Campus | June 19, 2017 at 8:00 am

Culture in Conversation: Sharing Tradition through Art

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Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907

Last April, after a journey lasting nearly 8,000 miles, Mengying met me in Harvard Square, only a few feet from the T-stop. Although we had been in contact for over a week, there was something uniquely exciting about meeting her in person. She was a high school student from Hangzhou, China; I was a freshman in college from San Diego, California. Mengying and I would be living together for the next few days as we both participated in the inaugural run of the Harvard Arts in Reflection Program, a weeklong conference to promote the arts.

The conference was pitched as a unique experience to learn about the arts from professionals in different fields. But, in addition to its stated purpose, HARP was an opportunity to collaborate across cultures—acknowledging both the benefits of cultural sharing and the boundaries of appropriation. Greater cultural literacy is a critical tool as it allows one to translate existing respect of personal beliefs to respect for foreign traditions. Beyond the officially scheduled programming, I was thrilled to experience new art forms from two different viewpoints: that of both Mengying and myself.

From the beginning, this conference was set apart by the fact that it was not run by an artistic group on campus, but rather by the Harvard Association for U.S.–China Relations. This organization is one of many on campus that seeks to promote cross-cultural understanding through a variety of channels, such as politics and business. Although art can seem ancillary to these more professional realms, its ability to articulate group values makes it a backbone of cultural understanding. Art has been used throughout history as a tool to define cultures. For example, Soviet Realism played an important role in defining the USSR’s core values. Picasso’s interpretation of African masks and Japanese woodblock demonstrates how art has been used for blending different cultures.

Jessica Kim ’19,  one of the conference’s directors, emphasized art’s ability to unify in an interview with the HPR. “Art is something that brings people of all ethnicities together. … It’s a great opportunity to learn about different people and different cultures. It says a lot about your values and your history.”

Furthering an Artistic Agenda

Because art has a unique ability to educate through individual perspectives, it is harnessed by the Harvard Association for U.S.–China Relations. to advance a larger mission of cross-cultural exchange. Throughout my week participating in HARP, I studied everything from ceramics to the aesthetics of genetic imaging. While some events, like our ceramics workshop, were straightforward explanations of the craft, other tours sought to expand our understanding of the arts beyond the confines of the artistic community. At Le Laboratoire, an artistic think tank run by Harvard bioengineering professor David Edwards, an exhibition titled “Life in Picoseconds” employed an atom screen to display the unfolding of a protein molecule taken in picosecond frames.

But HARP’s goal was not simply to expose students to different artistic mediums. It became clear that the event was also a chance to see how each medium could be reinterpreted through different lenses.

This was best exemplified by a hackathon that took place at the end of the week, pitting international teams against one another in the attempt to create a work that summarized the conference’s theme: connections. The importance of intercultural exchange was clear from the start—each group at the Hackathon was required to have at least one American and one Chinese team member. From these groups, a wide variety of projects were produced that sought to bridge different perspectives.

One group completed a project that juxtaposed similar images of cemeteries from Harvard and mainland China. These images were overlaid with religious icons to show a crossing of cultural boundaries. By placing Christian imagery over the traditional Chinese cemetery, the group commented on the social parallels that exist in two societies bound by different religious norms. “The Hackathon was what brought people together,” Kim noted. By collaborating to create art, students shared ideas that allowed them to engage with international perspectives.

Difficulties of Cultural Exchange

The centrality of cross-cultural exchange to this conference prompted a discussion of cultural appropriation. While the term “cultural appropriation” is used in a variety of settings—often as a pejorative—it is a simple term that masks a nuanced issue  The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own … especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” The latter half of this definition strikes at the heart of the issue. Cultural appropriation poses a problem when foreign traditions are adapted in a way that lacks sensitivity or consideration of the original culture. The wearing of a bindi, a traditional Hindu adornment on the forehead, as a fashion trend has been widely condemned example of cultural appropriation because it belittles the religious and ethnic significance of the marking.

However, questions such as “Should white chefs sell burritos?” garner more ambiguous reactions. The boundaries of appropriate cultural borrowing are inherently subjective; resolving disputes over cultural appropriation requires an ongoing, honest dialogue between people of different cultural backgrounds.

That’s where cross-cultural initiatives like HARP, come into play. These institutions are uniquely important on a college campus because they not only share information about foreign cultures, but also help students discern an appropriate “lens” with which to interpret culture. At HARP, students presented their backgrounds through the first person. Throughout the week, Mengying and I learned how to communicate by sharing both a home and a classroom. Upon departure, she left me a parting gift which I accepted and then put away, having learned from the other students that, in China, it is rude to open a present immediately. When I later opened it, I discovered a paper lantern carried all the way from Shanghai; the gift was a reminder of both the backgrounds that separated Mengying and I as well as the experience we shared. By humanizing foreign traditions, cross-cultural initiatives enable us to celebrate multiculturalism and avoid the missteps of cultural ignorance.

One World on Campus

Of course, there are many different approaches to fostering cultural exchange on campus. At Harvard, some groups are focused around fostering a community for members. Some share cultural traditions through performance, but largely fail to recruit students from outside the culture to join.

Each of these models has different aims and, as a result, different strengths. The HARP model, which allows members of different cultures to foster connections through extensive one-on-one discourse, seems to encourage the greatest exchange of ideas. While many groups on campus promote exposure to new art forms and cultures, not many encourage direct discussion between people from different cultural backgrounds. Collaborative enterprises such as the HARP conference are different in that they actively set the line for appropriate cultural adaptation through open discourse.

Ultimately, what is needed is an ongoing discussion between members of different cultures. By allowing a mutual passion for the arts to unite students over the course of a week, events like HARP create an opportunity for long term collaboration.

Image Credit: Flickr/Gautier Poupeau

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