"The sun of Oman shines in this museum," said National Museum of African Art Director Johnnetta B. Cole on a rainy Tuesday in Washington, D.C. "My colleagues and I at this museum are profoundly grateful to the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center for this amazingly generous funding that will make it possible for us to tell an exceptional story."
That story will be told through a collaborative educational initiative titled, "Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa," which promises to bring the two cultures to life and was spearheaded with the help of the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in D.C.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art received $1.8 million—the largest gift the museum has ever received—from the Sultanate of Oman to fund the series of programs celebrating Omani and East African arts and culture and the connections therein.
"This unique gift and collaboration will enable audiences to gain a broader understanding of how African and Omani history and culture shape and enrich the world," Cole said.
The programming will include living exhibits, such as traditional and newly commissioned dance and musical performances; an art educators' exchange program between the National Museum of African Art Museum and the Bait Al Zubair and Bait Al Baranda museums; a lecture series featuring Omani artists; cultural scholars' workshops and public workshops; a virtual exhibition; and a look at Swahili traditions, including spoken word.
The museum has commissioned Howard University to do a special musical and dance production looking at the cultural connection between Oman and East Africa. Award-winning African-American composer Tony Small will be commissioning the opera, which will star African-American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. The huge project is hoping to launch in the first half of 2014.
"It will be fun, educational and profound. We look forward to the opportunity for you to taste and experience some of our culture," Omani Ambassador to the U.S. Hunaina Sultan Al-Mughairy said. "What better way to build bridges amongst ourselves if not by art and music?"
The interactive design of the programs will be key to the experience. "Americans will meet Omanis. You'll have direct communication. You could see that living artistry, and if you want to know why a person dances like that or dances to that beat or makes that expression, you can ask," Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian's undersecretary for history, art and culture, said. "It's so simple and so basic … If we can foster that interaction at the Smithsonian and through the NMAA, we would have done our job."
"As educators, that's what we do," Nicole Shivers, the education specialist on board, added. "We take the art off the walls, out of the cases, and present it to different demographics. We engage with our public. So that was really my main focus when I started writing the proposal."
To say all partners are excited would be an understatement.
"We cannot do this exciting [program] alone; we wouldn't dare try. In fact, the proposal is written as a partnership," Cole said in closing. "And so I just leave you with one Omani proverb that says, 'One hand cannot clap.' This will be a wonderful partnership."