Beyond politics: Exploring the UN’s hard-hitting art and culture shows

What many don’t know is that the UN headquarters also plays host to a prolific collection of art

Saffiya Ansari
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The United Nations headquarters in New York is known to be the showground of political sparring, history-making speeches and a litany of snubbed handshakes and newly-formed international friendships.

What many don’t know is that the UN headquarters also plays host to a prolific collection of art in the form of eye-opening photos and video features at the New York-based visitors center.


The UN Exhibits department showcases a vast array of hard-hitting photographic and multimedia displays relating to topics on the UN agenda, such as human rights, sustainable development, children in armed conflict, violence against women and more.

This year, visitors to the 71st UN General Assembly (UNGA) will have the chance to visit an ongoing show titled “When I Grow Up” which opened on Aug. 16 and pays tribute to children living in crises around the world.

The exhibit pays tribute to some 250 million children under the age of 18 who are trapped in conflict. Photos taken in African countries and of Syrian refugees in Jordan in in 2014, 2015 and 2016 highlight the challenges they face and underscore their resilience.

Photographer Vincent Tremeau photographed children and teenagers in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Sierra Leone as part of his project “One Day, I Will” while Meredith Hutchison’s “Vision Not Victim” series snapshots Syrian refugee children.

“I focused on young people because they are the future, our next leaders,” Tremeau told Al Arabiya English, adding “our global actions directly influence their wishes and shape our future world.”

“I think this exhibit is really powerful because it gives a strong human face to who these people are who are affected by crises around the world and particularly looking at it through the eyes of a child and focusing on the fact that these children have hopes and dreams for their future just like children everywhere else do,” Breanna Ridsdel, spokesperson for UN OCHA, told Al Arabiya English.

“We would very much hope that world leaders and delegates visiting the General Assembly would see the exhibit, would take a moment to look into the eyes of these children and to read the stories of their experiences and do their best to keep children like the ones featured in the exhibit at the forefront of their minds when they are making the big decisions that they will be making at the General Assembly,” she added.

Tremeau echoed her statement, saying “so many world decision makers and leaders can see [my work] and hopefully these images will have an influence on them.”

Visitors to this year’s UNGA will also have the chance to attend another pullout event, one which sets out to de-mystify Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh.

Dubbed “A Day in Riyadh,” the event is set to run from Sept. 26-30 and boasts a slew of panel discussions as well as video shows, 3D models and a specially prepared documentary which all seek to shed much-needed light on the social, economic, environmental, cultural and urban development of a city which many in the Western world are not familiar with.

UN Exhibits has, over the years, put on several shows which spotlight disturbing international trends. From a photo series on underage marriage to portraits of world hunger, the center does not shy away from showcasing the plight of humanity.

In 2012, “In Search of Solidarity,” a photo exhibition on the state of the world’s refugees, opened at the visitors center. A series of photographs and seven videos depicted the stories of refugees, internally displaced, or stateless persons and served to highlight the UNHCR’s work.


Also in 2012, the visitors center held a photo exhibition dubbed “Too Young to Wed,” which displayed the “human rights violation” of child marriage in a multi-media series highlighting the personal narratives of girls from around the world who have been forced into marriage.

(Photo courtesy: UN Exhibits)
(Photo courtesy: UN Exhibits)

Moving forward to March 2013, the visitors center played host to a poignant exhibition on how schoolchildren worldwide travel to school.

The exhibition, titled “Journeys to School,” portrayed the obstacles many children encounter in their daily quest for education. Whether they risk landmines in Libya, negotiate gushing rivers in rural Mexico or cross arid land on horseback in Brazil, a safe trip in a school bus is beyond the reach of many young people.


Fast forward to 2016, and the visitors center played host to yet another sobering program of events.

Running under the theme “Remember Slavery: Celebrating the Heritage and Culture of the African Diaspora and its Roots,” the program, which ran from February to April, drew attention to the cultural linkages that exist among people of African descent throughout the world and highlighted African traditions.

During the exhibition program, Hollywood heavyweight Leonardo DiCaprio visited the The Ark of Return, the Permanent Memorial to Honor the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade at United Nations Headquarters in New York on April 22, 2016.

As political heavyweights from around the world gather in New York, the stark depictions of war, conflict and strife lie ready and waiting to be viewed at the UN visitors center, a visual mirror image of the discussions that will no doubt mark this year’s General Assembly.

“All of the exhibits that we put on at the UN are incredibly meaningful … I think that they are all incredibly strong ways to bring the faces of the world’s people into the General Assembly which is the world’s biggest decision-making forum,” Ridsdel concluded.



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