I want to thank James Early, Director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian for inviting me and the Western States Arts Federation, under the direction of Anthony Radich, for hosting The Association of American Culture’s (TAAC) Open Dialogue XI: Global Connections to Cultural Democracy Conference. This amazing gathering took place from July 12 through 15 at the Magnolia Hotel in Denver.

Some of the highlights of the conference for me were the first open dialogue held on Thursday, July 12. Justin Laing, Program Officer for the Heinz Endowment, and I facilitated the discussion and were able to get the crowd to share their views and expectations of the conference. By opening up with this dialogue the TAAC reaffirmed their belief in engaging in a participatory democratic process. After this dialogue we had a better sense of topics that would be selected for the following two days.

Doudou Dienne
Doudou Dienne, Photo courtesy: http://www.ciranda.net

The other highlight for Thursday was the keynote address by Doudou Dienne, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance for the High Commission on Human Rights. Mr. Dienne was originally born in Senegal and now lives in Paris with his family. He spoke eloquently on the history of racism and slave trade. He reminded us that diversity was first used by scientist and intellectuals to divide and categorize, but also with the development of inferiority theories to offer some form of validity to the enslavement of Black and Brown people all over the world. He urged us to move past the notion of promoting cultural diversity because it is simply a fact of life. Most of us live in diverse communities. His message was centered around cultural democracy.

He went on to define culture based on three values: Aesthetic, the multisensory expressions such as visual art, textiles, music, food, etc.; Ethical, the right and wrong based on the culture; and Human value which is intrinsic to all groups.

Tabassum Haleem
Tabassum Haleem, Director, Organization of Islamic Speakers Midwest.
Photo Courtesy: mtfellows.uchicago.edu

On Friday, July 13, we had open dialogues as well as a symposium covering four different areas. The presentations by Dr. Tomas Ybarra-Frausto and Tabbassum Haleem during the Changing Culture Scapes session were both very enriching. Dr. Ybarra-Frausto is such a great storyteller, my favorite story was the “Cup of Coffee and Cake”. He reminded us about the changes in language and culture from one generation to the next and about the challenges immigrants face when beginning a new life in this country. Tabassum Haleem offered her insight as Muslim American living in a post 9/11 era. I appreciated her honesty and willingness to share about her family and Islam. She ended her presentation with a beautiful, oft-repeated verse from the Qu’ran. Chapter 49, verse 13 states:

“O Mankind! We have created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come together and know each other (not so you despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is he who is the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted with all things.”

Sangeeta Isvaran
Sangeeta Isvaran. Photo Courtesy: narthaki.com

My other two favorite presenters were Sangeeta Isvaran, a dancer, choreographer and activist from Chennai, India, and Gabriella Gomez-Mont, independent curator and writer from Mexico City. Sangeeta goes all over the world and does workshops with displaced or often times abused children and youth. She uses dance as a form of empowerment. Gabriella Gomez-Mont, a member of Laboratorio Curatorial 060 works with contemporary artists in Mexico City and she shared with us three of the projects they recently worked on. James Early described the work as a visual insurgency and I would agree with his remarks. The curatorial group blends the boundaries between curator, artist and activist. Visually it was the most exciting work presented at the conference.

I feel blessed to have been there and met such wonderful people who are all working towards protecting and promoting cultural democracy. It is empowering and reassuring when faced with adversity or isolation to know that there are others out there who care and who are slowly but surely making a huge difference in the world.

Please visit the The Association of American Cultures website for more information on this conference, membership information and upcoming events. You may also visit Western States Art Federation for specific conference details.