(Image Credit: Zarah Hussain Desert Night Sky, 2012)
40 years ago this year, Naseem Khan OBE, then a journalist covering the arts wrote a seminal report entitled The Arts Britain Ignores, in which she attempted to map ethnic minority led arts in the UK in order to better understand the extent of the richness of Britain’s cultural scene. Suffice to say that this 1976 report highlighted that there was a whole world of kaleidoscopic artistic activity across all genres that were not being recognised, promoted, staged or celebrated beyond the narrow confines of the various minority ethnic communities that they emanated from.
This report was the cue for a plethora of stop-start activities largely funded by the Arts Council and local authorities, each with varying slants on a main theme of ‘celebrating diversity’. 40 years on is a good time to pause and ask the question – what difference has all this made? A project curated by Dr Robert Berkeley MBE and produced by Jenny Williams of Take The Space seeks to explore that very question in a series of multimedia dialogues.
Earlier this week, I attended the most recent event at Autograph APB’s always impressive art gallery space (They have a fantastic exhibition on at the moment of the celebrated Brazilian photographer Mario Crevo Neto). 13 years ago, after a brief but infinitely interesting stint as Diversity Co-ordinator at London Arts, (then the regional arts board of Arts Council of England), I had the pleasure of taking over from Naseem as Head of Cultural Diversity at the national office of Arts Council England. Tasked with effectively making the Arts Council more diverse in its outlook, through its funding and in its partnerships, that I left soon after is a reflection not just of my own ability to operate in that environment, but also of the scale of the problem. That the questions still need to be asked 40 years after Naseem’s report indicates that the problem is far larger than any one person or initiative. I attended this event after a period of relative lack of engagement with the Arts establishment, curious as to the progress that had been made and the direction of the new conversations.
Same Game, Same Players?
The very first thing I noticed on arrival was that I knew personally, or knew of, almost everyone in the room. As great as it was to see some old friends and familiar faces, including respected colleagues like Naseem herself, there was a slight unease about this. Where were the new voices, I wondered – and especially, where are the younger voices, the practitioners blazing new trails now and into the next 40 years?
Expertly hosted and moderated by Gaylene Gould, the event kicked off with a series of short, sharp provocations by members of the project team, who are all industry heavyweights: Kully Thiarai,soon to assume post as Artistic Director for National Theatre Wales; David Bryan, long-time consultant on cultural diversity affairs in the arts, and Naseem Khan.
Kully made the pertinent observations from an artistic perspective of how important having a place at the table is for all, and enjoined a more creative approach to the issues of representation by paraphrasing a quotation -“a person unfamiliar with the constellation of stars will only see chaos”. David approached the issue from political and economic standpoints, recognising that we have only had ‘moments’ over the past 40 years but our “invisibility has not gotten better over time”, and indeed we (i.e. Black artists) have colluded with this invisibility by telling other people’s stories at the expense of our own. Naseem reviewed the situation from an institutional and historical perspective, asking why the change sought 40 years ago is yet to be realised and identifying that there is no big solution, but the situation requires a “continuum of persistence and irritation, and disruption of the idea of normality”.
Following these introductory remarks, there was an open discussion, which touched on themes such as the agency of Black artists in seeking or challenging the power of the language used to describe the problem (of lack of inclusivity), and how this language is not artistically driven but institutionally imposed. There seemed to be consensus that the language of diversity has so far been more preoccupied with minimising discomfort of the mainstream than actually creating a meaningful dialogue of change. Discomfort was also present in the interval entertainment provided by performance poet Akila Richards, especially in her apposite piece ‘Exhibit B’.
The key shifts that the audience wanted to see that would indicate real progress ranged from better networking amongst BME artists, developing new funding models both within and outside of the Arts Council’s control, challenging and changing the arts education curriculum, nurturing the artists to ensure they are not seen as unviable business risks, collective determination to celebrate and collaborate, amplification of the voices for change and facilitated infiltration of diversity in the decision-making levers of the arts.
Temples for Tomorrow
Rob Berkeley closed proceedings by invoking the spirit of Langston Hughes’ famous 1926 essay ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’, quoting – “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
He offered this as a manifesto for future change, that Black artists freely do their own thing and not worry too much about the gaze from without.
As It Was In The Beginning…?
In her provocation, Naseem had used an interesting analogy. She grew up in Birmingham and in her childhood her family was part of a small Indian community which regularly met in halls across the city. After their revelry they habitually left these community spaces in as pristine a condition as they had met them, leaving no trace that they had ever been there. This was how she felt about the arts landscape after diversity initiatives of the last 40 years, the ‘moments’ that David Bryan had described – who can tell we have been there?
While this project’s aims are laudable, and admittedly I haven’t been party to all the conversations that have occurred at other events, one was left wondering where all this was leading and how or if, it was really going to tell us anything we haven’t heard a million times before? What would make this moment different? And one also wondered who this programme was actually really for?
But then I remembered that no matter how often we tell stories, there are always people to whom the story will be new; however world-weary and hackneyed we believe oft-repeated words might be, there are always people freshly discovering and finding inspiration in them.
As new voices from all aspects of the arts divides are added to the rostra of conversation, we should expect that new thinking and fresh challenges to the 40 year modus operandi will materialise and hopefully knock down doors long closed.
Change and Relevance
Arts Council England’s most recent approach to diversity has been via the tool of making ‘the creative case for diversity‘, effectively admonishing the sector that failure to embrace diversity diminishes their art, their reputation and their institutions. But it actually does more than that – it renders them increasingly irrelevant in the ever-more multicultural, multilayered globalised world in which we reside, live and love. It means that their notion of the normal is a fool’s paradise in which their long-standing supra-funded status, or their imprimatur as cultural behemoth gatekeeper, will not render them any protection from the surely coming waves of demographic and socio-economic change.
What Difference Does Difference Make can yet make an intriguing game-shifting difference to the diversity effort by totally reframing it in an artist-led, genuinely inclusive, economically intelligent and politically astute manner. We need to turn the ‘moments’ into movements. And we will know we are there when using Naseem’s analogy of looking back and seeing no trace of intermittent visibility, we look not just behind but around and see ourselves fully reflected in the world of the arts, without need for demand or question.
I guess after everything, I still believe.