Guardian Live Debate: Diversity in the Arts – 15 April 2015

On Wednesday 15th April I attended a panel discussion at Kings Place in central London about ‘Diversity in the Arts’, organised as part of the Guardian Live series of debates. The event was chaired by Guardian journalist Mark Lawson and featured contributions from five invited panellists: Chris Bryant (Labour Party spokesperson for culture, media and the arts),  David Lan (artistic director of the Young Vic) writer Dreda Say Mitchell (a trustee of the National Youth Arts Trust), Femi Oguns MBE (founder and CEO of Identity Drama School), and Ben Stephenson (controller of BBC Drama).

Contributors (from left to right): Ben Stephenson, Mark Lawson, Dreda Say Mitchell, David Lan, Chris Bryant, Femi Oguns.
Panel contributors (from left to right): Ben Stephenson, Mark Lawson, Dreda Say Mitchell, David Lan, Chris Bryant, Femi Oguns.

Key questions tabled for discussion considered the extent of diversity in the UK’s arts sector, as well as throughout the creative industries more broadly – across all artistic forms and genres, and at every level of responsibility and visibility (from front-of-house, audience-facing contributions, and back-office technical support, through to board-level and directorial decision-making, etc.). Central to the debate was the question of whether talent was able to shine through irrespective of factors such as skin colour, gender, sexuality, social class, and/or disability, and also whether successful entry routes and progression in different areas of the arts were still heavily dependent on coming from the ‘right background’, the level of financial support available, mobility within elite networks, and other socio-economic exclusions.

There was general consensus among all the panellists that the UK culture sector lacked diversity across the breadth of its different artistic genres and areas of employment. What differed were their views on the extent of the problem, what needed to be done to disrupt the status quo, the level of urgency influencing the need for change, and the speed at which tangible improvements could be achieved.

Femi Oguns (left), the founder and CEO of the Identity Drama School in Hackney with three of his students. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Femi Oguns (left), the founder and CEO of the Identity Drama School in Hackney with three of his students. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The opening statement by Femi Oguns focused on the current state of arts education, highlighting major concerns about under-representation of black and minoritized creative practitioners in the UK’s film, TV and theatre workforce – citing statistics from the British Film Institute that revealed less than 5% BME representation in the UK film industry when Britons of African, Asian and Caribbean descent (including visible minorities with dual/multiple heritage) comprise c. 14% of the population in England and Wales.*

Dreda Say Mitchell suggested that the wrong questions were being posed, and encouraged a refocused debate to make it more about issues of access and genuinely valuing people as equals. She was rightly critical of mainstream institutions such as the BBC for their lack of ambition in implementing “revolutionary reforms” and relying too heavily on arbitrary box-checking activities that compartmentalized individuals as diversity “types” – on which “project status” could be conferred, and small pots of “diversity funding” could be temporarily allocated – rather than valuing diversity as a means of achieving greater excellence as well as equality.

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“American Policing: Lessons on Resistance” – Discussions at the Schomburg in New York

American Policing: Lessons on Resistance’ is the title of a panel discussion that took place at the Schomburg in New York on 18th February 2015 as a follow-up conversation to their recent town-hall-style debate on ‘American Policing: The War on Black Bodies’. The session featured wide-ranging commentary on issues related to police brutality, racial discrimination, ‘stop and frisk’/’stop and search’ policies, and community-led responses to the killing of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Aiyana Stanley-Jones and others in recent news.

Contributing speakers (from left to right): Mychal Denzel Smith; Cherrell Brown; Philip Agnew; Dante Barry; and Ashley Yates. Source: Schomburg Center, New York.

The panel discussion was moderated by writer Mychal Denzel Smith (The Nation), with contributions from the following four political activists and social commentators: Ashley Yates (poet and co-creator of Millennial Activists United), Dante Barry (Director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice), Philip Agnew (Co-founder of Dream Defenders) and Cherrell Brown (National Organizer with Equal Justice USA). Closing comments were also provided by Dr Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Central to the debate were questions about what justice might look like if black lives actually mattered in the USA; strategies for restructuring, de-militarizing and dismantling policing systems so that their historical origins in the States as organisations founded on the surveillance and restriction of the lives, mobilities and freedoms of black and brown people did not continue to perpetuate racialized discrimination; critiquing the complexities of campaigning against the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and the increasing monetization of incarcerated black bodies; envisioning safe communities; aligning anti-racist  political activism with wider education and culture agendas – including activism via the arts; routes into community-based activism and leadership for young people; self-esteem/’self-love’/self-care and spirituality issues within movements for social change; and effective ways to disseminate counter-narratives to help challenge the normalisation of privileged white citizenship to the detriment of others’ lived realities.

Continue reading “American Policing: Lessons on Resistance” – Discussions at the Schomburg in New York

A new photographic installation by Yinka Shonibare MBE, inspired by William Morris

‘The William Morris Family Album’ is the title of a new photography exhibition and costume display at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, east London, featuring a new installation of photographic tableaux created by British-Nigerian contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare MBE.

Yinka Shonibare, 'The William Morris Family Album', 2015, Copyright the artist, Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, Commissioned by William Morris Gallery
Image source: William Morris Gallery – http://www.wmgallery.org.uk.

In preparation for the exhibition Shonibare undertook extensive research into the life and work of William Morris, as well as the local history of Waltham Forest,  to help guide his archive-based searches and draw inspiration for creating a new series of group portraits to reflect the areas changed (and ever-changing) social and cultural composition and population demography since Morris’s era.

Yinka Shonibare, 'The William Morris Family Album', 2015, Copyright the artist, Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, Commissioned by William Morris Gallery
Yinka Shonibare, ‘The William Morris Family Album’, 2015, Copyright the artist, Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, Commissioned by William Morris Gallery

Local residents from Walthamstow’s diverse multi-ethnic and multicultural communities were invited to sit for Shonibare in a series of group portraits – each one staged to mirror and echo the composition of historical portraits from William Morris’ Victorian family album. The sitters were styled in late-19th century costumes to complement the range of attire featured in the archive images. The significant difference, however, was  the replacement of plain fabrics with Shonibare’s signature ‘African-inspired’, wax-resist dyed patterned textiles and colourful batiks from Indonesia.

Following his completion of the project, Shonibare said:

“In the spirit of William Morris’ ideal of an egalitarian society, a diverse group of local people were invited to re-stage three photographs from the William Morris Family Album. The photographs are a celebration of costumes, textiles and diversity in the Morris world from a 21st century perspective.”

– Yinka Shonibare MBE, RA (2015)

The free exhibition is on display until 7th June 2015 at The William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London E17 4PP.

Website for further information: http://www.wmgallery.org.uk

Yinka Shonibare, 'The William Morris Family Album', 2015, Copyright the artist, Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, Commissioned by William Morris Gallery
Yinka Shonibare, ‘The William Morris Family Album’, 2015, Copyright the artist, Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, Commissioned by William Morris Gallery

Continue reading A new photographic installation by Yinka Shonibare MBE, inspired by William Morris