Rupert a Trustee of the MarcoPolo700 Foundation, discusses the organisations commemoration of the 700th anniversary of Marco Polo’s death, emphasizing the Silk Road’s historical significance and its contemporary intersectionality across 33 countries. The foundation aims to apply Marco Polo’s achievements to the modern world, focusing on cultural connectivity through trade, echoing UNESCO’s values. Rupert elaborates on the 2024 digital art exhibition, inspired by Marco Polo’s legacy, aiming to celebrate cultural diversity and unity among the Silk Road countries, particularly engaging young people. 

The digital art competition, aligned with the foundation’s taglines of relive, revisit, and renew, encourages young artists to express historical journeys, physical revisiting, and community renewal. Themes such as “Our People and Our Land,” traditions, and a shared future are introduced for high school students. Rupert explores the exhibition’s significance in Abu Dhabi, drawing connections to cultural diversity and historical influences, notably the use of lapis lazuli in Renaissance art. The interview concludes with Rupert expressing the foundation’s vision for scholarships, and internships marking the launch of the Marco Polo 700 Foundation. 

Find our more about MarcoPolo700 Foundation.

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The extraordinary person Marco Polo, this is the 700th year anniversary of his death, and he is very famous from a Western perspective of Discovery or making the Silk Road. But of course, as it often is the way with Western cultural appropriation, he didn’t make anything; he just did what people have been doing for 2,000 years, which is using the routes that had been established over 3 or 6,000 kilometres of roots that linked East and West. Now those routes travel through 33 different countries, and because of the anniversary and because of this intersectionality between 33 different countries in this day and age, the idea rose between London and Hong Kong to generate the Marco Polo foundation.  

Essentially, the Marco Polo Foundation is to use the very best of what Marco Polo tried to achieve and apply it to the modern world. Marco Polo’s journey was, of course, originally commercial to do with trade, so it’s appropriate here we are in Abu Dhabi, the capital of capital; they understand about trade. But the fact that UNESCO chose Abu Dhabi as a destination for their conference is very fitting also because you can’t just have trade without cultural connectivity. That’s really what Marco Polo Foundation is seeking to achieve. Terrific, thank you, Rupert. I know that the focus of 2024 for us is the digital art exhibition.  

Could you talk for a moment about that [digital art exhibition] and maybe how Marco Polo’s legacy inspired its creation? 

Absolutely, thanks. The point about art and particularly digital art is that it is universal but different. It’s really celebrating the cultural diversity that we’re trying to find, where something that is connected is universal but is different. So the idea of the digital art competition amongst the 33 plus countries of the Marco Polo Silk Roads is to get different perspectives, particularly from young people, to combine together and do it in a fun and engaging way through an art competition using digital art as the means. 

That’s terrific. Thank you. Can you go into a bit more detail about how the digital art exhibition promotes the broader mission of the foundation in terms of promoting unity and tolerance and peace, values that UNESCO, of course, holds most dear?  

Of course. When we had developed the ideas of the foundation, any good foundation needs some taglines. So we came with our taglines of relive, revisit, and renew. We do this; we apply these three things into the framework of the digital art competition where we’re inviting young people particularly to create art that does exactly this: relive, revisit, renew because that’s what we are doing with Marco Polo’s legacy.

And I know that there are three distinct themes for the competition for the high school students. Could you share more about that?  

Well, people look at these various different things, and reliving is a historical journey, really. I was really interested in the earlier talk about intangible cultural heritage because they were doing the same. They were looking at reliving what the people who owned that intangible cultural heritage were doing and applying it to the modern age. So we’re doing the same thing. Revisiting can be more of a physical thing. For example, one of the outputs from the digital art competition, one of the prizes, in fact, is that young people will be able to win art scholarships to go to different cities and towns along the Silk Route. In fact, I’m going to Tajikistan in September as part of this process to really understand what this revisiting means in terms of connectivity. And lastly, renew because, of course, we are again, like the intangible cultural heritage, the objective of this, the output of this is that young people feel engaged in their community. Not just their own community, but across the full length of the Silk Roads.  

That’s interesting. It sounds like a fascinating initiative. Where will we be able to see the artworks of the high school students? Where will they be displayed?  

The competition kicks off in the summer, and therefore, we will be able to give further details through our website. Within that, we’re going to develop some themes to just go into a little bit more detail about the competition. Interesting when I was looking at this; it does connect to some of the founding principles of the United Arab Emirates, which is really interesting how these are universal themes. The first one we’ve selected is “Our People and Our Land.” I think that land is particularly important because, of course, all the students along the Silk Road are very proud, justifiably so, of their own land. However, we want them to look out from that land in terms of their cultural inclusion and diversity, and that’s really important. So understanding your land and understanding your people but looking outwards from that is the first theme. The second is one of traditions, and again, we go back to this intangible cultural heritage. It’s really important, the traditions. So what we really hope in the art is that the local traditions in the 33 countries will be expressed through art. And we’re looking at certain little ideas about how we can help young people do that. And lastly, again, it’s the output that we want is from the digital art to get a shared future, real understanding of a shared future so that the young people who participate in everyone looking in and their parents and their communities all feel that they have a shared future that’s along a geographic line, the Silk Routes but actually is across the world.  

Thank you. And art being the language of culture, really, and as being here in Abu Dhabi, whose vision is very progressive and whose vision and mission is to become the arts and cultural hub of the entire region.

It’s really interesting. One little thing that struck my attention was the mineral lapis lazuli, which actually comes mainly well was discovered for a Western audience certainly by Marco Polo from Modern Day Iran. And lapis lazuli, of course, had many uses, but in Western society, the use was to make blue paint. And up until that point, it was impossible in Europe to make blue paint. And therefore, if you look at the great Renaissance arts, and bear in mind Marco Polo came from Venice, which is where the Renaissance art developed, you can see the significance of blue, this deep, deep blue. And all the people of significance, whether they be royalty or religious figures, are all using this deep blue of lapis lazuli, which is not native to that; it actually comes from thousands of miles away. So there’s a very direct connection between modern culture in one place and its origins along the Silk Road.  

Yeah, and the exhibition will be coming to Abu Dhabi because we’ve talked about the exhibition will be coming to Abu Dhabi. That is both the exhibition of from the winners of the art prize, but also we hope to bring major works of art from around museums and galleries on the Silk Road to tour those as again a metaphor for cultural inclusion.  

Thank you, Rupert. Thank you for your insights. It’s a great pleasure. Is there anything else that you would like to share with the audience as a takeaway regarding the vision of the foundation?

Well, I really hope that you do keep in touch with us. We’re really interested in this idea. I think it’s always challenging in this day and age where people are a bit nervous about cultural appropriation, about using particularly a Western figure as a metaphor for cultural inclusion across the world. But in this case, it really is apt because this was a most remarkable man. He died 700 years ago, and I told you that the Silk Roads were actually 6,000 kilometers, is what they’ve calculated. And he is credited, bear in mind, this is in 1320, of traveling 24,000 kilometers. In other words, he did the Silk Routes four times on the back of a horse or walking, okay, and lived to tell the tale with his bag of lapis lazuli. So it is a remarkable character in any consequence. So we’re really keen on him. We think he’s a great icon for our foundation, and I really hope that we can develop this, particularly in Abu Dhabi, and inspiring the high school students to develop art projects using technology, whether it’s animation or interactive video or just AI generative art, to, for his journey and legacy to inspire their vision. So yeah, thank you very much.  

Maybe I can ask. So, okay, you ask it. So what is Marco Polo U like doing with after these competitions are conducted? What is your takeaway from these, like, winners?  

Well, that’s a really good question, actually because we’re looking in the relatively short term about an art competition to act as the linkage mechanism, particularly for young people. But part of us doesn’t really know where this is going to take us. We know that we want to do this touring exhibition. Where we’d love to go is with scholarships and internships for young people along the Silk Road. We would love to have an institution. Maybe the good people in Abu Dhabi can help us build a physical museum. We would love to get young people to go to Venice just as much as we want young people like me going to Tajikistan. So we want to get this connection. I think it’s a fascinating project, and I come from London to support this. And this is actually our first, as you probably can tell. It’s our first-ever event. This is, you have been, you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren that you were at the launch of the Marco Polo 700 Foundation. 


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