Alter Ego – An EU competition on cultural diversity


Imagine you were born in another European country, who would you be? What would you look like? What languages would you speak? Those were some of the questions students in 22 EU countries, including the Czech Republic, were asked to address in a new competition this year, called Alter Ego. Part of the Year of Intercultural Dialogue promoted by the EU, the competition, which has just wrapped up, invited young people between the ages of 14 and 18 to create their own double portrait through any manner of techniques: drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, film, and even music. The goal was to try to imagine life in another European’s shoes, focusing on issues of cultural diversity.

I caught up with one of the projects main organisers here, Helena Kovaříková of Prague’s Czech Centre. She told me more about Alter Ego at the awards ceremony.

“The project was announced in April this year and we had a big launch event on April 22 and we made a huge effort to get as many young people involved as possible. Through schools, art clubs and other organisations as well. I am pleased to say that the Czech Republic did really well, getting the most entries of all the countries taking part. We had 135, which the jury narrowed down to 10 semi-finalists.”

Alter Ego logo
The jury itself was then made up of five panel members representing expertise in the arts as well as on multicultural issues and international affairs.

“It was very important for us to get very good partners who were also experts in the field of migration, intercultural dialogue, intercultural education and so on. Therefore the partners were reflected in the jury. The head of the jury was Petr Kamenický of the Arts dept. of the pedagogical faculty, who has run many such projects. Other members included representatives from People in Need, the Association for International Affairs, the head of the Romanian Institute and the artist Ladislava Gažiová.”

They chose the ten semi-finalists, but were originally not meant to choose the two winners. That was to been decided by public vote over the internet. Tampering in the system - unfairly giving the advantage to some entries – changed all that. According to Helena Kovaříková, that led to last-minute changes in the selection process.

“We discovered very soon that there was fraud in the voting. So first we made the system more secure. But hackers continued to tamper with the voting and even at the last moment, after the competition closed officially on October 3, thousands of votes were still coming in. We decided that this would damage the credibility of the competition as well as our partners. We decided, backed by the Brussels steering committee, to annul the voting, something which also happened in other countries (Germany and Hungary) and to leave the final decision up to our jury.”

The final decision was announced at a special ceremony at Prague’s Centre for Ethnic Minorities this week with all the necessary fanfare, including a choir performance featuring African-American singer Tonya Graves - a member of the famous Czech band Monkey Business.

She was one of the contest’s “ambassadors” and afterwards had this to say about the students’ work:

“Of the ten that we saw today, I would say that I liked a lot of them. The two that won were good, but I think there were others I liked even more. But I liked the ones that won as well.”

She also wholeheartedly backs projects like Alter Ego, saying competitions like this one serve well to broaden horizons:

“Supporting young artists early means that they’ll go on to doing better things. That’s also the thing about youth: youth are always interested and open to new ideas.”

So which works won? The first was a portrait by 17-year-old Adéla Wágnerová, a B&W diptych featuring female protagonists and mirrors, capturing elements of self-reflection, similarity, and difference.

“I made a series of photos about me and my friend, who is black. It is a mirror of the world, where we have to search not for differences but for what we have in common.”

The other winner was Julie Klimentová, whose B&W pen drawing using the motif of eggs – or more precisely egg shells – to represent fragility.

“It’s a bit of a word play on egg and ego and I wanted to express that we have many things that we love and that we want to protect around us, but that we sometimes protect too much and don’t think that we create barriers around us. These are like egg shells and sometimes we should break through and try to enjoy new experiences.”

Both young women, one is in her final year at secondary school, the other in her second to last, will now travel to Copenhagen for a six-day workshop with professional artists, where they will also meet 42 other winners from the other EU countries.

“I am excited and I trust that those will be nice days.”

“I am happy and I would really like to enjoy it and then help in my school so that others can experience something similar like this dialogue of cultures.”

That opportunity, says Nigel Bellingham of the British Council (also involved in Alter Ego) is an exciting one. He says in addition to the contest providing a great experience for the students who won, the workshop will also give something back to local school systems, namely useful guidelines for future multicultural projects:

“That would be great if that could happen: one of things that the workshop in Copenhagen could provide is that we will start developing a pack of materials that teachers both in the Czech Republic and other countries can use. It will be of a benefit not only for those who took part in the competition but for others as well.”