As 2016 comes to a close, we see a world in flux and seemingly unsettled in this postmodern era. Changing social currencies and geopolitical shifts have manifested alongside the trend of growing discontent with globalization’s trajectory. Both Hong Kong and the United States have been contending with political and social currents of their own, but there are compelling parallels between the two – seen in the struggles of the working class, political and ideological tension and race relations.

The arrival of the Kinsey family’s art and history collection in Hong Kong comes at an important juncture – at a time when it is even more critical to listen, understand and empathize.

Honor King March and Dunson-The Cultivators.

The Kinsey Collection is a display of remarkable artefacts and artworks chronicling the historical journey and artistic legacy of African-Americans; a long overdue recognition and celebration of African-American contributions in building the United States. Derek Collins, Dean, Faculty of Arts at the University of Hong Kong remarks, “The Kinsey exhibition makes the challenges and benefits of diversity real and tangible, in a way few collections can. Against all odds you will see some extraordinary achievements in history and art in this collection. The more people understand this African American tradition, the more they will work to be inclusive in their own lives—because greater inclusiveness creates more value for everyone.”

Rising Above: The Kinsey African American Art and History Collection made its inaugural international debut in Hong Kong on December 9th at the University Museum and Art Gallery; the collection has already been visited by millions in the USA, through exhibitions at the Smithsonian Museum, Walt Disney World and more. Over 100 historical treasures are on display in Hong Kong, including an exhibit dedicated to distinguished philosopher and scholar, Alain Locke, the first African-American Rhodes Scholar and the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance.”

Henry Butler.

Other priceless items include an original bill of sale from 1839, documenting Henry Butler’s payment of $100 to an Anne Graham, for the freedom of his wife and children; and an 1892 copy of Solomon Northup’s novel, “Twelve Years a Slave.” “The Cultivators” by Samuel L. Dunson is a portrait of an African-American family ‘harvesting books’; it is a depiction of the Kinsey family as cultivators and keepers of knowledge, linking the family to the rich lineage of creators and storytellers shown in their collection.

Twelve Years a Slave and Orange Scarf.

The extent of the city’s exposure to the African-American experience in American history is perhaps limited to popular culture, such as Hollywood blockbusters and television shows. Rising Above, the first African-American art and history exhibition in the city, represents a different sort of cultural exposure; it marks a welcome shift in terms of greater support for diversity and open social discourse backed by Hong Kong’s academic, art and business communities. Dr. Florian Knothe, Director of the University Museum and Art Gallery says, “this exhibition gives us the opportunity to present a lesser-known topic of international relevance for the first time in Hong Kong… the history and artistic achievements of the African-American community is increasingly recognised globally and celebrated for its excellence.”

As a global city and business hub, Hong Kong has the responsibility to push for meaningful inclusiveness, within corporate and public spheres. In recent years, we have seen the city’s corporate community embracing diversity and inclusion initiatives and programs, such as support for women’s and LGBT networks. In Hong Kong’s social and public spheres however, racial discrimination is still largely prevalent. Rather than virulent xenophobia, Hong Kong is burdened with more subtle undertones of prejudice and unconscious bias, particularly towards darker skin tones. We may see diversity in the workplace and in our daily lives, but that does not always translate into thoughtful inclusion, engagement and interaction.

The Kinsey Family.

Rising Above challenges us to reflect upon how our perspectives have been shaped, and the Kinsey family hopes it will break down cultural barriers and stigma. As the exhibition reframes American history through the African-American experience and narrative, we engage history, diversity and culture through a more nuanced and meaningful way. Human stories and values of dignity and respect are at the heart of this exhibition, which will resonate with viewers worldwide.

Rising Above: The Kinsey African American Art and History Collection is currently showing at the University Museum and Art Gallery until February 26 2017. Opening Hours: 9.30 AM to 6.00 PM (Mon-Sat), 1.00 PM to 6.00 PM (Sun), closed on public and university holidays. Location: 90 Bonham Road, Pok Fu Lam, Hong Kong (free admission).

Yvonne Lau

Yvonne Lau writes about culture, society and art across Asia. She is documenting life in China-Russia border towns, and covers Asian financial markets during the day.