Discovering Art as a Catalyst for Change
Dienstag, 3. August 2004

Over 250 artists as well as many others participated from the 24th to the 30th of July in morning plenary sessions or ‘conversations’, workshops (over 12 interactive concurring workshops, with activities ranging from acting and singing to photography and origami) The Arts a la carte, four to five concurring events every afternoon, evening programmes (three plays in the theatre, followed by concerts and dancing).

The conference entitled ‘Transforming The Way Things Are’ started with Hugh and Dell Williams, playwright and graphic designer respectively, sharing their understanding of the artist’s role in society through examples from their own lives. Hugh Williams pointed out that the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’, though vital at the time it was created (late XIXth century), has been distorted and now represents an excuse for artists and their creations to ‘be judged on their own terms’ with no sense of morality, social responsibility or common sense applying to them. For him, the artist’s calling is to ‘transform a heartless, soulless culture of materialism, consumerism and hedonism’, to be a ‘people-server and life-giver’ through creation and communication. Both Williams and Stephen Broadbent, Liverpool sculptor and urban designer, who spoke later on in the week, seemed to agree that artists must be more engaged in their communities, must be aware of their responsibility and have to, above all, love their creation. A playwright must love his characters, as an architect should love the people he is building projects for. Love is ‘the creative imperative’ from which every creative activity should take source, Williams said.

Among other interviews with artists from all over the world, with a great number of Asian participants (from India, Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Japan) was a conversation with a couple now living in England; originally from Japan and Vietnam, Miho Sanou and Phuong Nguyen. Nguyen’s story especially drew the public’s attention – born and raised in Vietnam, he was selected at the age of 8 to study in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, where he stayed until the age of 16. He then escaped to China and had to live almost 4 full years in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, while applying for a refugee status. Miraculously, he was helped by two British volunteers who provided him with a good accordion and recorded him playing it. When the Royal Academy of Music in London invited Phuong to study in Britain, there was nothing the Hong Kong government could do to stop him. Since then, he has played with many orchestras and won several awards for solo recitals.

The International Communications Forum was also present at the conference, and held an afternoon plenary on the 26th of July with Jara Moserova (Czech senator), Bill Porter (British ICF founder president), and Bernard Margueritte (French journalist, ICF president). Margueritte agreed with Williams, stating that journalists, just like artists, need above all other skills and talents the capacity to love those they are addressing as well as those they are writing about. ‘All art is about communicating a message, by definition’, Margueritte said, ‘but our mission is to make all communication an art.’ Bill Porter spoke about the need for the media to take responsibility of their actions and influence on society.

Other speakers included Rudolf Novak (representative of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Bern), Susan Koscis (Director of Search for Common Ground), Zuriah Aljeffri (a painter from Malaysia), Pauline Warjri (pianist and teacher from Shillong in India) and Aroha Crowchild (originally Maori director and choreographer of the Canadian Red Thunder group).

Jan Horn, South African documentary film maker, and Margo Birnberg, a Pole living in Australia, talked about re-discovering the richness of indigenous art in their respective countries. Horn has been collaborating closely with Bushmen for over 10 years, recording many of their songs, dances and rock art, which otherwise might have been lost forever. Horn concluded that the only way to give indigenous people a sense of dignity and self-respect is to ‘co-discover with them their cultural wealth, and to rejoice in it’. Margo Birnberg pointed out that because of the interest of white people (belated though it may be), the Aboriginal people of Australia are now able to communicate their message through art and share their stories of pain and destruction through creativity.

Yousef Khanfar, who offered a four day photography workshop, believed that the ultimate art to which all artists should aspire is the ‘art of humanity’ and expressed his conviction that for an artist’s work to be valuable, it has to stand on its own through the ages, communicate an intellectual and emotional depth, and come from the heart. On a slightly different note, Slava Dolgachev a theatre director from Russia, reminded the participants that artistic activity wasn’t less dependent now than it was during the Cold War: it is just a different kind of dependence. The state and its ideology have been replaced in their role of supreme power by money – sponsors and consumers.

Optimists, pessimists, artists, creators, musicians, actors from all over the world spent a week of discovering how art can be a catalyst for change and spiritual renewal, and experiencing how every member of every community is in fact an artist. Through spontaneous performances and surprisingly fruitful workshops, the conference proved that art is first and foremost a matter of people coming together in creative unity, rather than a question of skill or talent.

Joanna Margueritte