A new kind of arts centre has opened its doors in Cologne. But the Academy of the Arts of the World is not an academy in the traditional sense, but a society of international artists that would like to provide an artistic forum for topical global issues such as circumcision, thereby contributing to intercultural dialogue. Birgit Görtz attended its opening event
"My mother had me circumcised so that I fit into the social norm. I remember the unspeakable pain, the blood that flowed across my leg," explains Sister Fa in her film Sarabah (2011). The 30-year-old Senegalese singer-songwriter has toured her native country with the documentary film as part of her campaign against female genital mutilation.
But tonight, Sister Fa is standing on the stage with her band from Berlin. Their music is a unique mix of the spoken word, hip-hop, soul and African rhythms. Sister Fa's performance is part of the one-day festival titled "Cutting Edge", which was put on to mark the opening of the Academy of the Arts of the World in Cologne.
To clear up any misunderstandings right away: the Academy of the Arts of the World is not the kind of new institution that has gleaming, imposing buildings and an expensive, slick management team. You can't take any art courses there either. Its name may sound lofty, but Sigrid Gareis, the secretary-general of the academy, explained what the initiative is all about: "Our world is growing closer, and I believe it needs a voice from the arts that is invested in the global: a society of artists that reflects current questions. People ask: where do conflicts come from? They are cultural conflicts. We have an economic crisis, but the conflict is cultural."
A forum for "interventionists"
The academy intends to examine current political themes from an interdisciplinary, artistic viewpoint. It also aims to consciously avoid taking a purely European perspective and has every intention of intervening in debates. Sigrid Gareis calls that "the DNA of the academy". The members of the academy are all well-known "interventionists", such as the Chinese dissident author Liao Yiwu and the Iranian director Ali Samadi Ahadi. Israeli Galit Eilet was elected president of the academy by its members.
But the idea of making circumcision the theme of the academy's inaugural event was that of the only member from Cologne, the Islam expert Stefan Weidner. "It was clear to all of us that we could all use this theme to express what interests us as an academy, namely, to work politically, to work interculturally, and to use art and culture as a medium for the investigation of problematic situations."
Besides which, Weidner added, the theme had its genesis in Cologne. After all, it was a Cologne district court that ruled in May 2012 that the circumcision of a four-year-old boy constituted serious bodily harm, which is punishable by law. According to a draft bill, however the circumcision of young boys will be permitted in future as long as it follows "the rules of medical practice" and doesn't endanger the well-being of the child.
Circumcision in literature and music
Circumcision is also a regular theme in contemporary literature: whether as a symbol of Jewish life, as a mark of identity, or as a critique of social structures which impose themselves on the individual. At the opening event, three prominent authors who have written about circumcision read excerpts from their texts. The exiled Libyan author Kamal Ben Hameda was one of them. In his last novel, Seven Women from Tripoli, Hameda described a circumcision ceremony, from the perspective of a small boy, as a terrifying, traumatic experience.
But aside from differences between cultures, the debate – which is controversially referred to as the "foreskin war" by the tabloid press in Germany – highlights some surprising similarities between them too. Take music, for example. How many people – with the exception of insiders, perhaps – know that pieces of music were in the past composed specially for circumcision ceremonies, even for Christian liturgies? And that a Feast of the Circumcision, marking the circumcision of Christ, existed in the Roman Catholic calendar until 1969?
Liza Lim is a founding member of the academy and was responsible for the musical programme at the opening ceremony. After the recent controversy surrounding the issue of circumcision in Germany, the Australian-born composer wanted to find music that expressed the unifying elements of the debate: "music that says that this cultural aspect is not only foreign and 'alien', but that it's also something that belongs to us."
For this reason, the opening ceremony ended with a sample of ten centuries of circumcision music. Musically, at least, the Academy of the Arts of the World in Cologne has succeeded in building a bridge.
© Deutsche Welle 2012
Editor: Michael Lawton/DW, Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de