Secretary of State Clinton Awards Cai Guo-Qiang, Jeff Koons, Shahzia Sikander, Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems Medal of Arts

Washington, D.C. – November 30, 2012. – As part of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Department of State Art in Embassies program, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton honored five artists—Cai Guo-Qiang, Jeff Koons,, Shahzia Sikander, Kiki Smith, and Carrie Mae Weems—with the first U.S. Department of State – Medal of Arts for their outstanding commitment to the AIE program and international cultural exchange.

Artists Cai Guo-Qiang, Jeff Koons (partly visible), Shahzia Sikander, Kiki Smith and Carrie Mae Weems pose with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on November 30.

On the evening of November 29, 2012, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Art in Embassies, U.S. Department of State, joined with the Aspen Institute, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center to present a conversation on art’s role in diplomacy with the five recipients of the Medal of Arts, awarded by the U.S. Department of State. Artists Jeff Koons, Cai Guo-Qiang, Shahzia Sikander, Kiki Smith and Carrie Mae Weems participate in the conversation, moderated by Glenn D. Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which focused on the importance of cultural diplomacy through visual arts. Poet and performer Marc Bamuthi Joseph will open the event.

The celebrations coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, hence the U.S. Department of State and the Sackler have jointly commissioned Cai Guo-Qiang to create Black Christmas Tree: Explosion Event for Washington, D.C.

The daytime outdoor explosion event took place at about 3:00 p.m. on Friday, November 30 south of the National Mall in front of the Freer Gallery of Art on Jefferson Drive. A 40 feet tall pine tree was suspended with 2,000 purpose-built black smoke air burst fireworks. Upon ignition, black smoke puffs will ‘light up’ simultaneously from all points in the tree, as though they are twinkling Christmas lights at a tree-lighting ceremony, followed by a cascade of black ink-like smoke that mimics the flowing beauty of traditional Chinese brush drawings. The black tree-shaped cloud of smoke drifting through the air created a spectral scene of two trees, one real and one ethereal.

About the artist honorees

Cai Guo-Qiang was born in 1957 in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China. Trained in stage design at the Shanghai Theater Academy, his work has since crossed multiple mediums within art, including drawing, installation, video and performance. While living in Japan from 1986 to 1995, he explored the properties of gunpowder in his drawings, an inquiry that eventually led to his experimentation with explosives on a massive scale and to the development of his signature explosion events. Drawing upon Eastern philosophy and contemporary social issues as a conceptual basis, these projects aim to establish an exchange between viewers and the larger universe around them, utilizing a site-specific approach to culture and history.

Cai was awarded the Golden Lion at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, the 7th Hiroshima Art Prize in 2007, and the 20th Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 2009. He also served as Director of Visual and Special Effects for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In 2012, Cai was named one of five Laureates for the prestigious Praemium Imperiale, an award that recognizes lifetime achievement in the arts in categories not covered by the Nobel Prize. His first ever solo exhibition in a Middle Eastern country, Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab, opened in December 2011 in Doha, Qatar.

Cai’s latest exhibition, A Clan of Boats, is currently on view at the Faurschou Foundation in Copenhagen, Denmark. He currently lives and works in New York. His website is:

Jeff Koons was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1955. He studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He received a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1976. Koons lives and works in New York City. Koons’s work is in numerous public collections, such as the Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY), the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY), the Guggenheim Museum (New York, NY), Los Angeles County Museum (Los Angeles, CA), The Broad Art Foundation (Santa Monica, CA), The National Gallery (Washington, DC), Hirshhorn Museum (Washington, DC), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (San Francisco, CA), Tate Gallery (London, UK), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam, the Netherlands), Museum Ludwig (Köln, Germany), and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (Tokyo, Japan).

Koons earned renown for his public sculptures, such as the monumental floral sculpture Puppy (1992), shown at Rockefeller Center and permanently installed at the Guggenheim Bilbao. Another floral sculpture, Split-Rocker (2000), was installed at the Papal Palace in Avignon and at the Palace of Versailles.

Jeff Koons held major exhibitions at public institutions in 2008 including a large survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Celebration sculptures shown on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and an exhibition at the Palace of Versailles which opened its doors to a living artist for the first time with Jeff Koons: Versailles. Koons presented the Popeye series at the Serpentine Gallery in 2009, and Artist Rooms, a collection of contemporary art jointly owned by the Tate and the National Gallery of Scotland, toured until 2011. Currently, Fondation Beyeler is hosting Koons’s first solo exhibition in a Swiss Museum with works from The New, Banality and Celebration. In addition, concurrent exhibitions opened this June in Frankfurt where Koons’s paintings are presented at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt while his sculptures are shown with works from the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung permanent collection.

Jeff Koons has received numerous awards and honors in recognition of his cultural achievements. Most recently, the Royal Academy of Arts presented Koons with the John Singleton Copley Award, Koons received The Governor’s Awards for the Arts Distinguished Arts Award and President Jacques Chirac promoted Koons to Officier de la Legion d’Honneur.

Shahzia Sikander was born in 1969 in Lahore, Pakistan. Educated as an undergraduate at the National College of Arts in Lahore, she received her MFA in 1995 from the Rhode Island School of Design. Sikander specializes in Indian and Persian miniature painting, a traditional style that is both highly stylized and disciplined. While becoming an expert in this technique-driven, often impersonal art form, she imbued it with a personal context and history, blending the Eastern focus on precision and methodology with a Western emphasis on creative, subjective expression. In doing so, Sikander transported miniature painting into the realm of contemporary art. Raised as a Muslim, Sikander is also interested in exploring both sides of the Hindu and Muslim “border,” often combining imagery from both—such as the Muslim veil and the Hindu multi-armed goddess—in a single painting. Sikander has written: “Such juxtaposing and mixing of Hindu and Muslim iconography is a parallel to the entanglement of histories of India and Pakistan.”

Expanding the miniature painting to the wall, Sikander also creates murals and installations, using tissue-paper-like materials that allow for a more free-flowing style. In what she labeled performances, Sikander experimented with wearing a veil in public, something she never did before moving to the United States. Utilizing performance and various media and formats to investigate issues of border crossing, she seeks to subvert stereotypes of the East and, in particular, the Eastern Pakistani woman. Sikander has received many awards and honors for her work, including the honorary artist award from the Pakistan Ministry of Culture and National Council of the Arts. Sikander resides in New York and Texas.

Kiki Smith was born in 1954 in Nuremberg, Germany. She is a leading figure among artists addressing philosophical, social, and spiritual aspects of human nature, whose career spans more than three decades. Smith employs a wide-range of non-traditional materials ranging from hair and latex to beeswax and gold to a diverse body of work that includes painting, photography, bookmaking,

The daughter of American sculptor Tony Smith, Kiki Smith grew up in New Jersey. As a young girl, one of Smith’s first experiences with art was helping her father make cardboard models for his geometric sculptures. This training in formalist systems, combined with her upbringing in the Catholic Church, would later resurface in Smith’s evocative sculptures, drawings, and prints. The recurrent subject matter in Smith’s work has been the body as a receptacle for knowledge, belief, and storytelling. In the 1980s, Smith literally turned the figurative tradition in sculpture inside out, creating objects and drawings based on organs, cellular forms, and the human nervous system. This body of work evolved to incorporate animals, domestic objects, and narrative tropes from classical mythology and folk tales. Life, death, and resurrection are thematic signposts in many of Smith’s installations and sculptures. In several of her pieces, including “Lying with the Wolf, Wearing the Skin,” and “Rapture,” Smith takes as her inspiration the life of St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. Portrayed communing with a wolf, taking shelter with its pelt, and being born from its womb, Smith’s character of Genevieve embodies the complex, symbolic relationships between humans and animals.

Smith received the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture in 2000, the Athena Award for Excellence in Printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2005, the fiftieth Edward MacDowell Medal from the MacDowell Colony in 2009, and has participated in the Whitney Biennial three times in the past decade. In 2005, Smith was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Smith’s work is in numerous prominent museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Smith lives and works in New York City.

Carrie Mae Weems was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1953. Weems earned a BFA from the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia (1981), and an MFA from the University of California, San Diego (1984), continuing her studies in the Graduate Program in Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley (1984–87). With the pitch and timbre of an accomplished storyteller, Weems uses colloquial forms—jokes, songs, rebukes—in photographic series that scrutinize subjectivity and expose pernicious stereotypes.

Weems’s vibrant explorations of photography, video, and verse breathe new life into traditional narrative forms: social documentary, tableaux, self-portrait, and oral history. Eliciting epic contexts from individually framed moments, Weems debunks racist and sexist labels, examines the relationship between power and aesthetics, and uses personal biography to articulate broader truths. Whether adapting or appropriating archival images, restaging famous news photographs, or creating altogether new scenes, she traces an indirect history of the depiction of African Americans of more than a century.

She has received honorary degrees from Colgate University (2007) and California College of the Arts (2001). Awards include the Anonymous Was a Woman Award (2007); Skowhegan Medal for Photography (2007); Rome Prize Fellowship (2006); and the Pollack-Krasner Foundation Grant in Photography (2002); among others. Weems’s work has appeared in major exhibitions at Savannah College of Art and Design (2008); W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University (2007); Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown (2000); and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1998); among others. Carrie Mae Weems lives and works in Syracuse, New York.

About Art in Embassies

For five decades, Art in Embassies (AIE) has played a leading role in U.S. public diplomacy through a focused mission of cross-cultural dialogue through the visual arts and dynamic artist
exchange. The Museum of Modern Art envisioned this global visual arts program in 1953, and President John F. Kennedy formalized as an office of the U.S. Department of State ten years later.
Today, AIE is a vital public-private partnership with over 20,000 participants, including artists, museums, galleries, universities, and private collectors, and encompasses over 200 venues in 189 countries. Through the universal language of the visual arts that transcends boundaries, AIE enhances America’s relationships in diplomatic and global communities, and encourages
communication and understanding beyond the capacity of words–engaging in what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton considers an integral aspect of her commitment to smART power.

The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. Located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the galleries
house the nation’s collections of Asian art and are dedicated to exhibition, research and educational programs that encourage enjoyment and understanding of the arts of Asia and the
cultures that produced them. The galleries are part of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research complex consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National
Zoological Park and nine research facilities. With independent histories, collections, and characters, the galleries are connected by an underground exhibition space and united by a joint
organization, common mission and shared vision. Together the Freer and Sackler serve as global leaders in the field of Asian art.

THE FREER GALLERY OF ART The Freer Gallery, which opened in 1923, is the Smithsonian’s first fine arts museum. The gallery houses a world-renowned collection of art from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and the Near East. Its Chinese collection is considered America’s textbook collection. Highlights of the collection include Chinese paintings, Japanese folding screens, Korean ceramics, Indian and Persian manuscripts, and Buddhist sculptures. It also holds a significant collection of 19thand early 20th-century American art, including the world’s largest number of works by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). The gallery was founded by Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919), a railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit who gave to the United States his collections and funds for a building to house them. The Italian-Renaissance-style gallery, constructed in granite and marble, was designed by American architect Charles Platt.


The gallery opened in 1987 to house a gift of some 1,000 works of Asian art from Dr. Arthur M. Sackler (1913–1987), a research physician and medical publisher from New York City. Among the highlights of his gift were early Chinese bronzes and jades, Chinese paintings and lacquerware, ancient Near Eastern ceramics and metalware, and sculpture from South and Southeast Asia. Sackler also donated $4 million toward construction of the gallery. Since 1987, the gallery’s collections have expanded to other areas such as Islamic arts of the book, Japanese prints and contemporary porcelain; Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean paintings; contemporary Chinese ceramics; and photography. The Sackler Gallery is known for its wideranging exploration of Asian art and culture through innovative exhibitions.