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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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Mirroring the Heart of Heaven and Earth: Ideals and Images in the Chinese Study

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Photography by Shouqi Chen, Courtesy OLI Architecture

Mirroring the Heart of Heaven and Earth: Ideals and Images in the Chinese Study, an exhibition designed by New York-based firm OLI Architecture, has opened in the Palace Museum. Located in the center of the 72-hectare complex in the Forbidden City, built in the fifteenth century, the museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of ancient Chinese artifacts, calligraphy, paintings, and porcelain. Working closely with curators at The Palace Museum, OLI Architecture has created a space that brings together art and objects spanning from antiquity to contemporary art within the historical architecture. 

Housed in the Meridian Gate Galleries, Mirroring the Heart of Heaven and Earth centers on the evolving role of the scholar throughout Chinese history, exploring the relationship to the court, to other scholars, the natural world, and the universe. The exhibition brings together 105 works ranging from antiquities to contemporary art, including books, scrolls, vases, sculptures, paintings, screens, cups, and seals. Alongside the art, the displays also include materials such as brushes, ink, and paper ranging from the 6th to the 21stt centuries. The three gallery wings are divided into three chapters: “Chapter One: Sanctuary of Literature and Music,” “Chapter Two: A Channel for Enlightenment,” and “Chapter Three: A Bond of Companionship.” These chapters deal respectively with the themes of a spiritual haven; self-cultivation and the bond between humanity and nature; and the appreciation of the finitude of life against the infinity of the universe.

The exhibition encourages a dialogue between heritage objects and modern artworks. For instance, an eighteenth-century plaque bearing the words ‘Chamber of the Five Classics’ in the Qianlong Emperor’s hand, that typically hangs in the hall that served as the imperial study, is prominently displayed at the beginning of the exhibition. The Five Classics include some of the oldest surviving Chinese texts and are the central works of Confucianism.

Contemporary artists represented include: 

  • Liu Dan (b. 1953) an ink painter trained in traditional style ink painting, he lives and works in Beijing, China. 
  • Xu Bing (b. 1955) is a multimedia artist known for his calligraphy and printmaking, who divides his time between New York City and Beijing. 
  • Xu Lei (b. 1963) an ink painter heavily involved in China’s 1980’s New Wave movement who currently serves as the Art Director of Beijing’s Today Art Museum. 
  • Bai Ming (b. 1965) a ceramicist and painter who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing. 

Young Ho Chang (b. 1956) an award-winning architect and researcher who is currently a professor of architecture at MIT. Hiroshi Okamoto, Founding Partner of OLI Architecture, remarks, “Our office often works with contemporary art and artists.  It was a challenge to design this remarkable exhibition with pieces from famous contemporary artists paired with such rare and prominent antiquities.  When we started the project the idea of the scroll and the ephemerality of paper became a central concept.  Where the art and antiquities were displayed on a transparent softly glowing surface which flowed from the vertical to the horizontal at the datum of a scholar’s table height giving the viewer an intimate experience.”

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World Economic Forum Announces 2023 Crystal Award Winners

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2023 Crystal Award: Idris Elba and Sabrina Dhowre Elba, Renée Fleming and Maya Lin. Image: Alex J Piper; Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera; Andy Romer, courtesy MSPC

Artist Maya Lin, acclaimed soprano and arts/health advocate Renée Fleming and actors and humanitarians Idris Elba and Sabrina Dhowre Elba are the recipients of the 29th Annual Crystal Award, the World Economic Forum announced today. The winners will be honoured at the opening session of the Forum’s Annual Meeting 2023 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, on the evening of Monday, 16 January. The award celebrates the achievements of leading artists who are bridge-builders and role models for all leaders of society.

The Crystal Award is presented at Davos each year by Hilde Schwab, Chairwoman and Co-Founder of the World Economic Forum’s World Arts Forum. The cultural leaders receiving the 2023 Crystal Award are bridge-builders. They connect us to each other; they help us reflect on the human condition and they provide visions of the world that can cut through the limitations of short-term or linear thinking.

Awardees

Maya Lin receives the 2023 Crystal Award for her extraordinary creative talent in combining science, art and architecture and her exemplary leadership in the promotion of nature and environment. Lin has fashioned a remarkable interdisciplinary career through her highly acclaimed art and architectural works, showcasing sustainable design and emphasizing a stronger connection to the land and nature.

From her first public work, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., Lin has been committed to focusing attention on the key issues of our time: women’s rights, civil rights, Native American history and the climate crisis. In 2016, on awarding Lin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Barack Obama said her Vietnam Veterans Memorial “changed the way we think about sacrifice and patriotism and ourselves”.

Lin’s latest memorial, What is Missing?, is experimental and multidisciplinary in nature. In this work, Lin uses science-based artworks to raise awareness of the current mass extinctions of species, while emphasizing that by protecting and restoring habitats and reforming our land-use practices we could significantly reduce emissions and restore and protect biodiversity

Renée Fleming receives the 2023 Crystal Award for her leadership in championing the power of music and its relation to health, community and culture.

Renée Fleming is one of the most acclaimed sopranos of our time and a leading advocate for research at the intersection of arts, health and neuroscience. She launched the first ongoing collaboration between the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) with the participation of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The Sound Health initiative explores and brings attention to research and practice at the intersection of music, health and neuroscience. This collaboration has led to workshops at the NIH and events and performances at the Kennedy Center. It also led the NIH to recently award $20 million in funding for music and neuroscience research over five years. The Renée Fleming Foundation is now partnering with the Foundation for the NIH to develop a toolkit for standardizing music and health clinical research for brain disorders of ageing. Fleming has presented her programme, Music and the Mind, around the world.

Idris Elba and Sabrina Dhowre Elba receive the 2023 Crystal Award for their leadership in addressing food security, climate change and environmental conservation.

Actor, filmmaker and humanitarian, Idris Elba, and his wife, the model, actress and humanitarian, Sabrina Dhowre Elba, were appointed UN Goodwill Ambassadors for IFAD in April 2020. As IFAD Goodwill Ambassadors, they focus on issues related to food security, climate change and environmental conservation. The couple recently visited an IFAD-supported project in Sierra Leone, where they met farmers who received support for rice production and assistance with rural finance after the Ebola crisis.

The late Queen Elizabeth II awarded Idris Elba with the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2016 and the Prince’s Trust, founded by King Charles in 1976 – which Elba credits with helping to start his career – appointed him as its anti-crime ambassador in 2009

Elba supports causes related to poverty, HIV/AIDS, at-risk and disadvantaged youth, health and education. He worked with the UN and the Department for International Development in the UK during the Ebola health crisis and filmed campaigns in support of UNICEF, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals. He has recently created a number of youth-focused campaigns to promote education and learning and discourage violence.

Sabrina Dhowre Elba works with a variety of civil society organizations, including Farm Africa, raising funds to help farmers across eastern Africa, and Conservation International on environmental issues. She promotes gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls worldwide. She chairs the European board for Global Citizen and has been a keynote speaker at leading global events.

Idris Elba and Sabrina Dhowre Elbaare board members of Conservation International.

Crystal awardees are part of a large community of cultural leaders in Davos.

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Growing demand for oriental cuisine in India

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Recent years have witnessed the mushrooming of oriental restaurants serving ‘authentic’ Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Malaysian and of late Vietnamese cuisine (in certain instances it is not so authentic!). It is not just expats or members of the diplomatic community of these countries residing in India, but even the Indian consumer, in not just metro cities but even tier 2 cities, who is always up for some lip-smacking cuisine from East and South-East Asia.  

In metropolitan cities – especially Mumbai, the National Capital Region (NCR) region and Bengaluru — apart from several other cities, it is true that several Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai restaurants serve East Asian and South-East Asian cuisine of a high quality, which is truly authentic.

 It would be pertinent to point out, that for long restaurants located in five-star hotels were the preferred choice for consumers willing to spend on some authentic oriental cuisine. That is no longer the case with a number of stand-alone restaurants (some in the fine dining category) mushrooming in recent years in not just metropolitan cities, but tier two cities as well.

 If one were to look at Vietnamese, Indonesian and Malaysian stand-alone restaurants in India, there is certainly scope for more authenticity. It is also important, for restaurants specializing in one oriental cuisine, to focus on one cuisine – while a few popular dishes from other cuisines are perfectly acceptable – a mish mash of dishes from across the orient while specializing in one cuisine is not advantageous.

 There is no doubt, that it is important to cater to Indian taste buds, it is also important to bear in mind, that a lot of Indian consumers who have travelled and have a good knowledge of different cuisines are looking for authentic cuisine.

 A number of oriental restaurants, which claim to serve authentic oriental food and specialize in one particular oriental cuisine end up serving a mish-mash of different Asian cuisines. While there is nothing wrong in the same, it is important then to position yourself as a restaurant which serves a blend of dishes from across the orient. It would be pertinent to point out, that as far as Chinese, Thai, Japanese and Korean cuisine is concerned, the Indian consumer – especially in metropolitan cities – has numerous choices.

Here it would also be important to mention that many oriental restaurants have managed to strike a balance by catering to local palette, while also ensuring a degree of authenticity and providing a mix of dishes from the orient at a reasonable price. It is also important for stand-alone fine dining restaurants to realize, that if they are excessively over-priced, they will lose their competitiveness if there are other options available to the consumer.

In conclusion, there is a growing demand for East Asian and South-East Asian cuisine in India. As mentioned earlier, it is not just expats or members of the diplomatic community, but a large number of Indians who are well travelled who are willing to spend on good oriental cuisine. It is important however for restaurateurs and chefs to remain in sync with changing trends in the market, and to remain relevant in an increasingly competitive market.

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