This week I was at the launch of The Shafik Gabr Foundation's 'East-West: The Art of Dialogue', a new charitable initiative to encourage and stimulate dialogue between the East and West at the Dorchester Hotel in London. Shafik, an Egyptian businessman, had been inspired to start this initiative after building up an impressive collection of Orientalist art. The few pieces on display were unbelievably beautiful. These pioneering Western painters and social commentators truly immured themselves in the culture of the Middle East to capture scenes of every day life in such beautiful detail that one could not help but appreciate the culture. However, I'd not read the memo about being over 40 and wearing a business suit and tie so I rather stood out in my biker boots and jeans. Whoops.
Tony Blair was the keynote speaker and he elaborated on the Foundation's aims and ambitions which are to use art and culture to bridge the differences between the Middle East and the West. He explained: "There is an absence of a proper system of dialogue [between nations]. Politics only takes you so far. What we need is cultural dialogue." I could not agree more. Thanks to the internet, sanctions can't stop a great film, or beautiful music crossing borders with impunity.
This was all the more relevant as I'd woken up that morning to the news that Israel had started a new 'death dance' with Hamas after assassinating one of its key operatives and so I was particularly interested to hear what Tony would have to say about it, given his role in the Middle East. He was unequivocal: once a 'tit for tat' cycle of violence starts it is almost impossible to get the two sides of the political divide talking, and it's been like this since the birth of Israel. He spoke of his experience of this during the early stages of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, where, until a real truce had been achieved, change was impossible. Only once a genuine truce had been agreed could real dialogue begin. I hope that the current ceasefire, brokered by Egypt and the US, will hold.
So what happens when the political process fails completely? Perhaps one alternative is to look to writers, musicians, artists and innovative businessmen and women to find new ways to create dialogue. Thanks to Shafik Gabr's Foundation, a group of young people involved in the arts will be able to take part in a cultural exchange, with artists under 30 years old being given the chance to spend time immersing themselves in the art and culture of the Middle East, and artists from the Middle East coming to both London and NY. (See the Foundation's web site for details on how to apply.)
It was on the basis of this type of cultural exchange that I accepted an invitation to Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, a country few know much about but which is often judged for perceptions of its politics and government rather than for its culture, for the opening of the new Four Season's hotel. I was part of a UK delegation that included the artists Polly Morgan and Matt Collishaw, jewelry designer Amber Atherton, editors, Harriett Quick, formerly of Vogue and Amy Williams, commissioning editor of You Magazine, and the best young Fashion photographer I know, Diana Chire. Our job was to absorb the art and culture of the city. This was actually really hard as the hotel we stayed at was so nice it was almost impossible to leave.
In Baku's grand and new museum of modern art, paintings from the Soviet era adorn the walls - they were packed too closely together and in a style that is not to my taste. I did, however, find one small room that I loved: the kid's room. Here, the children of the city had been given their very own room and in it there was an energy, colour and vibrancy that none of the other art I saw even came close to displaying. Baku's future is bright with these young artists.
I also met a group of slightly older artists, members of a collective called Yarat, which is dedicated to promoting contemporary Azeri art. Yarat, run by former Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design student, Aida Mahmudova, is promoting a new dialogue with the world and using passionate young artists to do it. Imagine a beautiful hand made silk carpet with traditional Azeri patterns; now imagine woven into the pattern some graffiti, and I start to take notice. Quality.