The Academy of the Arts of the World has opened in Cologne. The academy aims provide a forum for intercultural dialogue and alternative perspectives. The theme of the opening ceremony: the circumcision debate.
"My mother had me circumcized 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 Senegalese singer-songwriter toured through her home country for the documentary film against female genital mutilation. But tonight, Sister Fa is standing on the stage with her band from Berlin.
Their music is a stylish mix of spoken-word, hip-hop, soul and African rhythms. Sister Fa's performance is part of the circumcision-themed one-day festival titled "Cutting Edge" which has been put on to mark the opening of the Academy of the Arts of the World in Cologne.
A stellar cast
To clear up any misunderstandings: The Academy of Arts of the World is not the kind of new institution which has gleaming, representative buildings and an expensive, slick management team.
But what the academy does have is a stellar cast of members, including the Indian documentary filmmaker Madhusree Dutta, Lebanese artist Walid Raad, Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio and the Israeli curator Galit Eilat.
The name may sound pretentious, but Sigrid Gareis, the general secretary of the academy, explained what the initiative is all about:
"I believe that our coalescing world needs a voice from the arts which is invested in the global: a society of artists which reflects current questions. One asks: 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 will examine current political themes from an interdisciplinary, artistic viewpoint. It also aims to consciously avoid taking a purely European perspective and to stage "interventions." 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 curator was elected president of the academy by its members.
But the idea of making circumcision the theme for 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 an academy, namely, to work politically, to work interculturally, and to use art and culture as a medium for the investigation of problematic relations."
Besides which, the theme had its genesis in Cologne, Weidner said. It was a Cologne district court which ruled that the circumcision of a four-year-old boy constituted serious bodily harm, punishable by law, in May 2012.
According to a draft bill, 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
The issue of circumcision also appears frequently 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 also highlighted some surprising similarities. In music, for example: Who, other than insiders, knew that pieces of music have been especially composed 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 program at the opening ceremony. After the 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 'other,' but it's also something which belongs to us."