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The Culture Summit: Art as an agent of social change

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The Culture Summit: Art as an agent of social change

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Award-winning British photojournalist Jimmy Nelson takes us on a journey to the hidden corners of the world, putting indigenous communities into perspective through his camera lens at the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi. We also master martial arts with a real-life Power Ranger at Middle East Comic Con.

The second edition of the Culture Summit in Abu Dhabi’s Al Saadiyat Island explored the world of art as an agent of social change.

Held under the theme of ‘unexpected collaborations’, the event brought more than 400 artists, musicians and cultural enthusiasts from around 80 countries to the UAE’s capital.

The participants mingled with Nobel Laureate’s, CEO’s and representatives from institutions like the Guggenheim and UNICEF.

Workshops and presentations prompted discussion about how photography exhibitions and museums - plus poetry readings and musical performances - could build bridges in societies where freedom of expression is restricted and in places where conflict or poverty exist.

Beyond building the cultural infrastructure of the country, the Director General of Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, His Excellency Saif Ghobash, shared his hope for the UAE’s role in transferring creative knowledge.

"I imagine, a few years from now, Emiratis flying out to a nation that is in dire need of help in excavation, research, documentation and things along these lines, " he said.

Ghobash added that Emiratis who were equipped in the field of culture and heritage, had the potential to drive the country’s creative strategy forward and solidify the UAE’s plans to be a cultural regional hub for tourists.

One expert in cultural collaborations on the ground this year was Joumana El Zein Khoury, Director of the Prince Claus Fund for Culture & Development from the Netherlands.

The organization is committed to investing in artists and critical thinkers restricted by political strife or economic hardship. Four years ago, it teamed up with the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and the New York photography institute, the Magnum Foundation to support documentary photography. Khoury explained that the idea was born from the need of Arabs to tell and their story.

The Director also highlighted the importance of culture in society.

"Culture is a basic need. Culture is as important as food, as health, as habitat, because it is who you are at the end of the day, it's your identity," she said.

Tribal life through a lens:

Fifty-one-year-old photojournalist Jimmy Nelson has made it his life’s work to build a visual document of the world’s most secluded societies.

Since he first picked up a camera in his late teens, Nelson has managed to record the previously unseen faces of people from tribes including the Wodaabe’s of Chad, the Longhorn Miao people of Southern China and the ancient native Artic groups of the Chukchi peninsula.

Having once earned himself the nickname of ‘Mr. Bean with a camera’ – given his expressive face and hand gestures - Nelson says that he connects with his subjects by disarming himself and being as authentic as possible.

“You have to, completely and 100 percent, let go.” he says, “You have to strip yourself of all barriers - metaphorically take off your clothing. And you have to become extremely vulnerable. You have to dare to show all your emotions - all your fears.”

Passionate about capturing the perfect shot with his treasured 50-year-old camera, Nelson says that he would often spend up to four days waiting for the perfect conditions before pressing the shutter.

"These places I go to, they have zero material wealth,” he says. “But, they have a wealth that's mind-blowing; a wealth of connection, a wealth of culture, a wealth of belief, a wealth of love for one another, a wealth of pride for who they are. If I can leave some of those images in the memories of others, as a catalyst for how extraordinarily beautiful these people are, that is the message."

Rabari women, India

Uma publicação compartilhada por Jimmy Nelson (@jimmy.nelson.official) em

Given his passion for diverse cultures, Nelson plans to one day catalogue the communities of the Middle East.

Recalling his childhood, and time spent in transit through the region to far-flung places with his geologist father, Nelson is keen to portray Arabia’s rich heritage.

“I’d desperately love to come back here.” He says, “I remember eyes, I remember warmth. I remember power and I remember extreme intensity – and a beauty. And that's probably what inspires me the most.”

Following the release of his first book called ‘Before They Pass Away’ in 2010, Jimmy’s second book, ‘Homage to Humanity’, will be published in October – alongside a digital application that allows readers to step inside the 360-degree world of his photographs.

Geek fest central: Middle East Comic Con

During its seventh edition, 70,000 fans of science fiction, manga comics and anime attended Middle East Comic Con’s three-day gathering.

Getting the crowds going this year was a competition of 'Cosplay' - or 'role playing in costume'. Categories included ‘Best Kids Outfit’, ‘Best Marvel Costume’ and ‘Best Gaming Character’, with prize money of more than $3,000 up for grabs.

Much like the Comic Cons which are staged annually in more than 25 countries globally, attendees in the UAE got the chance to meet with stars from their favourite fantasy film genres.

They queued for hours for autographs and selfies with Ezra Miller, who played the superhero Flash in the film Justice League. They also put their questions to Kristian Nairn, who plays the gentle giant Hodor in the popular TV series Game of Thrones.

Martial arts enthusiasts were well served too, with karate classes led by actor Jason David Frank - who played the Green Ranger in the Power Rangers TV series.

Marking his first visit to the Middle East, Frank was overwhelmed by the welcome he received from fans.

“[There’s] just a different feeling of appreciation here, I think,” he says, “It’s just great to be here. The fans appreciate that. [Me] representing the Power Rangers - coming here, I think they appreciate that.”

Social eyes: Inspired talent trending online

Omg @robbiedangerous loved my Teenage Mutant Turtles poster #mefcc

Une publication partagée par Potato Shirts (طبعتنا) (@6b3tna) le

Muhanad Farrash, Saudi artist:

"I design t-shirts and just started doing posters. I was handing out some of my designs to artists [at the event] and Robbie [Voiceover Artist, Robbie Daymond] chose this poster, where he ‘voice-acted’ one of the characters."

مبين التوتر على ويهي؟

Une publication partagée par ENG. Anwar Albawi (@enganwar_albawi) le

Anwar Albawi, Kuwaiti electrical engineer:

"I can’t describe how happy I was when I took this picture with Kristian Nairn [who plays Hodor in Game of Thrones]. He was so sweet that he even took the time to have a short chit-chat with me, and wished me a nice day! It was one of the best moments in my life!"

Pawel Rostworowski, Polish service representative:

“Comic Con, and similar events, gave me a chance to became a real trooper. In my normal daily and working life I have to act serious, but here - I can be a kid again and I can show what actually is sitting deep inside my soul. You are coming to Comic Con to have tonnes of fun, with people with the same passion, and to bring happiness to the kids. Seeing their smile and excitement is priceless! You can also show other adults that they don't need to be serious all the time, and they can be whatever they want to be. In the end, it’s all about having fun - and a passion for the Star Wars universe!”