“Diversity is a state of being, a kind of light in a perfect desert of same. And like light, it aids in looking and seeing
It is in acknowledging what may be said to be a weed, an interloper seeking sunshine between the shade of a great canopy
What your instinct is telling you pull out,
That that can also bloom
That the blossoms can be found to be medicinal,
That they can feed those who forage,
Those who are missing
And how can we include them?
Who is lowly and downtrodden underfoot
Who is hogging the sun.
If you can not hear me how can you understand me”.
An excerpt from “Creative case for diversity” by Elmi Ali. A poem created from the discussions at and performed at Power through Diversity at Contact Manchester 12th December 2016
I started the day by missing my train. The realisation that the advanced ticket I had purchased is worth nothing reminded me of the many times I had attended conferences, debates and workshops exploring diversity and found myself leaving with a feeling of angry emptiness knowing that it was just a waste of time – that the malignancy of intolerance and the denial of diversity will become even more difficult to fight.
When one can see the futility of the narrative it hardens one’s sense of injustice. After attending and taking part in initiative after initiative, one feels initiative-ised – sick to death of listening to people in authority orating their failures only to go back to the same cycles of behaviour. This was worse during times of economic difficulty as it was easier to say ‘tough luck, we all need to tighten our belts’. Bite sized buzz words emerged explain why the arts was not more diverse and everyone would chew over these nuggets of disdain but none could digest the nonsense. And so the vomit of groupthink, institutionalism, barriers, gatekeepers and other such phrases went on and on.
The past twenty or so years feel as though they have been lived in slow motion. Like wading through diversity flavoured custard while the world cruises by on an oil slick of mainstreaming. Slow motion because creatively, artists of all types have moved on. However, new generations of artists are still being exposed to the same polemic.
One could argue that we have all been duped into a big divide and rule. I maybe wrong but by highlighting diversity a chasm has been created between anyone that can be labeled diverse and the remaining homogeneous lump of normals. By taking the majority of artists out of the debate, an ambivalence has emerged that pits creative against creative. When those creatives become the leaders of the future that same ambivalence becomes cyclical.
I had the pleasure of working on one of the most diverse collaborations I have ever worked on. This work took in influences from and collaborate with artists originating from around the world and it was created by by someone who is not described as from a “diverse background”. The work and its audience was intrinsically diverse and yet, it was not acknowledged for its diversity.
Diversity seems to have become a parallax as viewed from a moving train. One can just about see the goal on the horizon as it moves the least way off in the far distance. However as your gaze moves towards yourself from the horizon, things become more difficult to fix onto and there seems to be no discernable route to the goal.
Yesterday however (12th December), was different for one main reason. For the first time in my career as an artist, I had attended an event related to diversity and I did not come away feeling angry.
I was late for the event and therefore I had already missed the keynote speeches from Afreena Islam and Reece Williams two of the board members at Contact Theatre and Darren Henley. As I sat down the panel discussion started i could feel the familiar anger rising as the big people (CEO’s heads of diversity etc) started to talk.
One voice stood out however and that was the voice of Jane Cordell director of getting Equal and chair of DaDaFest. Talking about envisaging a total audience and starting from concept stage, she talked about what was needed in order achieve diversity and said “to do that, you need not leaders including board members who understand the issues, you need people who have lived the issues, who have the experience”. This for me is a lightbulb moment and points to an evolution in arts funding policy that would bring about real change. However this was not the highlight of the event. After lunch the tone of the event changed considerably.
After lunch all of the thoughts of the controversial things that should or could be said, all of the eyebrow raising gestures and pointed comments saved for the Q and A dissolved as artists (along with one Barrister and one historian) took to the stage to deliver a series of provocations. Through a mixture of real lived experience, statistics, metaphor, song, dance and stripping (yes stripping) these individuals brought to life the very reasons diversity is important.
Kate O’Donnell started things off by unfurling the trans aesthetic narrative, then unfurling her clothes and singing. David Olusoga followed by talking about the power of history as a lens that elucidates identity and the potency of television as a medium that conditions the collective consciousness. Jackie Hagan employed her photographs, taken in service stations of sad stuffed animals to explore class. Mawaan Rizwan then went on to explore ambition by taking on the persona of a lamp (that was eventually plugged in) dancing and stripping (yes, stripping again). Sally Penni dissected the statistics around diversity through a hilariously energetic lecture which started with an images of the Law Lords Hearing the current appeal regarding Brexit and ended with an image of the Spice Girls. Yusra Warsama pulled no punches when she spoke of her direct experiences of the power play that occurs when leaders forget that those that are different to them are still human beings.
The event ended with Elmi Ali who recited a fresh new poem he had created from the dialogue in the event. And though the event ended, it felt more as though something new had begun – that green shoots of enthused optimism were clamoring to be birthed into our grey world of same and sprawl its blossom of change.
As I tried to reconcile this new disconcerting sense of optimism I tried to get a grip of why I was feeling elated instead of angry.
The reason is obvious if one looks at who put together the event. Both Afreena Islam and Reece Williams are artists and therefore this event has been framed from an artist’s perspective. The organisers provoked artists to take on this narrative and just run. In some ways it was like the adults had finally trusted the kids to drive ’their’ car and they had pulled off a handbrake turn and parked the car without a scratch. The fact that this event was artist led enabled an audacious viscerality that made all of the managers, pen pushers, and bean counters stand up and listen. This all boil down to trust.
I know it sounds naive and many of you will be pointing and laughing (especially at the bits that mention stripping). However, as a great friend once told me that you need to dream for real.
Mr Henley, If you are reading this give artists the power to make change. Make it compulsory for artists to be on management boards, embed artists in organisations and you will see change quickly. People say this was ‘an Arts Council event’ however, for me it was owned by artists.