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Celebrating Cultural Diplomacy
Inspired by global insights
As Canada and the Republic of Korea celebrate 60 years of cultural diplomacy, the National accessArts Centre (NaAC) has assembled a group of artists to commemorate the occasion with a celebration of its own.
Intense Difference of Its Own: 60 Years of Korean-Canadian Diplomatic Relations is the NaAC’s latest exhibition, one that amplifies cultural diplomacy, a key pillar of the centre’s work.
Community Connections Abroad
Since 2018, the NaAC has toured internationally while building its global arts residency program. NaAC artists or their works have travelled to such destinations as Hong Kong, New York, and Tokyo, making meaningful connections at every stop.
Given the NaAC’s extensive work on the international stage—where an important part of the disability arts conversation unfolds—there’s plenty of potential for the organization to discover fresh, innovative ideas. That’s why investing in cultural diplomacy is so important for the NaAC.
Drawing insights from sister organizations who are creating incredible work, developing successful programs, and attracting major partners provides tremendous value, says Karly Mortimer, Vice President, Artist & Program Development for the NaAC. “Through their efforts, we learn about building inclusive societies and moving that conversation forward. It’s a beautiful way for us to learn how to think big while improving our programs.”
Cultural diplomacy activities also present opportunities for the NaAC and its artists to lead conversations about inclusive societies. “It’s great to have those conversations within the arts because no matter the medium, you have demonstrable objects created by people with disabilities,” explains Karly, adding that the artwork is the audience’s primary focus.
Artwork sparks a dialogue around the value of including people with disabilities and the myriad perspectives that they bring. “When we centre those conversations on artwork first, people are more open to engaging in a conversation around disability,” says Karly. “It can be an unfamiliar topic for people who don’t have a personal connection, but it’s a fruitful place to talk about inclusion.”
Strength in Disability
On a recent trip to Dubai, Karly and a group of NaAC delegates met with a sister arts organization called Mawaheb. In Arabic, the word for developmental disability translates literally to “People of Determination.”
“In that phrase alone, we see how differently our two cultures think about disability. It challenges us to think bigger,” says Karly. “Mawaheb is ambitious in the way they’re partnering with high-end brands and positioning artists with developmental disabilities.”
The heart of cultural diplomacy is sharing ideas, and sometimes in these moments an epiphany occurs. Karly shares a story about sitting with representatives from Mawaheb at the Burj Al Arab, Dubai’s most iconic hotel: “There we were in the middle of Ramadan at a luxury hotel with artists from Calgary and Dubai, and it dawned on us how much we belonged in that space—that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to smaller, secondary spaces. Our artists deserve to be front and centre. This trip bolstered that understanding for us.”
Belonging and Citizenship
Because art often transcends convention, Karly says it can teach us how to navigate complex problems and the unknown. That ties in beautifully with how the NaAC artists bring their unique voices and perspectives to explore ideas that are taking place in the national discord.
“Canada is navigating complex conversations around climate change, Indigenous relations and reconciliation, inclusivity, and what it means to be a Canadian citizen,” she says. “When we can demonstrate the nuances that people with developmental disabilities bring to those conversations, we change what citizenship looks like for people with disabilities.”
As Canada and Korea embrace the “Stronger Together” theme of their 60th year of cultural diplomacy, that sentiment rings true for the NaAC and its talented troupe of artistic creators.
“There’s power in belonging and the artists seeing their diversity as a source of strength,” says Karly. “Society understands that full participation in civic life is an important right for people, but not as important for people with disabilities. Including people with disabilities in conversations and programs is absolutely necessary.”
A Spectacular Opening Night
Inspired by the late artist and sculptor Won Lee, Intense Difference of Its Own features more than 60 pieces of artwork from 20 Canadian and Korean artists, including NaAC artists, Won Lee, and internationally renowned artist Pixel Kim.
Intense Difference of Its Own, the largest exhibit to be curated and produced by the NaAC, places artists at the heart of the Canada/Korea diplomatic milestone celebration. The exhibit opened June 29 in Seoul and premieres at Ottawa’s Korean Cultural Center this September.
Anchored by Lee’s works, the exhibition features compositions in mathematics and music, conversations with place, and conversations with others, both real and imaginary. The artwork illuminates themes that resonate personally for the artists and global themes such as climate change, disability advocacy, and colonization. Michelle Bennie, a Calgary artist, and Pixel Kim will join the Ottawa exhibition to represent the artists and participate in a residency where they’ll create new work informed by their travels.
The Seoul exhibition, presented by the Korea Foundation, was one of the Foundation’s highest attended opening night receptions. “It was like an entire town showed up,” says Karly, describing the crowd. “It was overwhelming to see how many people came together to make that exhibition happen. It was beautiful, and it made a big statement about how we should think about work by artists with disabilities.”
Nurturing and promoting cultural diplomacy is essential to the NaAC’s mission, and when the organization can achieve that from a leadership position where the artists guide global conversations—even better.
“The artists drive conversations about Canada’s commitment to inclusive societies, and then we meet with potential partners and collaborators to highlight the power in that,” explains Karly. “It’s a beautiful way to have that conversation, and exhibitions like this one are a powerful way to demonstrate that Canadian value.”
Intense Difference of Its Own: 60 Years of Korean-Canadian Diplomatic Relations opens September 5, 2023, at the Korean Cultural Center in Ottawa, Ontario. Visit kccart.ca for more information.