Unity Peace Forward

The U.S. has experienced a great deal of division this past year, with news headlines about differences and arguments dominating headlines. In an effort to bring people together, the Kennedy Center is hosting a free outdoor art installation called UNITY | PEACE | FORWARD.

The exhibit, which is currently ongoing and runs through Feb. 28, takes place on the Kennedy Center’s 130,000-square-foot REACH campus, where visitors can reflect on people’s common humanity and be inspired by expressions of unity, harmony, and peace. 

Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center, noted the exhibit is a space for reflection and an artistic reaction to national division and isolation amidst the ongoing pandemic.

“We have really, extraordinary creators in our programming team, and early this fall they came forward with this idea to do something about unity and peace,” she said. “It was not intentionally political, it is of the moment, and they came back with this beautiful way of making an artistic statement around unity, peace and looking into the future.”

UNITY | PEACE | FORWARD is comprised of three installations, each representing one of the exhibit’s trio of titles. 

The UNITY portion is held at the reflecting pool by the river pavilion and features art from five VSA Emerging Young Artists, empowering the voices and perspectives of artists with disabilities on the cusp of their professional careers. The artists included are Naima Cerulean Kazemi, Yasmine Iskander, Oaklee Thiele, Malcolm Corley and AJ Kiel. 

The PEACE flag displayed on the hillside of the REACH Gardens is a collage of 270 smaller flags of all the U.S. states and territories, as well as flags from all the world countries with which the U.S. maintains diplomatic relations. These are the same flags that are inside the Kennedy Center’s Great Hall. 

“In a time of great separation, these flags remind us that the Kennedy Center embraces all cultures, reaching and connecting with artists, inspiring and educating communities,” Rutter said. “We welcome all to create, experience, learn about, and engage with the arts.”

The FORWARD part of the exhibit is a collection of inspirational quotes from artists around the world that are displayed on a wall each Friday and Saturday evening from 4:30–8:30 p.m., and can be viewed online anytime. 

The Kennedy Center reached out to artists and asked: “The world events of 2020 have taken a global toll on our personal lives and all of humanity. As we move forward in 2021, what inspires and motivates you as an artist?”

One answer is from legendary singer Barbra Streisand, who said, “The truth inspires me - whether it’s in art or politics. Truth is so powerful, it can open people’s minds and ultimately change the world.”

Another is from Broadway actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who shared, “The power that people have to create theater is the same power we have to create communion and connection even when kept apart. I look forward to what more that power can do.”

Others who provided inspiration include South African puppeteer Basil Jones, “Killing Eve” star Fiona Shaw, choreographer Debbie Allen, director George C. Wolfe and many more.

“This has created a big impact,” Rutter said. “Whether you are driving by, walking or rolling through the landscape, it’s something that will get people inspired.”

The exhibit opened during the week of the presidential inauguration, and there was a great deal of symbolism happening with the troops protecting D.C., and these three beautiful words simply stated in the landscape.

“We’ve had very positive feedback,” Rutter said. “The REACH has really exceeded our wildest hopes and dreams of being a destination garden, landscape and facility.” 

At a time when there’s not a lot for people to do and get out and experience the arts, an exhibit like this takes on even more meaning. 

“People think of the Kennedy Center as a place for the performing arts, but it’s also a place to inspire reflection,” Rutter said. “Because we can’t have too many activities going on inside our building, the landscape is a great place for people to come and take a walk, and remember there is something more for us to be thinking about.”

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