Review: FIAF Artist Talk at the Baryshnikov Arts Center Oct. 15, 2016

Cover Image © Kaori Mahajan for WhereNYC

Bottom Line: As part of its Crossing the Line installment, FIAF, in collaboration with MOMA and several leading arts centers, organized a series of performances and provocative, yet thoughtful discussions. Last Saturday’s panel including: moderator Thomas Lax, choreographer Rachid Ouramdane, leading sociologist and founder of NGO Libraries Without Borders, Dr. Patrick Weil, Firoz Ladak and Zeyba Rahman convened at the Baryshnikov Arts Center for a lively debate on the state of cultural inclusion in the fine arts.

Patrick Weil FIAF © Kaori Mahajan for WhereNYC

Dr. Patrick Weil, Professor at Yale and founding member of Libraries Without Borders © Kaori Mahajan for WhereNYC

Review: “Identity has a dual dimension: it consists of both chosen and unchosen components,” began Patrick Weil quoting Émile Durkheim. We choose to express our identity, but environmental, social, religious and gender factors also play a part that define us whether it is voluntary or not. For instance, he said that Black Lives Matter came about from the images of unarmed blacks killed by police. Such a movement would not have existed, if it weren’t for the police killing unarmed civilians.

Today in both France and the United States, the models of identity and cultural inclusion are being debated. With the rise of far right nationalism, religious extremism and social inequality, many, like those on the panel, have questioned the extent of which we can achieve real cultural inclusion and tolerance of diversity.

The discussion is not a new one, and other cultural centers in New York have hosted similar debates. The Greene Space, like FIAF, has also invited artists, journalists and other experts to challenge societal norms, hopefully breaking barriers between different groups.  Happily, Crossing the Line, was also a very thoughtful, well-crafted discussion that was devoid of talking points or focusing on media sensational stories such as the infamous burkini.

Instead, the five panelists, all of whom are spearheading inspiring projects that celebrate inclusion, compared ways of access to those who have been left out. In both France and America, the panel agreed that the lack of cultural inclusion prevents real diversity in the arts and in society in general. The problem, according to Dr. Weil, is that young minorities in both France and the U.S. don’t enjoy the same basic rights or job opportunities, which can contribute to a feeling of “not belonging.”

In certain cases, successive generations of immigrant-origin individuals in France, according to Firoz Ladak, call their own identity into question. Living in the outskirts, or banlieues, where unemployment is rife and security is weak, there is a feeling of being cut off from the rest of society.

This sentiment of exclusion has possibly contributed in part to the rising number of French and Belgian nationals of North African origin who have joined Islamic extremist groups such as ISIL or Daech. In this country, terrorist organizations have also found fertile recruiting ground such as in the Somali community in Minnesota, according to panel.


Rachid Ouramdane discussing Premiers Actes with Thomas Lax, Zeyba Rahman, and Firoz Ladak

To counter the efforts of terrorist recruiting, community leaders and others have sought new, positive outreaching methods. There is also power in the arts to incorporate a sense of community belonging to a host country. In order to combat the influence of radicalization, cultural producer Zeyba Rahman coordinated a celebration of Somali pop music comprised of refugees and American musicians. The success has even caught the attention of the U.S. government, which supports positive cultural projects.

Similarly, in an effort to bring more access to impoverished areas in New York, Dr. Weil’s NGO helped young, primarily African-Americans in the South Bronx make their own résumés to help them find jobs. It was the first time, according to Dr. Weil, that these individuals had ever thought about career opportunities. As in the case of Rahman’s cultural project, it is helping to create a sense of pride of one’s achievement and recognize different cultures.

The panel shares a light-hearted moment at Greene Space WNYC © Tokyo Racer for WhereNYC

Certain themes of cultural inclusion and social discord were also of the discussion about race at at the Greene Space at WNYC © Tokyo Racer for WhereNYC

It takes more than just recognition of cultural difference, according to Ladak Firoz, who said that while many of organizers at the annual Avignon Theatre Festival talked about the need to incorporate different cultures, there was little diversity to be seen.

Rachid Ouramdane’s project Premiers Actes” aims to show how diverse we are, rather than just recognizing difference. He said that many feel they are typecasted or stereotyped. “You can be born in a country, but if you’re black, you’re regarded as a foreigner.” Others on the panel also echoed a familiar sentiment, often feeling they are forced into a mold by passive discrimination. While on stage cultural inclusion and diversity are respected, it is not often reflected in the audience.

The panelists did clash, however, on certain points. Dr. Weil attributed the lack of understanding minorities and immigrant communities in France, partly  because the French are still stuck in the same mindset of the Algerian War. Mr. Firoz countered that the successive generations of children born of immigrant-origin are starting to feel less French and rarely concern themselves with French colonial history.

When discussing the use of technology in preserving cultural identity, the guest-speakers found common ground on how social media and film can help inclusion and even offer a little cheeky resistance to xenophobic attacks from far-right politicians. There is the famous #Muslimsreportingthings on Twitter in response to GOP candidate Donald Trump. And Libraries Without Borders has a created a digital archive of American Indian tribal history as well as documentary films in Africa and Jordan. Ms. Rahman said that this “microtechnology can support a movement or help a community maintain its identity.

In spite of certain progress, especially in terms of cultural awareness and recognizing the need for cultural inclusion, there is still more to be done. It is perhaps Dr. Weil who summed it up best with a quote from French sociologist, Norbert Elias, “Language is in permanent transition.” Likewise the concepts of national identity, demographics and societal norms are also ever-changing.