Assistant Secretary General Speech


March 28, 2019 - Washington, DC

H.E. Carlos Alberto Calles Castillo, Chair of the Permanent Council of the OAS and Permanent Representative of El Salvador to the OAS

Ms. Sandra Terena, Secretary of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality in Brazil

Ms. Urenna Best, Director of the National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians

Dr. Claire Nelson, Founder & President of the Institute of Caribbean Studies in Washington DC

Ms. Dhi Ribeiro, Brazilian singer

Permanent Representatives and Permanent Observers to the OAS and other Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Representatives of Civil Society and Academia
Other Invited guests

A pleasant good afternoon,

It is my distinct honor to give opening remarks at today’s forum entitled, “Remember Slavery: the Power of the Arts for Justice” being held during the 2nd Inter-American Week for People of African Descent in the Americas. This year marks the 4th consecutive year in which my office has had the privilege of organizing activities that celebrate, honor, and memorialize the rich history and dynamism of the African diaspora. Our activities started in 2016 in observance of Black History Month and in 2017 the International Decade for People of African Descent in the Americas. With the success of the activities organized in celebration of Black History Month, Member States sought to institutionalize this initiative and in so doing adopted in February 2018 Resolution CP/RES 1093 which established the Inter-American Week for People of African Descent in the Americas to be held around the 25th of March each year week.

Intended to edify and inspire, this year’s week-long celebration is being held under the theme, “Remember Slavery: The Power of the Arts for Justice,” and it is in line with the chosen theme of the United Nations which speaks to the use of the Arts to call attention to injustices and to empower victims and vulnerable communities. The week commenced on Monday with a Special Meeting of the Permanent Council to commemorate the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade and included the participation of the Vice-President of Costa Rica, Her Excellency Epsy Campbell Barr, the Honorable Carmen Inés Vásquez, Minister of Culture of Colombia, Ms. Sandra Terena, Secretary for Policies to Promote Racial Equality in Brazil, the Honorable Senator Ancelma Perlacios, from Bolivia, and other notable speakers from across the region. It also included the unveiling of a commemorative tryptic painting in honor of the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, an art exhibition on afro-descendants in the Americas, and film screenings, among other activities.

Today’s forum seeks to provide useful insights into how the Arts are used to promote justice and social change - Justice being qualified as what is deemed lawful and fair. When we speak of the Arts we refer to the gamut of artistic and cultural expression including memorials, music, dance, architecture, murals, paintings, film, poetry, among others.

Whether through literature, architecture, visual, graphic, plastic, decorative, or performing arts, Art serves as a conduit for storytelling and preserving and documenting significant historical events. Artistic expression offers an avenue for breaking social barriers and bridging socially constructed differences.

Throughout time the arts have been used in many grassroots movements as a tool for social change and for promoting social values. We know of the European Renaissance which ushered in a new era of the arts, igniting new art forms and engendering social movements. Perhaps less may be known of African artistry and its global impact. Take for example the Akan people of West Africa. Akan art is known for vibrant artistic traditions, including textiles, sculptures and gold weights that commemorate social and historical events.

Furthermore, the kente cloth, a traditional attire of the Akan people, is perhaps one of the most symbolic artistic expressions of African pride and identity within and outside of the African continent.

This artistic identity was transplanted to the Americas through the slave trade. As slavery engulfed our hemisphere, African slaves used both active and passive forms of resistance against their oppressors. Accompanied by the traditional art form of drumming, slaves used song and dance to socialize, vent their frustration, mock their masters, and communicate surreptitiously. For that reason, slave owners sought to suppress various aspects of slaves’ artistic expression as a way to de-humanize and de-link these African slaves from their identities. The suppression of the arts has been a perennial theme throughout history.

In that context, our hemisphere is replete with solid examples of the arts being used as a tool for promoting justice and empowering vulnerable communities. In Jamaica, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Morgan Heritage, just to name a few, stand out as pioneers of socially conscious roots reggae.

Marcus Garvey, political leader and prolific writer, fought for the global acceptance of the Black identity and travelled throughout the region including the United States and Central America.

In almost every Caribbean island, the annual carnival is unequivocally one of the most significant forms of artistic expression. In Trinidad and Tobago, carnival was brought to the island by the French in the late 1700’s and is celebrated before the commencement of the Lenten season. African slaves only began to participate in the festivities in 1833 to mark the end of slavery and subsequently infused their African traditions into the celebrations. The Canboulay, a procession accompanied by singing, dancing and drumming, was then introduced as part of the carnival festivities. In 1881, descendants of freed slaves fought against British crackdown on various aspects of their celebration of Carnival and were able to keep their traditions alive. Canboulay music was the precursor to calypso and soca, both of which are today used as common forms of social commentary and even to critique what are perceived as political injustices.

In the United States, African American musicians, playwrights, poets have all used their platforms to engender social change. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s was an explosion of talented black writers who produced an extensive body of literature in essay, poetry, and art, which promoted black self-worth. Notable writers of that time included W.E.B Dubois and Langston Hughes and later Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. Likewise, hip-hop or rap music was borne out of strife and defiance of cultural norms and includes socially conscious artists such as KRS-One, Public Enemy, Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli.

Contemporary African American directors such as Spike Lee, Lee Daniels, and most recently, Jordan Peele, have used various forms of cinematographic cultural satire to shed light on topics such as racial discrimination, marginalization, disenfranchisement, and other forms of suppression of the Black community in the United States.

Other popular African American musical art forms include jazz and rhythm and blues which were first introduced to the United States by slaves particularly in New Orleans who would gather on Sundays to dance and sing in procession. This would later develop into the New Orleans Jazz style that included brass band marches and encapsulated the highs and lows of the African American experience. Jazz artists such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, rose to prominence during the era of racial segregation and the civil rights movement.

In Latin America, Afro-communities have used artistic expression to champion various social causes. Afro-Brazilian artists such as Ayrson Heráclito, Moises Patrício, and Sônia Gomes have used their art work to critique social injustices.

Afro-writers and poets such as Manuel Zapata Olivella and Mary Grueso of Colombia; Nicolás Guillén and Nancy Morejón of Cuba; Quince Duncan and Shirley Campbell of Costa Rica; Higinio Cazón and Casimiro Alcorta of Argentina. Painter and sculptors such as Manuel da Cunha and Aleijadinho, Mestre Didi of Brazil; Jorge Dunn of Panama; Rubén Galloza, Jacinto Galloso, and Mary Porto Casas of Uruguay.
Musical genres such as the samba, punta, candombe, meringue, and congo incorporate the traditional african drumming and are used to communicate the afro-latino experience by musicians such as Celeo Alvarez Casildo of Honduras; Ruben Rada of Uruguay, and Kalimba of Mexico, just to name a few.

Here at the OAS, our diverse membership also allows us to use our platform to support artistic expression. Not only are we a forum for political dialogue, but we also provide a space for cultural exchange. Cultural diplomacy can also be used as a tool for multilateralism and reaching consensus. The OAS Art Museum of the Americas--the oldest museum of modern and contemporary Latin American and Caribbean art in the United States--boasts over 2,000 objects in varying media including painting, sculpture, installations, prints, drawings and photographs.

In my office we have sought to promote the arts through our art exhibitions on Afro-life and culture and as mentioned earlier, the recent unveiling of a tryptic painting to commemorate the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade now hangs in the atrium of the Simon Bolivar. I invite you to go and view this painting before you leave this building today.

There is no denying the power of the arts in promoting justice and social change. Art connects across cultures and engages our shared values, introducing a universal language that bonds us on an emotional and human level. The evolution of cultural and artistic expression in our hemisphere has carved out new spaces for lost identities to be reclaimed and for activism to unfold. The power derived in employing the arts as a tool for justice affords the opportunity to motivate, educate and collaborate towards building community and sharing experiences. Today we will hear concrete examples of its manifestation in our hemisphere by our esteemed presenters. I look forward to a fruitful discussion and a stimulating performance by Ms. Dhi Ribeiro.

Thank You