Fort Smith’s recent recognition as a United Nations international city for artistic and cultural innovation might be little more than an elaborate scam, according to a UN spokesman for the office of Secretary-General.
The city announced Tuesday (July 6) at a press conference that it had received recognition as a United Nations international city for artistic and cultural innovation, becoming the 10th city in the world to be so designated by Ibiyinka Alao, an arts ambassador to the United Nations from Nigeria.
Alao has been introduced several times in Fort Smith, social media accounts and news stories as United Nations ambassador of art or arts ambassador. Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the Secretary-General of the United Nations, noted Thursday (July 9) he is unaware of the existence of a United Nations ambassador of the arts.
“Furthermore, the United Nations does not designate cities ‘United Nations International city for artistic and cultural innovation in peace building and economic growth,’” Dujarric said in a statement to Talk Business & Politics. “This has all the hallmarks of a scam.”
Talk Business & Politics reached out to Dujarric after spending several days scouring the United Nation’s website, various social media platforms and the internet for a list of the UN international cities for artistic and cultural innovation. The only list that could be found was on Alao’s website.
Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said city officials were introduced to Alao by friends in Northwest Arkansas, where he served as an artist in residence sponsored by the Tyson Family Foundation, and they felt no need to question who he said he was. However, since Tuesday, the mayor’s office has contacted the United Nations and were told they did not recognize Alao’s name.
“We do not know how hard they searched,” McGill said.
Continuing, McGill noted, “We had no reason to doubt he was who we were told he was. And we had some great plans for him in Fort Smith. We were looking forward to it. We will continue to do our due diligence and see what we find out.”
On his website, Alao is identified as “an artist, ambassador, filmmaker, architect and author who won the first place of a United Nations International Art Competition amongst 61 countries.” His website also states he was named Nigeria’s “Ambassador of Art” by the country’s president in 2005. On a LinkedIn profile, Alao is listed as “United Nations Arts Ambassador.” (Alao sent a Youtube video to Talk Business & Politics as an attempt to prove his UN title, but nothing in the video provided that proof.)
Dr. Brandon Chase Goldsmith, executive director of the Fort Smith International Film Festival, said he was introduced to Alao at an event in Northwest Arkansas as the United Nations ambassador of arts, a position Alao told him had been created for him by the former Secretary-General of the United Nations as a peacekeeping mission. He said he was kept on in the position by Secretary-General. António Guterres of Portugal, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations, took office Jan. 1, 2017, replacing his predecessor Ban Ki-moon of Korea, who served from January 2007 to December 2016. Alao was a guest and spoke at a press conference for the film festival June 17.
“I was introduced to him this way. I did not feel the need to vet him. I thought the folks with Tyson had probably done that,” Goldsmith said.
Alao is the inaugural guest artist in residence at the Rogers Experimental House in Rogers, serving from April through July, according to the house’s website. That position is sponsored by the Tyson Family Foundation and the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce. While there he also has worked throughout Northwest Arkansas, sharing stories of his childhood, his travels, art and music, the website states. (Talk Business & Politics has made an effort to contact the Tyson Family Foundation and will update this story with their response.)
Karen Wagaman, vice-president of downtown development with the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, said before Alao was brought on as an artist in residence, the Rogers Experimental House board had seen a “PDF by the United Nations with his art in it.”
McGill said when those in the city started doing “their due diligence” some things did not add up.
“We do know he was a UN art contest winner and that he was named an arts ambassador by Nigeria back in 2005,” McGill said. “He has told us the declaration from the United Nations would be forthcoming.”
In an article on the Nigerian Embassy’s archives from April 25, 2002, F.K. Martins, information attaché, wrote that Alao’s art “was adjudged the best in last year’s (2001) International Poster contest organized by the United Nations agency, the United Nations Population Fund.” The article said Aloa was inducted into the membership of the Alliance of African American Artists Foundation dedicated to the promotion of fine art of black heritage.
Of the UN competition, the article said, “Selected as the best from over 300 entries from 61 countries of the world Ibiyinka Alao’s work based on the competition’s theme of ‘Population and Environment’ focused on the connection between family size and the environment with attendant changes over time.”
Alao has spent time over the years in various communities across the globe working as an artist in residency, including Alabama, Pennsylvania and Nebraska. Alao said Tuesday he would like to spend a year in Fort Smith as an artist in residency, hopefully beginning Sept. 15, and that he had been meeting with Fort Smith groups to finalize that residency.