Culture Summit Abu Dhabi has kicked off its first in-person event in three years, with a series of speeches celebrating the act of coming together to find ways in which culture can solve our shared challenges.
Opening the summit, Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi, said: “The UAE has always been a place of bringing people together. For thousands of years, it's been a bridge between East and West.
“It's been a place where cultures have come together; it's been a place where we have learnt to understand each other, learnt to talk to each other, learnt to appreciate each other and more importantly, learnt to respect each other.”
The Culture Summit, now in its fifth year, has a programme with an exciting selection of speakers, talks and topics. Organised by DCT — Abu Dhabi, it is a forum for sharing information, debates and policy development, bringing together leaders in culture, heritage, public policy, technology, artists, thinkers and performers from around the world to explore and identify ways culture can transform societies and communities across the globe.
The theme of this year's Culture Summit is A Living Culture, and speakers include comedian, writer, political commentator and host Trevor Noah; internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry; diplomat and author Omar Saif Ghobash; record producer, songwriter, movie producer and current chief executive of The Recording Academy Harvey Mason Jr; and the world's first ultra-realistic artist robot Ai-Da.
“I can imagine one hundred years ago, Bedouins in the desert, under the stars, sharing poetry, talking to each other, putting an emphasis on a new level of understanding and a new level of coming together," Al Mubarak continued in his opening remarks. "This is what we are here for today. We are coming together to continuously solve for solutions.
“These solutions are going to make us better together in the future. The pandemic has come and it's almost gone.”
However, when pandemics or recessions happen again, says Al Mubarak, regardless of what happens, it's people coming together that is going to safeguard culture and maintain it as an integral part of society and community.
Although the world was “devastated” to see cultural institutions, programmes and performing arts take a step back, “in a single moment, something very special happened”.
“What was special? We all took a step forward together. We said ‘enough is enough' — we need to bond with each other and find solutions.”
During the pandemic, Al Mubarak says he spent "endless" nights speaking with people from different cultural practices all across the world. "What was happening in Brazil affected us here, what was happening in India affected us in New York, or affected us in Europe, or anywhere around the world. And we took that opportunity and ran with it.
“We spoke to each other. We talked about how we can open up all together, we talked about how we make sure these cultural institutions, that heartbeat, continued to beat. Sitting here, I'm reminded of these times. Because we all understood that together, anything is possible.”
He said conferences such as the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi should not be taken for granted, as they are opportunities to continuously learn from one another. “This is my university. This is my educational centre … Every moment I'm going to learn something about your culture, you're going to learn something about mine."
Whether discussing situations we face collectively, or alone, Al Mubarak said: “I can assure you, nobody will leave these doors facing any situation alone. Not any more. We're going to do it together.
“Culture is what we are, not just what we do. To me, what that means is that it's in our heart.
“And the fact that we're all here together today, it's a reminder of how strong we can be together. It's a reminder that every voice has to be heard, regardless of where you are in this world.
“We're going to be jointly linked because of our emphasis and our love for culture. We all understand that culture should be in the heart of every component of life. For without it, we just fade away into darkness.”
Al Mubarak's speech was followed by an address by Tim Marlow, director of the Design Museum in London. “Can I say what a generous thing it is actually, to have a Culture Summit that enables us all to come together, and how generous spirited we need to be together over the next few days," Marlow said.
While last year’s event was online-only, Marlow explained that this year’s iteration would be attended by 1,000 people “in the flesh”, and a further 5,000 virtually.
“We're here to affirm the importance of culture and to explore ways in which it can transform societies and communities worldwide.
“But … we don't think culture is a medicine, it's not there to be dispensed from on high, although its health benefits are numerous.” Instead, he said it was a “dynamic, fluid, inspiring aspect” of all of our lives. “And it brings us together. It affirms our sense of self.”
Although during the pandemic several creative and cultural institutions were seriously threatened or even lost, there was also “a seismic shift in cultural production and dissemination”, he said.
“It's this shift in our relationship to culture, which makes it more fluid, more of a living dynamic part of our daily lives. That is the broad framework for the Culture Summit — A Living Culture.
“This is both an opportunity and something that we have to be careful with. Cultural ecosystems are fragile. We need to find ways of making [them] more resilient in the future.”