums. Brazilian slums have poor hygiene, lack of focus on education, higher crime rates, rampant sexism and other social issues. There is a pressing need to instill a better sense of hygiene, importance of education, reduced dropout rate from schools, fueled creativity, inspire a better future, make people aware of their legal rights (specially women), make women more aware of personal hygiene, promote healthier safer living environments, reduced family tensions, improve neighborhood relations and promote less harassment via artwork in Brazilian favelas. While it is unrealistic to expect social workers to visit slums everyday and educate people about social issues, artwork solves the purpose by acting as a constant reminder to slum dwellers about good decision making so they can partake in to be more responsible members of the community. In light of this, we have started a project called Brazilian Favela Art Project aimed at sponsoring artists to visit favelas in Brazil and create artwork on available walls and empty spaces, to promote positive social values. The project is led by me from Mumbai and involves funding from passionate donors across several countries. We work with artists from Brazil to sponsor their artwork in these shanty favelas.

Challenges

There are several challenges arising during the project, mainly because of language barriers. The most widely spoken language in Brazil is Portuguese, whereas most people who are a part of this project do not understand and speak Portuguese. To sort out this issue and to project a more global approach to local issues in slums, specifically Brazilian Favelas, we have added some Portuguese speaking locals from Goa, India to the project. Goa was a former Portuguese colony and still has over 12,000 Portuguese language speakers. These select Portuguese speakers help us to communicate with local artists from Brazil and curate artwork directed at social change in collaboration with them. Since, the artwork produced in the favelas is also in Portuguese language, the messaging is created by English speaking professionals along with Portuguese translators from Goa and Brazil. Hence, the project truly is global involving people speaking various languages across continents.

Another major challenge we face is funding by corporations. Most corporations only want to fund corporate social responsibility projects among their target audience to improve branding. Since favelas house low income populations, most corporations are not interested to heavily invest in social change in the region. Moreover, corporations also have reduced trust in favela residents and believe that the artwork produced will not bear a long term impact since it could be at the risk of mutilation by locals. However, our conversations with local Brazilian artists have proven otherwise. The artwork is preserved by local communities since they see the positive community value in the artwork, as well as benefits to external landscaping that are created. Most of the donors of this project, have therefore been individuals at the moment, and not large corporations. We need to find corporations that are more keenly interested in social change in favelas in Brazil and target them for fundraising. Though the funds required are not very high because the base costing is spent on travel to favelas and paintwork, we aim to create bigger murals across Brazilian Favelas, not just in Rio De Janeiro, where the project currently focuses.

It has also been the case, as local artists have informed us, that artwork against drug consumption is generally mutilated by drug dealers living in favelas, since it is a source of revenue for them. Hence, alternate methods to prevent drug consumption in favelas need to be better researched. There are no other cases of art mutilation in favelas.

Local initiative with global effort

In the age of digital connections, whatsapp groups, telegram chat channels, LinkedIn and other networking spots, there is little scope to go wrong with building global connections and uniting towards a cause. The main source of interaction to create impact has been on zoom, considering the project was founded during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, specifically in light of budding news about increased crime rates in slums across the world and increased stronghold of criminal gangs specifically in Brazilian Favelas. Various reports mentioned that Brazilian gang overlords were increasing their stronghold in favelas, enforcing lockdown with a long term focus to ride the wave of the pandemic. Consumption of cocaine and other drugs increased in favelas since drug overlords knew exactly what troubled the favela community members at distinct times during the pandemic. In light of this news, I realized it was crucial to create a global project to solve the rampant issue of crime, violence and drug abuse in favelas, among the most vulnerable communities impacted by the pandemic. I was deeply surprised to see that not enough was being done to support favela dwellers by local community members. Various local initiatives had popped up during the pandemic, but none at all to support favela dwellers in Brazil. The global project – Brazilian Favela Art Project, with a local focus  was hence founded out of the pressing need to support favelas in Brazil and promote positive social values.

The initiative involves funders, donors, artists, language translators, public policy enthusiasts and administrative officials from various countries, sharing resourcing and joining hands to bring about positive social development in Brazilian Favelas. It has been a privilege to witness and personally observe the impact of the pandemic in making us realize that we are all united in battling issues. No issue, despite being continents away, is too big for us to not solve or too far for us to care about. With a united, global approach, we can solve any major issue in this world. Social change starts with you and with everything you wish to see differently.

Vidhi Bubna, author of the article is also the Founder of the Brazilian Favela Art Project and aims to reduce crime rates and encourage social change in Brazilian Favelas, specifically in Rio De Janeiro.

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UN Geneva open exhibition “The World In Faces”

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On November 24, United Nations Geneva hosts “The World in Faces”, an exhibition of photos by the renowned Russian photographer Alexander Khimushin. The artist personally presented a collection of artistic photos of representatives of different peoples of the world, photographed in authentic national costumes in their habitat. The 170 large artistic portraits of more than 100 indigenous peoples around the world are on display in the main hall of UN Geneva’s Palais des Nations. A big part of the exhibition is dedicated to the indigenous communities of Russia’s Siberia and the Far East.

“It is gratifying that the exhibition at the UN this year takes place as the world celebrates the International Human Rights Day. It is a great pride and honour for me to present my photo project at the UN, especially on this momentous day”, said Alexander Khimushin.

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.

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 producer of palladium, one of the largest producers of Nickel, platinum and copper), 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.

“Nornickel has always interacted with the indigenous peoples of the Russian North in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual assistance. This year, the company’s relations with the indigenous peoples reached a new level. Based on the UN principles and objectives of sustainable development, we study, with the involvement of leading international experts and the scientific community, the socio-cultural specifics of indigenous life in Taimyr, and the traditions and historical memory of the peoples living in the region. This helps us make our support to indigenous peoples more targeted and effective. Cultural projects and support of traditional folklore and handicrafts are one of the most important components of our projects”, said Mikhail Kuznetsov, Nornickel’s Director of Federal and Regional Programmes.

Nornickel regularly participates in projects intended to foster economic and social development of Taimy’s indigenous communities. In 2020, Nornickel signed a cooperation agreement with organisations representing the interests of the indigenous communities of the North inhabiting the Taimyr Peninsula. Together with them, and based on proposals from the chiefs of indigenous communities, a comprehensive plan for the development of the peoples was developed for a total of RUB 2 bn. The plan is designed for five years. The programme will run until 2024 and includes support for traditional activities, protection of the indigenous habitat, and financing of new homes, hospitals, museums etc.

The photo exhibition will run until December 10, 2021.

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Sezzadio: The small village where the great history of the Aleramici began

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Photo: Pomaro Monferrato Castle (AL). Dresses from the ancient Asti tailor's "Principessa Valentina" by Samantha Panza and coordinated by Gianni Gallo. At the center Walter Siccardi in the role of Aleramo with the Aleramici families represented by the shields (photo by Marco Sala).

Men and women of culture, united by the idea of the Euro-Mediterranean Federation on Ancient Medieval Migration, challenges this difficult period of the pandemic with new historical research activities to rediscover and transmit the desire to return to normality.

As part of the project of “Le Vie Aleramiche Normanno Sveve” in Sezzadio, a village near Alessandria where Aleramo was born had been visited on the initiative of the Mayor, Enzo Daniele, the Councilor for Culture Piercarla Bocchio and the local head of FAI Anna Maria Gobello, collected the texts to create an “Aleramici Library” which will be closely linked to the “Aleramici Research Center of Sezzadio”. Two honorary presidents are members of our technical-scientific committee: Francesco Barone of the University of Catania, one of the leading experts in the Aleramici history of Sicily and Salvatore Lo Re, historian and President of the National History Society of Piazza Armerina, City of foundation aleramica which, soon, will see the Municipal Library enriched with a section dedicated to the study of its origins. Therefore, a study workshop will be commenced to work in synergy with the parallel Sicilian structure: the prestigious Palermo “Officina Studi Medievali” headed by Prof. Diego Ciccarelli.

Sezzadio, the place of origin of this fascinating story: it is said, in fact, that the noble Aleprando, on a pilgrimage to Rome, stopped in this small town near Acqui Terme with his wife about to give birth and that Aleramo was born here. The municipal administration of Sezzadio, after having already undertaken various projects to enhance the small center of Alessandria and installed explanatory signs at the entrance to the village to highlight its extraordinary historical importance, has enthusiastically joined the proposal of the promoters of the project, Fabrizio Di Salvo and the UNESCO Club of Piazza Armerina, (represented by the President Anna Maria Di Rosa Placa and the Secretary Lavinia Garsia) and took the opportunity to give life to a research center that will be formed in network with the Workshop of Medieval Studies in Palermo and the research activity in Piazza Armerina, a real study center dedicated to ancient medieval immigration “on the contrary”.

The fundamental activity was Fabrizio Di Salvo’s visit to Sezzadio last summer which allowed to define the membership of the Municipality of Sezzadio to the Euro-Mediterranean Federation on Ancient Medieval Migrations, by virtue of which it benefits from the support of the Coordinator for Northern Italy, Nadia Ghizzi.

The work of identifying the texts and training the library was supported by our technical-scientific committee which boasts among its ranks the Byzantinist Walter Haberstumpf, Prof. Salvatore Trovato, former professor of Linguistics and Glottology at the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania, the Director of Sibrium Magazine and President of the Center for Prehistoric and Archaeological Studies of Varese Lucilla Caramella, Luigi Piano, the President of “Italia Medievale”, Maurizio Calì, (who collaborated directly in the creation of the library), as well as the teachers and researchers of prestigious international universities, such as the distinguished medievalist Henri Bresc and Joanna Drell of the University of Richmond in the USA.

To realize the intent of making culture available to all, it is essential to give our research a European breath and make people understand how much the history of the Middle Ages, which took place in a Europe different from the current one, was well-defined in its supranational scope. The project connected France, Italy, and Germany and, in particular, the Municipalities of Hauteville-La-Guichard in France, (where the myth has it that Tancredi, the future lord of Hauteville and progenitor of the Altavilla family, saves the life of Duke Riccardo II of Normandy on a hunting trip); of Göppingen, in Baden-Württemberg near Stuttgart, (where tradition has it that the Swabian dynasty was born) and of Piazza Armerina, a city in Sicily founded by Aleramici in the 12th century. The cultural triangulation will also expand in Sezzadio, in the spirit of continuing to create links between historically similar realities and, currently, it takes the form of collaboration between the municipal administrations, anticipating and preparing the future twinning.

Thanks to the dedication of those who embraced and developed the project from the beginning, today, the Euro Mediterranean Federation for Ancient Medieval Migrations stands out for the adhesion of important figures from the world of culture, of high-level institutions, such as the Library of Alexandria of Egypt, of numerous Italian Municipalities, of Universities and Associations. Despite the interruptions due to the pandemic, the Project has given rise to numerous initiatives such as conferences, lectures, and meetings, and the production of a documentary film shot in the European lands touched by this research: Piedmont, Sicily, France, Turkey, Germany, Greece, and Ukraine.

A powerful work, curated for four years by Fabrizio Di Salvo, which collects precious contributions from excellent scholars and returns the atmosphere of medieval Europe thanks to the choice of splendid locations, such as the Castle of Pomaro in Monferrato, to the costumes of the ancient Samantha Panza’s “Principessa Valentina” tailoring from Asti-Italy and coordinated by Gianni Gallo. The exceptional protagonist is the actor Walter Siccardi, an extraordinary interpreter in the role of Aleramo. The shields that recall the emblems of the Aleramici dynasties and parts of the sets used for the shooting will be donated by the Euro-Mediterranean Federation to the Aleramici Research Center in Sezzadio.

We will continue our incessant work of research and historical reconstruction, hoping that it will create opportunities for recovery, resilience, and increasingly nourish the dialogue between people who are only apparently distant.

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