OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — In a world that feels increasingly fractured, many of the discussions at BoF VOICES this year have focused on the issues that divide us. But in the fourth session of the gathering, speakers from Japan to Ukraine discussed the ways in which culture and creativity can transform entrenched narratives and drive positive change.
Culture, Creativity and Changing the Narrative
Irene Kim grew up in a Korean household in an American city, living in a very different cultural context than her peers. Now she’s part of the powerful “Hallyu” or Korean Wave that’s influencing art, music, drama and food across the world. “To see my way of life and how I grew up become a global phenomenon is kind of crazy,” the influencer and founder of the brand IRENEISGOOD said in a conversation with Chanel’s head of culture and arts Yana Peel and Victoria & Albert Museum curator Rosalie Kim.
But the rapid rise of Korea’s soft power in recent decades, contrasts with the experience of countries like Ghana. In 1957, the two nations had about the same GDP, but whereas South Korea became the tenth largest economy in the world, Ghana now ranks seventy-fifth. While there are many factors that play into the divergence, the power of global media narratives, positive and negative, to define a nation is part of the equation, argued photographer Campbell Addy and writer and creative producer Ekow Barnes. “We always talk about inclusion but Africa is left out,” said Barnes. “Whenever the West tells our story, it’s always a bit one-sided.”
Fast Retailing senior executive officer Koji Yanai, son of Uniqlo founder Tadashi Yanai, has spent the last few years focused on a humble project: reimagining public toilets in Tokyo. The idea was born in the run up to the Paralympic Games, initially scheduled to take place in the Japanese city in 2020, and the desire to create an intervention that would benefit not just a single group, but everyone. The result is a series of radically redesigned toilets that look more like art installations than public facilities, conceived by a host of leading creatives.
“I realised that sometimes we’re too busy to eat anything or too busy to sleep all night. But there is no single day when I didn’t go to the toilet,” Yanai said. “I believe that even a public toilet can change the world.”
No Culture Without Politics
Asma Khan and Judy Joo have plenty of experience navigating the links between soft power and hard topics. The two restaurateurs are not just chefs but political change makers, building female-owned businesses in a male dominated business and using the power of food to educate their audiences about their respective Korean and Indian heritages and their related politics. “You cannot take my food and separate culture from it,” said Khan. “You want to eat my biryani… I’m going to speak to you about racism and injustice.”
The power of culture to bring hope and humanity is especially important in times of hardship and war, former fashion director of Vogue Ukraine and founder of Better Upcycling System Julie Pelipas and 1 Granary founder and editor in chief Olya Kuryshchuk said in a conversation about their experiences since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
“We live a double life at the moment,” Kuryshchuk said. “We’re here in this beautiful place today… but at the same time, literally right now, most of my brothers, our families, our childhood friends, they don’t have electricity, water, heating, internet, phone connection.”
The Ukraine War has changed the lives of both women, but they also shared stories of great resilience, from a group of ravers who throw parties and rebuild in the rubble of bombed out houses to the important role individuals outside the country continue to play in raising awareness and keeping focus on the situation heading into a dark and difficult winter.
“We are the creative people; we need to find how to communicate so the message reaches people,” Kuryshchuk said. “We really need to survive this winter.”
BoF VOICES 2022 is made possible in part through our partners McKinsey & Company, Shopify, Flannels, Brandlive, Lenzing, ShopRunner, Snap, Canada Goose, Invisible Collection, Soho House, and Getty Images.