Korea-Kenya: Transcultural Encounters through Art

New opportunities for cultural contact between Kenyans and Koreans are arising as Asian investments in business and infrastructure increase exponentially throughout Africa. As these different cultures intersect, the arts provide a form of ‘imaginative engagement’ that can help people better understand their cultural differences and discover commonalities. Under the supervision of Professor Simon Knell, my PhD research uses narrative inquiry and comparative case studies in Nairobi and Seoul to examine encounters between Asia and Africa through art exhibitions that construct and reflect local, national and global identities and promote cross-cultural understanding.

My interpretive approach is premised on the ways art can provide a space for encountering differences and negotiating the ethical, social and political landscapes inherent to globalization. Cosmopolitanism—‘being at home in the world’, as articulated by Appiah (2006) —offers a model for imagining how these landscapes can be occupied and navigated. Cosmopolitanism as an ideology of global citizenship promotes learning about the values, achievements, and experiences of people in other parts of the world so we can grow accustomed to our differences and perhaps even bridge gaps. Appiah’s (2006) concept of ‘imaginative engagement’, which is articulated by Meskimmon (2011) as the ‘cosmopolitan imagination’ and Papastergiadis (2012) as the ‘cosmopolitan imaginary’, centralizes the role of art as a form of dialogue that can engage disparate groups of people. My research draws from a growing body of literature about the application of cosmopolitan theory to museums and art exhibitions to explore cross-cultural encounters between Kenya and Korea (Maftei, 2014, Mason, 2013, Randolph and Love, 2012, Rösler, 2015, Sassatelli, 2012). However, one issue with this interpretive approach is the limitations of cosmopolitanism and its potential to gloss over the shifting relationships and disjunctures between culture, politics and socioeconomic factors that are characteristic of rapid globalization (Appadurai, 1990). As Oguibe (2004: 7) warns, cosmopolitanism can result in ‘the fictiveness of a singular cultural identity’. With these limitations in mind, I am trying to resist the universalizing tendencies of cosmopolitanism in the theoretical underpinning to my research.

My research also draws from postcolonialism as a theoretical background, but my emphasis is less on the historical processes of overcoming colonialism and more on how museums today can either perpetuate or challenge colonial power structures and dynamics. Since Mary Louise Pratt (1991) first introduced the idea of ‘contact zones’ and James Clifford (1997) applied the concept to museums, the idea has been widely discussed in museum studies scholarship both in terms of theory and practice. Briefly summarized, a ‘contact perspective’ highlights the potential of museums to provide cross-cultural encounters and reciprocal exchange of ideas and knowledge. Much of the discourse concerning museums as contact zones focuses on non-Western collections in Western museums and critiques the involvement (or lack thereof) of people from source communities in the interpretation, display and/or collection of objects specific to their cultural heritage. Throughout my study, I apply these theories about contact zones in two formerly colonized non-Western contexts. Concepts of Self versus Other inevitably resonate in this context, but in somewhat different ways when considered from the perspective of Korean museums displaying and interpreting African art. My research seeks to link Africa and Asia in a new model of South-South art worlds that are connected via transnational routes by focusing on institutions and exhibitions that actively construct opportunities to experience different cultures or new ideas.

Works Cited

Appadurai, A. 1990. 'Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy'. Theory, Culture & Society, 7, 295-310.

Appiah, K. A. 2006. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, New York, W.W. Norton & Company.

Bhaba, H. K. 1994. The Location of Culture, London, Routledge.

Clifford, J. 1997. 'Museums as Contact Zones'. In: Clifford, J. (ed.) Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Maftei, Ş.-S. 2014. 'Is Cosmopolitanism a Feasible Paradigm for Understanding Modern Art? A Methodological Proposal'. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 149, 513-517.

Mason, R. 2013. 'National Museums, Globalization, and Postnationalism: Imagining a Cosmopolitan Museology '. Museum Worlds, 1, 40-64.

Meskimmon, M. 2011. Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination, New York, Routledge.

Oguibe, O. 2004. The Culture Game, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Papastergiadis, N. 2012. Cosmopolitanism and Culture, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Pratt, M. L. 1991. 'Arts of the Contact Zone'. Profession, 33-40.

Randolph, D. & Love, A. R. 2012. 'Does Cosmopolitanism Offer Answers to Inclusive Practices in the Art Museum?: One Case Study in New Orleans'. International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, 4, 37-47.

Rösler, B. 2015. 'The case of Asialink’s arts residency program: towards a critical cosmopolitan approach to cultural diplomacy'. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 21, 463-477.

Sassatelli, M. 2012. 'Festivals, Museums, Exhibitions: Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism in the Cultural Public Sphere'. Routledge Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies. Florence, US: Routledge.


Poster summarizing my PhD research for the University of Leicester Doctoral College Annual Poster Competition.

Video to accompany my entry.