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Me < > You

The MusēOn has been encouraging and provoking visitors to see the importance of acting upon empathy for ALL living things, helping the visitors understand the depth of interconnectedness.

By Daniel Whitaker, EARJ MuseOn Curator

On top of the MusēOn door at The American School of Rio de Janeiro lies a sign. It’s a small blue circle with an inscription around it that reads “This Blue Sphere We Share”. It is meant for the visitor to reflect upon the deep connection between each living creature on the planet – all of them, and how interconnected and interdependent we are as an ecosystem.

The MusēOn has long been providing exhibits that frequently focus on one base holistic strategy: fostering empathy. Because it is when we think of the other, that true change can really happen. But this means not only thinking about your acquaintances, family members or even those in need. The MusēOn has been encouraging and provoking visitors to see the importance of acting upon empathy for ALL living things, helping the visitors understand the depth of interconnectedness.

The sign that is above the MusēOn door.
The sign that is above the MusēOn door.

Our new exhibit – Me < > You – was meant to continue on this road. Showing the many angles of the concepts of “Me” and “You”. The theme was chosen last year, and all was set for our exhibition to open in March. But with the sudden Covid-19 pandemic, much has changed.

Everyone now is focused on remaining safe and practicing our social distancing. Distance is our current reality. But we weem set on diminishing this. After all, we have strived to connect with one another, we are reaching out more. People have been doing projects aimed at making everyone feel better, from balcony shows to help groups. Has the virus in a way, united us? Has it made us more compassionate?

Our virtual view of the general space and three target areas.
Our virtual view of the general space and three target areas.

Can we think of this outreach of ours as being in a way related to Ubuntu? Ubuntu is a deeply empathic philosophy centered on making people aware of each other and promoting fellowship among all. “I am because we are” is probably one of its greatest maxims. It makes us think of the well being of all of those around you. And how does Ubuntu link with what we are living today? How are its ideals played out now? How could we benefit from thinking of others? All other creatures?

The Coronavirus hovering over the diagram created by Friedensreich Hundertwasser about his "The 5 Skins'' theory.
The Coronavirus hovering over the diagram created by Friedensreich Hundertwasser about his “The 5 Skins” theory.

And have our actions, industry and society focused on the well being of all living things? What if we put to question a global strategy that has its goal set on making overall development more sustainable. Here we are referring to the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. With who in mind were these goals designed for? Essentially, for human progress. Although it has profound noble purposes, directed on creating opportunities and equality for all, it has essentially left the remaining living things on earth almost as a backdrop (even building blocks) for this sustained human expansion. This is where perhaps, the manifesto written by futurist, video maker, and designer Anab Jain, can shed some light on the matter. In the article (a manifesto?) ‘Calling for a More-Than-Human Politics’, she argues the need to understand that all living things require consideration – even legally, as equals to humans. Here, more than human means policy-making that does not solely consider the human aspect, but all creatures and biomes.

Is this also Ubuntu?

A juxtaposition of the UN Global Goals with Anab Jain's call for more than human politics.
A juxtaposition of the UN Global Goals with Anab Jain’s call for more than human politics.

A good question might be if Frederich Hundertwasser was aware of this philosophy. He was a man ahead of his time. An architect, artist, and environmental activist, he was especially prominent during the 1960s through the 1980s. Much of his work was dedicated to acknowledging the need to enhance the importance of man’s relation to the environment. Of the manifestos he wrote, It is the one about the ‘5 Skins’ that is most relevant to this debate. In it, he described the individual’s relation to his surroundings like the layers of an onion skin…the 5 Skins. The first skin: the epidermis, the body. The second skin: The Clothes, the individual identity. The third skin: a person’s house, his/her family and personal things. The fourth skin: the social environment & collective identity. And the fifth skin: the global environment: ecology & mankind. If we consider this for a moment, how do these layers of ‘skins’ apply to each of us? And where does the virus connect? Is it at the initial level? Is it at a community level? Maybe all of them.

This brings us back to our EARJ MusēOn exhibit. What if we were to understand that the idea of ‘Me < > You’ also has to do with our relation to the Coronavirus, and how it affects all of us? Or perhaps, the virus is here because of how things became so deeply interconnected! Consider how one century ago, it would have been unthinkable for a virus of this type to spread so fast. Today, one could be on the other side of the planet in a matter of hours, and not weeks (perhaps months) like it was then. We have become so efficient in moving around, that it is no surprise that this situation has gotten out of hand this quickly.

Hundertwasser's 5 Skins diagram.
Hundertwasser’s 5 Skins diagram.

While we are all in quarantine, consider how the virus has separated and affected us all. But after all, has it also made us connect? How? Everywhere you look people are interacting and supporting one another in the most caring and sometimes creative ways. Some examples are simple to notice: singing from windows, using social media to connect, to comfort, to help and even to entertain. Paid websites are giving out their content for free. Charities are doubling efforts to ease the plight of those most in need. And even schools have adapted to distance teaching to the now more than 1.4 billion students without classes.

As an ending point, let us absorb the notion that we are social creatures. We generally love contact and proximity, something that we know informs our work as educators in school-based settings, where we recognize the social nature of the teaching / learning dynamic. “Me < > You” is both a reflection of this and a guide as to how we might reevaluate our relations, using the powerful ideas in Ubuntu, the 5 Skins, and politics that encompasses all living things. These notions could be seen as precious, life-changing tools that will help us emerge from the pandemic stronger, smarter and more empathic, making it possible for us to embrace each other once again as soon as it is safe.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, The Five Skins of Man, 1998. (2011). Retrieved from

Jain, A. (2020). Calling for a More-Than-Human Politics. Retrieved from

Escola Americana do Rio de Janeiro (EARJ, the American School of Rio de Janeiro) is a twin-campus international school located in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The school was founded in 1937 as a private, independent, coeducational, non-denominational day school. EARJ offers an educational program from Nursery through Grade 12 for students of all nationalities.

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