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VCUQatar Commencement: ‘Make the World More Beautiful’

May 1, 2017
Doha, Qatar

Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, families, colleagues and graduates. It’s great to be with you at VCUQatar. I bring greetings from your colleagues and classmates in Richmond and your VCU family around the world.

As-salamu alaykum.

I also congratulate our Class of 2017. You offer fervent hope that the world can be whatever we imagine.

There’s a story by the American author Barbara Cooney called “Miss Rumphius” in which a young girl named Alice gets three pieces of advice. First, go to faraway places. Second, live by the sea. And third, she is told, “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

All of this sounds good to Alice. So she travels the globe until it’s time to come home to her cottage by the sea. But as years go by, the third thing still eludes her. She’s an old woman now, and she’s lived wonderfully. Looking out her window and down to the sea, she thinks, “The world is already pretty nice.” So Alice plants a few flowers and retires for the summer.

As months wane on, she falls ill and is confined to bed. When she’s finally well enough to venture back outside, she sees that the wind has spread the seeds from her little flowerbed far beyond her cottage to the countryside, to the neighboring town, to the valley beyond the mountains.

And she realizes that through a simple deed, she has made the world more beautiful.

Now — why did I fly 7,000 miles to tell you about an old woman and her flower garden? And what does this have to do with your graduation from the world’s most prestigious public school of the arts?

Well, it’s because I want you to think about how you — like Alice Rumphius — can make the world more beautiful in ways big and small.

To do that, we must first consider the world in which we live.

It is, more than ever, interconnected. Whether you’re from the Mid-Atlantic or the Middle East, you are part of a community of human beings who need one another. We’re strongest when our singular curiosities become the collective wisdom of shared ideas. We discover who we are when we see ourselves in others. We find meaning when we create together something that moves us all.

And our world is more diverse than ever. Brazil now has the largest Arab population outside the Middle East. New York City has more Irish nationals than Dublin and more Puerto Ricans than San Juan. In Singapore, a nation of less than 700 kilometers-squared, there are four official languages, five major religions and a peaceful blending of three principal cultures.

The national motto of Indonesia, a nation of nearly 1,200 distinct ethnic groups, is “Unity in Diversity.”

What it means to be American, or Qatari, or anything else has changed in a generation — I believe for the better. Where we come from doesn’t matter as much anymore as where we’re going. And how we choose to live together will determine how far we can go together.

I’m proud to say, by the way, that you are graduating from one of America’s most diverse universities, and indeed you help make it so.

We also live in a world where anything is possible. We now see cars without drivers and planes without pilots. We have more than enough computing power in our pockets and on our wrists to send a rocket to the moon.

Our own professor here at VCUQatar, Khaled Saoud, has found a way to make polystyrene building insulation virtually fireproof — an invaluable and potentially lifesaving invention as construction around Doha hastens in advance of the 2022 World Cup.

And — hey — in a world where anything is possible, maybe Qatar will win that World Cup!

So, you may see the world as beautifully diverse and interconnected, as a place where you can do anything. Like Alice Rumphius, you may look around and think: “The world is already pretty nice.”

But you have the power and the promise to make it more beautiful. We need leaders who are brilliant and benevolent, as are all of you. We need your empathy and enlightenment. And so the world — with its beauty and its blemishes — turns to you to make it wholly wonderful.

You graduate today as artists; not policy-makers or statespersons or even warriors for social justice. And that’s exactly the point. As artists, you create new ways of thinking and seeing. You evoke emotions that have never been felt. You are proprietors of beauty.

I think about four ways, in particular, that you as artists can make our world more beautiful.

Number 1: Promote understanding across cultures.

Art has unbelievable power to bring people together, to highlight the ideal, to expose the imperfect. In profound and simple ways, art speaks across lines of class or culture.

Fernando Botero, a painter born in Colombia, has brought international attention to the suffering of the Iraqi people. Collagist Wangechi Mutu, who was born in Kenya and educated in Wales and the U.S., blends traditional African art with European and American influences as diverse as medicine and high fashion.

So as you pursue your art, how will you also pursue understanding among opposing perspectives? How will you challenge assumptions of canon and culture? How will you make the world more beautiful?

Another way artists can make the world more beautiful is by building up your community.

The research is clear: When a community values art, there’s stronger social cohesion, civic engagement, child welfare and there’s less poverty. Further, local arts programs bring communities together to talk about and create their shared vision, values and dreams.

Mark Standquist is — like you — a graduate of VCU School of the Arts. Today, he uses art to build better communities. Because social change comes from listening to the voices most often silenced, Mark gives often-forgotten members of our community the power of self-advocacy through art.

For example, he works with disadvantaged citizens to design interactive public installations that have engaged thousands of people. His art connects those in poverty with those in power, joining people who have historically looked past one another to accomplish amazing things.

As you build your careers as artists, how will you also build your community? How will you give voice to the voiceless? How will you make the world more beautiful?

The third way artists can make the world more beautiful is by documenting our shared history. Art connects where we are with who we are. It is how we have expressed ourselves for millennia.

In the last two decades, Taiwan has built more than two dozen museums to collect and exhibit indigenous art, an effort to build a collective Taiwanese memory. Of course, one of the world’s best examples of this is right here in Doha. The Museum of Islamic Art preserves sacred history and enlightens our collective future. And scholars at VCUQatar are helping restore fragile pieces of Qatar’s historical record to build national pride.

Art does more than venerate history, though. It also shapes history. We draw on what we know about our past — and see in our art — to rethink what’s possible. Art is a time machine, allowing us to revisit where we’ve been and envision where we may go.

In your art, how will you document our history? How will you share our past and shape our future? How will you make the world more beautiful?

Finally, artists can make the world more beautiful by addressing social issues through creativity. As one of the world’s premier 21st-century research universities, VCU is committed to tackling the most vexing problems of our time. We do what’s difficult! And as the German-American poet Charles Bukowski said, “An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.”

For centuries, people have used art as a tool of social change, to protest, to debate, to heal. Because inherent in what we create is a kind of radical empathy, a way of reaching out and finding connections with those with whom we may disagree.

Art has always helped us grapple with life’s most pressing issues. When we experience a piece of art and think about what it means, perhaps subconsciously, we also think about what our own life means. And we find that we are all connected, a diverse forest of trees fed by the same stream.

As you go forth, how will you find an antidote for pervasive social problems? How will you show us that we’re all connected? How will you make the world more beautiful?

I want to leave you today the same way I began — with a note of congratulations. And with a reminder, as Miss Rumphius discovered, that even if “the world is already pretty nice”…you can make it more beautiful, as artists and as human beings, through even simple deeds.

Your art is powerful tool. Wield it well.

Congratulations.

Tahanina. Shukraan.