Cultural diplomacy: showcasing our identity

Euskara. Kultura. Mundura.

2023-05-30

Since 2010, the Etxepare Basque Institute has been working to enhance the international presence and visibility of the Basque language and contemporary Basque creativity, to promote international cooperation and to foster exchange and communication between creators, professionals, stakeholders and public institutions.The Institute also serves as a crucial instrument for Basque Country´s cultural diplomacy and the advancement of international cultural relations. In our conversation with Irene Larraza, the institute´s director, we explore its functions in cultural diplomacy, recent initiatives, and the future challenges of Basque artistic endeavors.

In 2022, the Conference on the Future of Europe was held, providing a platform for European stakeholders to exchange their perspectives and insights on the future of Europe. The Basque Country added its input to the conference through EuroBasque. The proposal put forth by the organisation suggested that the Etxepare Basque Institute write one of the articles, and Irene Larraza, the institute´s director, authored a piece on Cultural Diplomacy.

You wrote the article ´Europa y las culturas invisibles´ (Europe and invisible cultures) in the most recent book published by EuroBasque. How did this idea come about?

The organisation EuroBasque passed the proposal on to the Etxepare Basque Institute with the idea of including a Basque perspective in the process of the European Conference. In the context of contemplating the future of the European Union, they deemed it pertinent to offer a perspective through the lens of cultural diplomacy.

What does this article bring to the book?

The book also includes contributions from other institutions, organisations and delegations, but our contribution falls specifically within the Basque cultural sphere. This contribution aims to explain our situation in terms of internationalization, the institutional dynamics of the European landscape, the role we play as an institute, and the challenges we face.

What is cultural diplomacy?

There are different ways of approaching cultural diplomacy. In one sentence, cultural diplomacy is about fostering connections between people through culture. Cultural diplomacy, in comparison with other types of diplomacy (political, economic or other), seeks knowledge and rapprochement between peoples. When engaging in cultural diplomacy beyond our Basque community, it unveils the remarkable potential of culture. By showcasing our own culture and language, we not only express our identity but also create opportunities to explore and appreciate the cultures and languages of others. This serves to enhance communication and mutual knowledge. I firmly believe that cultural diplomacy serves as an invaluable tool, not only for cultural endeavors but also as a source of inspiration and guidance in navigating the complexities of the world.

In the context of Basque language and Basque culture, how important is it to work in this area?

Considering the size of the Basque Country and the number of Basque speakers, a language and a cultural context like ours clearly has a place in the world and something to say in the dialogue of cultural diplomacy. In the Basque Country, and looking at the European framework as a model, it is very clear that there are two blocks: the hegemonic languages and those of us who are not. Each block works at a different speed. Partly because the size and resources of each are different, but also because of the gap caused by the lack of representation. In the case of the Etxepare Basque Institute, we work alongside other institutions and similar organizations, but as far as formal representation is concerned, we do not have the same rights.

The Etxepare Basque Institute has been an associate member of the Brussels cluster of the European Union National Institutes for Culture, EUNIC, since 2015. This year, the institute has been appointed member of the EUNIC New York cluster. How does this new membership affect you?

The EUNIC network fosters cultural collaboration among European nations and strives to implement various cultural projects and initiatives within its member countries. By joining the network, the Basque Country can interact directly with the other EU member states and open up new opportunities for Basque stakeholders and creators to collaborate. We are currently members of the Brussels and New York clusters.

We have been part of the Eunic New York cluster since April 4th. Thanks to this new agreement and the collaboration between the US Delegation in the Basque Country and the Etxepare Basque Institute, the presence of Basque culture in New York is set to solidify starting from the coming year.

As for the projects that arise in the EUNIC Brussels and New York clusters, there’s nothing preventing us from taking part in any of them. Just like the other members, we can participate in the projects we choose. We contribute both through our work and financial support, sharing our cultural creators and benchmarks as a means of enriching the cultural landscape. However, we cannot participate in the management of Eunic Global because we do not represent a state. This doesn’t only apply to us but also to other institutions like the Ramon Llull Institute of Catalonia, for the same reason. In other words, we’re actively engaged in this area, but we do not receive equal recognition at the European level.

This is one of my considerations in the Eurobasque publication. We are at the same level as the others from the work perspective. Contemporary Basque cultural creation in both Basque and Spanish thrives effortlessly, keeping pace with the global cultural landscape. But when it comes to formal institutional accessibility, parity is not yet achieved, neither in Europe nor in the rest of the world.

In what manner does the Etxepare Basque Institute work on cultural diplomacy?

There are many ambassadors, representatives and consuls in cultural diplomacy, because we are all partly agents in this field. Anyone who presents themselves in the world as Basque is practising cultural diplomacy. The same goes for us as an Institute. The first thing we say is "Kaixo. We are Basque and we exist". From there we try to provide information about our existence, our people, their character, and specifically in our case, about our culture and language. Fortunately, a lot of people are working on this, both formally and informally.

From the point of view of the Institute, we also have a very specific role to play. We are the institute of a culture and a language, and this means that we follow a specific model. The Etxepare Basque Institute was modelled on other European institutes, although it has its differences and is not equal to the others in terms of decentralisation and other areas. Nevertheless, at the core of our mission lies the dissemination and understanding of the Basque language and culture, along with our commitment to supporting its promotion and enhancing its prestige. In this respect, we are equal in comparison with other institutes.

What is the Institute´s contribution to cultural diplomacy?

In the area of academics, the Institute has an impact on the teaching of the Basque language in universities and Basque schools; in the area of cultural promotion, we open “Basque windows” around the world to raise awareness of contemporary creation. These windows primarily adhere to the principles of cultural creation and encompass cultural programs and dynamics. We perform functions that are conceptually present in all types of diplomacy, but we also have specific lines of work.

One is the work we do with other institutes. As I mentioned, at European level we work in the Brussels cluster and we’ve just become an associate member of the Eunic New York cluster. Through this participation, our goal is to foster collaboration, learn from others, cultivate deeper relationships, and actively participate in various projects. In short, our primary objective is to integrate Basque contributions into specific projects. For this work we have the support of the Euskadi delegation.

We also promote cross-border cultural cooperation. Until recently, we have been running the aquitaine.eus project to bring Basque culture to Aquitaine.

We also have some strategic projects that involve special cultural connections. When we take part in festivals and other activities, we ignite numerous and diverse sparks of interest across the global map. But In its strategic reflection of 2017, the Etxepare Institute identified the value of periodically cultivating more profound connections with specific territories, emphasizing the importance of engaging in such efforts every two years. This other type of relationship is longer and more sophisticated. These relationships are currently two years long and aim to be a two-way street: we show our work there and they show their work here. In 2019 and 2020 our geographic focus was Scotland (Scottland Goes Basque), in 2021-22, it was Quebec (Saison Québec - Pays basque), and now, looking ahead to 2023- 2024 we are working on the #FlenBasque project with Flanders.

Why these places?

Because our affinity with them is rooted in shared culture and identity and because they are also part of the Euskadi Basque Country strategy The Basque Government’s formal relations or commitments with them solidify our connection. We focus on the cultural dimension of these intergovernmental relations. The fact that a relationship already exists opens doors for fostering collaboration, showcasing our culture, enabling stakeholders and creators to visit, and providing channels for grants and other forms of support.

What do you see as the challenges for the future of Basque creation?

The challenges facing Basque culture lie both inside and outside the territory. On the one hand, Basque culture will not be able to develop in a healthy way in the future if young people do not have the opportunity to get to know it closely in the knowledge and practice of Basque culture. And I’d add another point: nowadays, many boys in particular are often disengaged from certain cultural practices, largely due to their strong affinity for football. This is a significant challenge since the absence of early engagement with culture represents a substantial loss, both for the individuals themselves and for Basque society as a whole. Today, children and young adults find themselves swept along by a powerful mainstream current. It is very important for Basque culture to be ingrained early on.

The future of Basque culture also depends on other important processes. The ongoing challenge lies in ensuring that creators have the opportunity to work in a professional capacity, and significant efforts are being made to address this issue. It is essential to regulate the special professional status of authors in their corresponding statute, to recognise and pay for cultural creation, to provide for its rightful place in offers and to promote its use or enjoyment.

Therefore, internally, the main challenges for me are, on the one hand, to encourage cultural practices among children and making culture accessible to young people; and on the other hand, ensuring the professional dignity of our creators.

What would you say is the biggest externally challenge?

Without a doubt, visibility. Basque and Basque culture need to be present in all formats and technologies. Because this work, which has been going on for some time, is very important, because what is not seen does not exist.

And I also think it is important to make our culture known and visible abroad. This is the main work we have at the Etxepare Basque Institute. As Bernardo Atxaga said at the inauguration of the chair that bears his name at CUNY University in New York, the Etxepare Basque Institute must be a sounding board for the Basque language and culture. We support teachers, students, academics, creators and cultural agents so that the impact of what they do reaches further afield. All of their contributions start with "Kaixo. We are Basque and we exist". They’ll tell the world who we are, through culture. The work of our creators and agents is the most sophisticated and captivating means of expressing who we are as a people to the world.

 

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