Thao-Nguyen Phan's 'Poetic Amnesia' exhibited in Ho Chi Minh City's The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre (without video work)
Thao-Nguyen Phan's 'Poetic Amnesia' exhibited in Ho Chi Minh City's The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre (without video work)
Image: Supplied

It’s Human Rights Day and it pleases me to hear that Mr Zuckerberg has been called on to give evidence about the unautharised use of about 50-million Facebook users’ personal data by UK consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. A human rights violation of the very new kind.

Unlike the list of the Seven Wonders of the World, which was revised 10 years ago, our basic human rights cannot be altered, no matter how hard some despots around the world may try. They will, however, be challenged and we need to make sure they are never diluted. It’s important to be alert to the potential of Big Data abuse and how our basic rights can be violated in the cyber realm. While Xi Jinping signs his unrestrained power of state into law and innocent men, women and children are bombed in Syria, we are reminded of the very real threat to future civilisation as greed and warmongering perpetuate gross human rights violations on the ground, in real time. 

I was recently in Berlin to attend the prestigious Rolex Mentorship & Protégé Arts Initiative, a 15-year-old creative exchange programme to help ensure the world’s artistic heritage is passed on to future generations. This was my first experience of the incredible metropolis whose clever planners have integrated a divided city, reminders of its history, multiple cultures and the arts into a very functional, contemporary experience. It also felt like its citizens where engaging with the arts on just about every city block. My time in Berlin was also a most invaluable opportunity to engage with some of the foremost creative minds – both young and old – of our time.

While many people desire a ‘Rollie, Rollie with a dab of ranch’ on their wrists (thanks Ayo & Teo), it’s not everyone’s human right to own one. What the Berlin encounter did reminded me of though is that every Rolex sold contributes in some way to a very good cause. The company is owned by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, which is registered as a charity. As the largest luxury watch brand, much like a celebrity brand ambassador, it is very influential but unlike other businesses it channels its profit (after expenses) into the support of environmental research, sports and the promotion of the arts.

Like a huge extended family, forever paying it forward, hundreds of artists, curators, leaders in architecture, dance, film, literature, music, theatre and visual arts have participated in this international philanthropic programme. For the long weekend in Berlin, the team at Rolex facilitated unforgettable moments through one-on-one interactions, panel discussions and live performances with the likes of filmmaker Mira Nair, architect David Chipperfield, artist Anish Kapoor, musician Philip Glass, filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, artist Joan Jonas, dancer Londiwe Khoza and musician Pauchi Sasaki to name but a few. To witness the results of this intergenerational, intercontinental cross-pollination of skills, ideas and life experiences continues to inspire me and cause gooseflesh moments in my day.   

For good civilisation we need good citizens who are civilized towards each other. People who respect diversity, equality and social justice. The arts and culture have an important role to play as key building blocks of civilization but also as sounding boards for society.

I was reminded by Vietnamese visual artist Thao-Nguyen Phan of how grateful we should be for our many freedoms in South Africa. In spite of our recent politics we have a Constitution and liberties worthy of celebration. With so many new media tools and materials through which an artist can find a voice, it is easy to forget that in so many parts of the world, artists have no rights to freely express themselves. Thao-Nguyen’s video work was shown publicly for the first time in Berlin as part of her solo show titled ‘Poetic Amnesia’, thanks to the encouragement and inspiration she found through her mentor, New York multi-media artist Joan Jonas, who also showed her how to see past the restrictions of being an artist in Vietnam. I took note of Thao-Nguyen's exhibition texts in which was said: “I’m concerned with criticising the educational system in Vietnam, where history is erased and there is a big amnesia. History is written by the winners and when the North won the war in 1975, they rewrote history. There was a lot of trauma.” 

I’m reading an interesting new book ‘How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds’ by academic Alan Jacobs. In his introduction, Jacobs says: “To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social.” The context for this statement requires further suggested reading but if thinking requires some conversation with a group, and the arts are about communication and inspiration, then continuous conversation and exchange of knowledge will surely keep the arts alive. And contribute to a heathy and engaged society.


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