As a means of celebrating Black History Month, the Cultural Affairs Officer (CAO) at the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia, Mr. Learned Dees, put together screenings of a series of films which depict the complexities associated with such a worthy topic. I had the opportunity to attend a viewing and discussion of the film, “An Economy of Grace“, about the artist Kehinde Wiley, dealing with underlying issues with respect to race, gender and economics. In addition to the film itself, there was an esteemed panel to help moderate the discussion including Cornell University Professor, Dagmawi Woubeshet, U.S. Ambassador to the African Union, Susan Page as well as local artist, Dr. Desta McGhoo. One of the more enlightening participatory events I have been to in quite a while, I came away with not only a deeper understanding of race issues as they pertain to Americans, but furthermore insight into the equally compound dichotomies facing Africans as well.
The film traces Kehinde Wiley in the lead-up to one of his shows, following him from urban 125th Street in Harlem to a inspiring paint studio in Beijing back to an upscale art gallery in New York. Yet it is the trajectory of the path taken, the uniqueness of the characters involved and the disdain for the ordinary which sets the plot apart, realizing that truth is more important than image, even if it is Art which remains the topic. Filmed in partnership with PBS and lending itself more towards documentary than feature, it should be required viewing for anyone with an opinion on what constitutes “Art” and similarly, those who judge others based on color, gender or income.
The film itself was clearly inspiring but what gives credence to any good media is the discussion which it creates; the willingness to change our outlook, either reaffirming our beliefs about a certain topic or reconsidering our viewpoint, taken from a different perspective. An expert in such affairs, Mr. Dees picked three incredibly educated and articulate guests to help lead the analysis which saw varying degrees of opinion, the whole time recognizing that comfort was not of paramount importance, rather it was an understanding of true identity which we were after.
In addition to myself (Note: the only “white” person in the room) there were both local Ethiopians as well as Diaspora, each with valid points and legitimate concerns on the topics raised in the film, be it the femininity expressed through the models, the stereotypes perpetrated by the artist or the economic inequality highlighted by the designs. Voices were heard through the sharing of ideas, a Democratic means of expression alive in this little enclave of cultural education. I found myself sitting in wonder at the level of sociocultural understanding within the room, wishful that I could replicate it in my more rural classrooms but cognizant that this was a special moment- an afternoon to which I was invited by Learned, whom I consider more of a mentor than a colleague- to witness the possibilities which an educational conversation can have on people where there was simultaneous agreement over differences and the ability to celebrate them.
While I continue to teach in an overseas setting, I admittedly sometimes miss the classroom discussions which tackle the beautiful complexities associated with gender, race and economics. The students I see on a daily basis are incredible, molded through their realities which be it in Korea or Ethiopia don’t always include elevated discourse on societal issues relating to marginalized topics. For me then, it was a special treat to partake in this film showing and discussion as it pertains to Black History Month, with topics which reached beyond the ideas of race, instead touching upon the whole being of us as individuals working together to find collective solutions while celebrating our differences…