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Luciano Bennetton And The Aga Khan Museum Partner Create Cultural Dialogues 2019-11-29

Friday, 2019, November 29
Luciano Benetton, Founder Imago Mundi and Prince Amyn Aga Khan, Chair of the Aga Khan Musem, The Aga ... [+]Marco Pavan
Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj Contributor ForbesWomen

What does it mean when you are asked - "where are you from?" This often innocuous question provides information to identify the historical background of a person but, more often than not, also pigeon-holes migrants based on biases and stereotypes.

The project, Fondazione Imago Mundi, a project founded by Luciano Benetton, has partnered with the Aga Khan Museum to launch a new project changing the narrative of identity for migrants. The partnership has kicked off with an exhibition in Italy called "Don't Ask Me Where I'm From". The project channels the experiences of artists who are first, second, and third-generation immigrants – a growing body of people raised in a culture other than their parents' – in a series of several works exploring cross-cultural artistic realities. Don't Ask Me Where I'm From features new works by 15 artists, representing 25 different countries. From Italy, the exhibition will travel to the Aga Khan Museum in March 2020 and then to venues across Canada, the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.

In response to one of today's most pressing global issues, this project focuses on the impact of migration on artistic identity and expression. The artists included in the project address the challenges they face as people who live between cultures and celebrate the abundance of cultural experience they can channel in their art. Aligned in their belief in art as a source of knowledge and a key to interpreting the world, the Aga Khan Museum and the Fondazione Imago Mundi have come together for this project with a shared goal of furthering understanding, respect, and tolerance among the world's cultures. Henry Kim, the Aga Khan Museum's Director, and CEO described the project; "this exhibition reinforces our belief that culture is fluid and that it is possible to live free from nationalism – a perspective on the world that comes at a critical time."

It is not surprising to see this partnership between the Aga Khan Foundation and Fondazione Imago Mundi. The Chairman, Luciano Benetton, is also the co-founder of Benetton, a company that shifted the paradigm of advertising by challenging social norms using provocative and often uncomfortable images. From its inception in 1965 to the mid-1990s, Benetton took the approach of shock advertising to bring social awareness to retail and a significant thrust of the campaigning centered around identity and challenging stereotypes towards difference. Although the company has taken a different approach to retail adverts over the last thirty years, the spirit of curating art to explore cultural identities continues with Fondazione Imago Mundi. Benetton shared his perspective on the partnership; "Imago Mundi is a cultural, democratic, and global project that looks to the new frontiers of art in the name of coexistence of expressive diversity. This collaboration is a new step to enlarge our artistic community. We see it as a further opportunity to foster the promotion, research, and knowledge of artistic realities from all over the world and, above all, dialogue between different cultures."

Today, almost every organization is shaped by individuals who are migrants, or have come from migrant families. The layering of different cultures, experiences, and values will create new identities. For most of us, the default question around identity remains at the superficial level about the origins of where an individual comes from, in reality, today, a person's geographical background doesn't adequately explain their identity or drivers around their behavior. Art is one of the most emotionally potent forms of sharing stories and telling stories in a way that is impactful and relatable. This project creates a springboard to open up discussions around how we understand and respond to individuals from diverse backgrounds, how we empathize with these experiences, and, more importantly, how we pivot to find connections with people who are very different.

The most potent element of the project is the scale and breadth of diversity of migration. Through a snapshot of fifteen artists, this is crystallized in the exhibition.

The fifteen artists present a broad-spectrum of histories, traditions, and experiences covering stories from at least twenty-three different cultures and countless more influences along the way. All of the artists featured in this project have been internaionally recognised for their work by different organizations. The range of backgrounds is immense; some of the artists are first-generation migrants and others second or third generation migrants addressing issues of identity in transition. Every piece of work presents a different lens on migration, from fear and loss and feelings of being displaced to experiences of tolerance and hope.

For example, eLSeed is a street artist who has coined the term "calligraffiti" to describe his murals that incorporate both Arabic calligraphy and graffiti aesthetics. In an approach similar to UK artist, Banksy, eLSeed is uses public spaces to create accessibility to his messages of peace, unity, and tolerance grounded in a desire to unify communities and redress stereotypes.

Liberty Battson is a conceptual artist born and raised in Benoni, South Africa, to Zimbabwean parents, she descirbes how her identity was shapred; “Not feeling particularly connected to what it has historically meant to be a white South African, I quickly adopted a broader global identity and honed my art practice in that way. When you are a post-migrant, you are a bridge, a hybrid, capable of being true to yourself and true to your birthplace. I perceive myself as a non-patriotic patriot, a fine link between Zimbabwe and South Africa, whilst simultaneously open enough to be influenced by the rest of the world.”

Jeanno Gaussi is a mixed media artist who deals with cultural identity, place, and memory. Her work stems from her own multinational, diasporic upbringing, and from stories of others, including a young girl forced to hide her gender to leave Afghanistan. Gaussi shares her experiences of identity; “I am fine with the question [‘Where are you from?’] because I do not struggle anymore with the fact that I do not have a specific home country. At some point, I realized what a unique influence I had when growing up. It became a source of strength, and stopped being a burden."
Prince Amyn Aga Khan, Chairman of the Aga Khan Museum, explains the importance of capturing the stories of migrants;

"Humanity has always traveled, for many reasons, essential or simply by choice, and societies have always migrated, bearing with them their "home" cultures. They have thus always found themselves confronted, thereby with a culture or cultures hitherto unfamiliar to them and have been thrust into what could be called an "intercultural dialogue." He goes on to explain the power of art as a lever for conversations and greater understanding; "What strikes me is the remarkable creativity that seems to be engendered by the experience of finding oneself involved in a dialogue of cultures."

Art and creativity provide a natural opportunity to explore curiosity around identity and diversity. The exhibition offers the opportunity to delve deeper beyond the question; "Where are you from?". By using art and story-telling, individuals are invited to be more curious to find out more about what migration means not just for the families who move but also wider society shifting to accommodate new influences and open more opportunities for necessary conversations.
More information on the ehxibition is available here.

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