Persian New Year (Nowruz) Table.Photo courtesy Pejman Akbarzadeh and wikicommons

Public Culture on Display

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Maria F Curtis

Nowruz Houston

The Houston Museum District boasts 19 major art collections and museums within a 1.5-mile radius, while the city itself is home to still dozens more smaller art collections. Both conventional and highly experimental, public and privately funded art spaces overlap and leave the questions “what is culture, what is heritage, and to whom do they belong?” resolutely open-ended. In addition to its increasing international museum and arts renown, Houston is the fourth largest city in the US and the most ethnically diverse. Every imaginable hyphenated identity boasts its own festivals, restaurants, and markets, and in some cases foreign language newspapers, radios, and public access television programs. Into the already culturally crowded Asian scene in Houston enters Nowruz, thought of primarily as the Persian New Year. It is making its presence felt at the Asia Society Houston, where the holiday is featured as an “on the lawn” family day that includes notable cultural traditions from numerous countries that commemorate the holiday annually. The creativity of diasporic fusions and cultural confluences are felt in the framing of exhibits that seek to stretch the term “Asian” beyond any recognizable form, inviting audiences in to not only get to know more about Asia, but to actually think of themselves as “part Asian, 100% hapa,” or as belonging to part of a greater Asian American diaspora. Building on Houston’s well known and long established East Asian communities and networks, Asia Society Houston is redefining the term “Asian,” at once building not only the axiomatic cultural bridges between Americans and Asia, but also the smaller and equally important cultural bridges between and among varying Asian communities themselves.

Former First Lady Barbara Bush and former Ambassador Roy H Huffington first established the Asia Society Houston in 1979, then building on the Asia Society in New York, which was founded by John D Rockefeller III in 1956 primarily to house his extensive East Asian art collection where Americans might learn more about Asia. Currently housed in a 40,000 square foot building designed by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, Asia Society Houston is located in the heart of the Museum District. The complex array of exhibitions seemingly manages to turn the exhibitionary complex paradigm inside out, hosting not only art exhibitions but academic and public policy conferences, along with dance, musical, and cultural performances, as well as educational activities that range from class visits from area schools, to badge earning workshops for scouting groups, to family days that take place within and beyond the carefully crafted physical walls of the site.

The building itself supports a flat-water, invisible edge fountain at the second story level with a MeeFog system that produces ethereal clouds of steam several times an hour. Not accustomed to seeing steam rise from the building and thinking the building was on fire, residents of the neighborhood once called the fire department to intervene. The haptic properties of the building itself interrupt the ordinary Houston scene, and make a broader philosophical statement about the evolution of the institution’s goals that began closely aligned with conventional understandings of art as a medium that facilitates conversation where politics breaks down. What began as an outgrowth of public diplomacy’s cultural forms, the Asia Society remains in dialogue with discourses of cultural diplomacy through arts education but has expanded its mission hoping not only to inform and educate, but to leave its visitors with an experience that challenges our often heavily digitized lives, what they have called the “frisson”. Listed as number six in Asia Society’s strategic goals, the frisson prioritizes face-to-face interaction with others at the museum site over all else. Steven Conn’s questioning of “Where is the East?” and “Do Museums Still Need Objects?” seem to converge easily here at this junction of art and politics.

With funding from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, the Asia Society has taken on the task of shining a bright light onto the ominous shadow left in the wake of the events of 9/11, in the words of President Emerita and CEO of the Asia Society Vishakha N Desai, that has been cast over half of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims who live in Asia. Responding to larger discussions about how to unravel persistent stereotypes and to replace them with deeper levels of understanding and reconciliation through supporting the arts in the post 9/11 environment, the Asia Society produced a report in 2010 entitled “Making a Difference through the Arts: Strengthening America’s Links with Asian Muslim Communities”. The report was both built on and in contrast to a similar initiative from a earlier 2008 paper from the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, “Mightier than the Sword: Arts and Culture in the U .S. -Muslim World Relationship”. The Asia Society report focuses not on the Middle East, but on Asia itself, noting that more than half of the world’s Muslims live in Asia and that Asia is home to some of the world’s largest Muslim nations. While both reports assert that art is central to broad educational endeavors particularly for youth, the Asia Society is committed to presenting what it calls “actual arts and culture projects” and to highlight more than anything else the possibilities of cross-cultural connectivity. Furthermore, “Making a Difference through the Arts” does not aim to produce public policy per se, but hopes to enrich the circle of public discussion through new forums of cross-cultural experience. In this sense, Asia Society seems to argue that museums are not merely repositories to house objects of beauty that draw in diverse audiences, but rather their mission lies in their ability to spark a sense of connectivity through featuring living artistic traditions. “Actual arts and cultural projects” are then modes of communication that warrant our attention as vehicles for peace building and a rewiring of our sense of social inclusion. More than fostering an appreciation of the world’s art, more than understanding art as a means for individual expression or national representation, cultural forms ignite interest that appeals rhizomically across various cultural groups. Artistic traditions inherently span across national and ethnic boundaries. The arts do not simply invoke dialogue, but it the unfolding of the process is the dialogue.

Persian New Year (Nowruz) Table. Photo courtesy Pejman Akbarzadeh and wikicommons

Persian New Year (Nowruz) Table. Photo courtesy Pejman Akbarzadeh and wikicommons

If any holiday might be considered rhizomic in the way it reverberates across different communities in unanticipated ways, Nowruz is that holiday. The many spellings (Norooz, Nawruz, Noruz, No-Ruz, Nowruz, Nevruz) are a testament to the far-flung sites where it is still celebrated. Designated by the United Nations as a “spring festival of Persian origin” in 2010 and having received its place on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Nowruz is anything but straightforward as a holiday, at once observed as a holy day for Zoroastrians and a cultural and seasonal celebration for both Sunni and Shia Muslims, from Iran to Central Asia, to Turkey, the Balkans and beyond. The politics of Nowruz can be read in the instances that it has been banned, stigmatized, suppressed, revived, and culturally appropriated over many centuries and it is for precisely this reason that the public celebration of Nowruz stands in as a familiar public cry for cultural and religious tolerance. Nowruz, occurring on March 21, also coincides with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The celebration of Nowruz has been observed in “private public” settings in homes and cultural centers for years and at its center has been the iconic haft-seen table, the Table of the Seven S’s, which commemorates the arrival of spring and celebrates new beginnings.

Nowruz now serves as an umbrella event to bring a scattering of cultures, languages, and ethnicities together to celebrate in public in Houston. Building on its goals to promote the arts through cross-cultural connectivity, Asia Society Houston brings the traditions one might normally see in smaller, semi-private, and out-of-the-way cultural centers to the Houston Museum District to celebrate in the public square for the general public. In the American Muslim landscape, Nowruz bridges Sunni and Shi’a communities, and is often celebrated among non-Arab ethnic groups from Central Asia, thereby complicating taken for granted notions of American Muslim identity. While Nowruz has been celebrated publically as a way of to counter sectarianism in the Middle East, its presence in Houston may signal a shift in American Muslim moral geographies as well.

The holiday is fêted at Asia Society Houston’s Family Day Series as a living cultural tradition rather than as a singularly religious holiday, and is an historical predecessor of sorts to the celebration of Easter in its emphasis on “fun” with its displays of colorfully painted eggs, candies, and the welcoming of spring through dance and poetry recitation. Celebrated on March 21, the eightieth day of the Gregorian calendar marking the vernal equinox, the predictable date and season marks a contrast to the Islamic lunar calendar whose celebrations rotate slowly through the seasons. This year’s festivities at Asia Society Houston will include “art activities, performances, and interactive experiences for the whole family” while featuring Persian miniatures, Near Eastern architecture, painted eggs, one-line drawing, a haft-seen table display offered by the Zoroastrian Association of Houston, a Nowruz Dance medley and animal fables and storytelling sponsored by the Aga Khan Council for the Southwestern United States, a demonstration of Turkish Ebru water marbling, and readings of the epic poem the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, written by Abu’l Qasim Firdausi in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.

Nowruz offers many things to diverse groups who take part in the rewriting of discourse of American pluralism and Houston’s tradition of cultural festivalization while building new cultural traditions in diaspora.

Maria F Curtis teaches anthropology and cross cultural studies at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Her current work focuses on diversity within the greater American Muslim community, and the ways that they challenge post 9/11 stereotypes and create multifaith spaces of public dialogue.

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