Global Convergence through Art: Perspectives from a Wordsman, Thinker, Mover and Shaker
“Science testifies to us that nature herself flourishes through diversity – the combining of new and previously foreign elements to create stronger and more dynamic biological forms. So too with culture and with ideas; so too will a world in which people share as children do their cultural treasures and truths be a world of greater innovation and color; so too, will a Nationless World be a stronger world.”
As one listens to Jie-Song Zhang speak, it is unfathomable to not be affected by his passion and eloquence. In each breath and word there is meaning and purpose, and the palpable desire to connect the human spirit globally.
Zhang, a Chinese-born immigrant who grew up in the United States, is the founder and director of a cultural campaign called Emerging Face of a Nationless World which advocates for mutual understanding and recognition of commonalities between cultures.
“It’s important to me for the campaign to be symbolic of sincerity; the ability to see each other without preconceived notions,” he says.
A self-proclaimed “Son of Beijing,” Zhang is an artist and musician who also has experience as an educator to inner city youth, and in art direction for international exhibitions.
He is also supremely involved in the underground hip-hop music scene, particularly in Beijing, China where, Zhang emphasizes, it is considerably strong. As a contributing writer for the music section of National Geographic, he has been able to bring awareness to this subculture which, for many, is uncharted territory.
With the basis of the campaign working toward shared understanding, Zhang has found that the social and domestic struggle often spoken of by those in the hip-hop community stateside can be somewhat relatable to those involved in the hip-hop community of Beijing.
“A lot of the kids here in China identify with the music because they too are poor. And even though their conditions aren’t as related to the violence and turmoil [of many United States urban communities], they too have a similarity of experience,” he explains.
On the other hand, he too acts as a facilitator in order to identify where disparities take place and culture becomes lost in translation.
“A lot of kids [in China] like urban, raw hip-hop music. However, they don’t fully understand where the culture comes from.” He mentioned a friend from China who is an underground rapper who desires to see “the hood” of America when he comes to visit. “He’s thinking we’re going to go there and take pictures.” He explained to him how it is an entirely different situation and that the violence often spoken lyrically in hip-hop music is real. “It’s an extension of their turbulent lives.”
Currently in its beginning stages, a major component of the campaign is the short film documentary of the same title, which recently gained major exposure as it was chosen to air on New York Public Media station WNET-TV. The documentary, which primarily focuses on musicians, illustrates the multicultural reality that is America, namely New York.
On a Saturday evening, nowhere else but on the streets of New York, Zhang took time to discuss the details of the Emerging Face of a Nationless World campaign, bridging cultural gaps through sincerity and more.
GALO: I first saw your documentary a couple years ago, and for me it ignited this powerful vision that it is possible for this generation to really set the tone for how we can be open and understanding to one another; really embracing others for what makes us different, but more importantly, what brings us together. Describe to those who may not have heard of the Emerging campaign what it is and who is involved.
Jie-Song Zhang: The campaign is an effort to create a platform to connect communities and cultural organizations worldwide – to put community leaders and organizations in touch, across the world, in order [to] have a more accessible foundation by which to communicate and collaborate. The foundational goal is to facilitate the kind of human to human interaction – in which the eye sees the face, in which the ear hears the voice – that will help people across the world climb over the old walls built from a less informed age, the ones that separate us, physically and mentally, and segregate us into divided tribes that abide by this great myth that we are not essentially the same in what we experience as human beings.
The structural part is about creating a platform for communities around the world to interact in a more human to human way. It is also a platform to let people naturally engage each other to get rid of some of the dimensions that keep people blocked off from one another…Part of it is almost like cultural matchmaking.
GALO: So breaking it down, what is the ultimate goal of your campaign?
Zhang: The tangible goal has to do with connecting people and making them more functional in relation to one another.
GALO: It’s interesting that you say “cultural matchmaking.” How do you facilitate and bring different groups together?
Zhang: Professionally my background is in art direction and project management, working with international cultural exchange projects that involve, for instance, taking Chinese art, bringing it here [the U.S.], and trying to present it in a way that most sincerely represents the original meaning of the artwork for a Western audience. This kind of work requires a skill I call “cultural fluency,” which is the ability to recognize the differences that exist between different cultural languages; the differences by which different cultures interact with the world [as well as] the different ways they will interpret the same images, symbolism, and actions. The different ways they express value in life. In all of this is a fundamental human experience.
GALO: You are an established artist and musician in your own right. In what ways did this influence your choice to focus on art and expression as the vehicle to send your message out?
Zhang: Just as every animal in the wild has its own range of motion; its own unique gifts; its own unique movement through the natural world, so too is the spirit of each human unique in its identity. What one might classify as “artistic expression” is not for me a choice, but the tone and texture of the natural voice of my spirit, as it grows and matures. A lion does not choose to roar, nor does an eagle choose to fly. Their actions are simply the pure and direct expressions of their nature. So, what others would make easy to understand by calling “artistic expression,” I would describe more honestly as the motion and language in which my spirit moves through the world.
The root of true artistic expression is sincerity, and as such, the true artist will always live with a critical measurement of that which is sincere and that which is insincere. It is this critical measurement that the true artist applies to his or her own work and the world alike. And it is for this reason that I trust the social perspectives of artists in narrating the conditions of the world.
GALO: As someone with an arts background, it was easy for me to relate to you and the other artists in the film. Do you think that helps or hinders the process in speaking to others who may be less arts-oriented?
Zhang: If you can look at something in the world and see its beauty, you have artistic sensibility. Art is a language of the human being just as science is.
GALO: In more simple terms, if you were speaking with someone who only identified with football, for example, and they had never seen your documentary, never attended a dance performance, never been to anything performance or visual art related, how would you reach them?
Zhang: On a general level, I would ask them to reflect on something they find truly beautiful and think about how everyone on this earth, no matter what their background, might be able to recognize and identify.
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