Privileging Our D-Words: Diversity, Dissent and Decolonised imagination in the public art space

"If both art and imagination are landscapes made broader by the prospect of encountering otherness; and by a curiosity to experience or understand places and people unknown; then it is reasonable to assert that art and imagination at their most potent and fertile must derive from a willingness to engage the diverse." Jan Asante, designer, writer and curator of film and culture.

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'As cultural critics proclaim this post-modern era the age of nomadism, the time when fixed identities and boundaries lose their meaning and everything is in flux, when border crossing is the order of the day, the real truth is that most people find it very difficult to journey away from familiar and fixed boundaries…In this age of mixing and hybridity, popular culture...constitutes a new frontier providing a sense of movement, of pulling away from the familiar and journeying into and beyond the world of the other.' - bell hooks, 'Reel to Real'

'Our bodies are occupied territories. Perhaps the ultimate goal of performance, especially if you are a woman, gay or a person “of color,” is to decolonize our bodies; and make these decolonizing mechanisms apparent to our audience in the hope that they will get inspired to do the same with their own.' - Guillermo Gómez-Peña, “In Defense of Performance Art”

How imaginative is the art form that dwells too long in the cul-de-sac; mirroring only the contents of its own internal constructs, like an impermeable cultural membrane that shields against whatever potential transformation may come from venturing beyond the cul-de-sac? Conversely, how re-imagined is the art form that peers beyond the perimeter of familiarity; that ventures beneath the skin of the homogenous space and that dares; without desire to dominate or decimate, to self-objectify and reappraise the value of its own skin through outside eyes?

Envision that vista of the cul-de-sac contrasted with the world outside the cul-de-sac. Symbolically, they occupy one landscape as opposing forces of imaginative expression: the colonial view that would centralise impermeability as cultural preserve, versus the decolonial approach that would integrate the cul-de-sac to save it, and populate its landscape with a panoply of communities. Envision if you will the tumultuous shifts and revolutionary upheavals that remain etched in both history books and human consciousness as memories of great migrations; of hope, loss, strife, struggle, pain, belonging and unbelonging, colonialism and decolonialism. Memories both individual and subconsciously transferred across the expanse of generations. Memories and minds indelibly marked by the psychological toll involved in reconciling that prevailing impasse between colonial impulse and its decolonial counter-narrative.

It was the autumn of 2014. An impasse had ensued in response to London's planned staging of 'Exhibit B' - a performance piece framed around colonial memory, envisioned by an artist descended from colonial settlers; featuring prominently a cast of performers descended from a lineage of colonized bodies. In its very physical conception, Exhibit B would represent that challenging reconciliation between empowered gaze and disempowered gaze and thus, in the impasse that occurred between voices of support and voices of dissent against the staging of this controversial work, there was a vital question. To artist, to audience, to Establishment: To whom, by whom and for whom is entitlement given to stage such reanimations of complex, traumatic cultural memory, and how best to negotiate the interactions and interventions of colonial with decolonial, within the shared performance spaces of contemporary art and culture?

When historically bodies have been 'owned'- held captive, displaced, dismembered, systemically disenfranchised in the service of colonial language; to create colonial wealth; to advance the preservation of the colonizer's culture; - it is a veritable challenge of communication to negotiate between descendents of the colonized and beneficiaries of colonial acquisition; a reconciliatory, reparative dialogue around the creation of representative art, that speaks with levelling autonomy beyond imbalances of history and disparate cultural entitlements. For this communication to occur within the context of any prevailing bias; inside the existing terms of colonial language that dwells in spaces constructed by the inherent architects of colonial systems, is a challenge only further intensified. Yet, it is a challenge for artist and audience and Establishment to dually and critically engage if art as a statement on human condition should aspire to render any truthful revelations about humanity in all its complexity of differing identities.

If both art and imagination are landscapes made broader by the prospect of encountering otherness; and by a curiosity to experience or understand places and people unknown; then it is reasonable to assert that art and imagination at their most potent and fertile must derive from a willingness to engage the diverse. Otherwise said, the art form that denies itself the liberty to speak towards diverse, alternate identities is the art form simultaneously in danger of extinguishing its very capacity to re-birth imagination.

In the immediate aftermath of the impasse, there is that temporal window of opportunity; a moment of interaction among the willing, where mediation may evolve towards an implementation of potentially transcendent resolutions.

To this symposium of diverse voices, The ‘D’ Word posed four resounding questions: ‘How do we collectively develop enhanced infrastructure and opportunity for culturally diverse artists to make and present work in London's spaces? In defining 'diversity' in a globally connected world in which race and identity is complex - do existing labels and categories need re-thinking? How do we encourage shared regular learning and good practice across the sector to include policy makers, commissioners, programmers, and employers as well as artists and arts organisations? How do we generate a paradigm shift in both quality and understanding of what is required to support the work and share it with audiences?

In the presentations offered by The ‘D’ Word’’s keynote speakers and in the ‘Lightning Talks’ delivered by performance artists, there were both definitive responses and candid revelations of personal struggle and triumph in negotiating the politics of diversity as performance practice and programming. There were also honest admissions of dilemma, when met with unanswerable questions about how best to effect, sustain and support the achievement of diversity, inclusivity and commonality as interrelated conversations in art spaces.

From Sharnita K Athwal; CEO of music development company Shaanti 11, there was a talk on 'Digital Engagement: Removing obstacles and adapting to opportunities' - framed around experiences of curating arts events exploring British Asian identities, and authenticity as an alternative to ‘assimilation’.

Joon Lynn Goh; senior producer and festival curator for In Between Time delivered philosophical reflections on 'Producing with a live art embrace' - invoking in her presentation the work of acclaimed Mexican activist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who conceptualised the body as an ‘occupied territory’ and exalted decolonisation of the body as intrinsically necessary to the process of liberating dialogue between performance artist and audience.

‘Lightning Talks’ and performance pieces by artists Nwando Ebizie and Vijay Patel were captivating punctuations on the day’s thematic intersections and drew upon themes of multiculturalism, tradition, ritual and legacy; invoking cultural memories from the West African and East Indian Diaspora’s respectively.

From Fin Kennedy; co-artistic director of Tamasha, self-described as ‘a white, male playwright who has had an unusually diverse journey through East London schools’ – there was 'Recipe for change: How to diversify new British theatre' – a meditation on his process as both playwright and programmer, that peaked on the call towards ‘the E word’ (equality) as central to the core of all diversity thinking.

Kerry Michael; artistic director at Theatre Royal Stratford East, spoke unequivocally of this being the 'Time for positive action' and called very specifically for ‘people of colour’ to be front and centre in articulating the debate. The question asked: “Wouldn’t the theatre sector be so much more exciting if there were more people of colour serving as our national critics? Imagine how refreshing that would be for all of us.”

Writer, coach and broadcaster, Gaylene Gould of ‘Write.Talk.Listen’ spoke with provocative and poetic candour on the art of self-implicating and 'Learning to love differently'. ‘Cultural neglect’ she warned was a condition linked to ‘non-participatory alienation’; of feeling oneself disconnected when the cultural forms around them bare no resemblance to their cultural existence or memory. She underscored the relevance of love in the resolve of conflict, and in the translation of exclusivity into conscious acts of inclusivity.

'Diversity isn't a dirty word - but could there be a better one?', asked theatre director Paulette Randall; associate producer of the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, yet still the first ever Black and female theatre director to helm a West End theatrical production. Lamenting the fatigue that ‘pigeonholing’ within the British arts establishment frequently imposes upon artists of colour, she spoke personally of having encountered misperceptions- chiefly the assumption that Black artists are capable solely of creating work that speaks to Black audiences.

Heather Rabbatts CBE; a Jamaican-born British lawyer, businesswoman, broadcaster, and a towering presence within the structural echelons of UK arts and corporate sectors, delivered the final presentation of The D-Word. In 'Catalyst for change' she centralised leadership and strategy as conduits for change in the most demanding of environments and made clear that the question of achieving legacy in the diverse workspace would ultimately require collaborative investment in attracting, supporting and retaining diverse talent.

To reflect on the totality of talks, performances and provocations that transpired in the course of The D-Word is a challenge. In respect of condensing the wealth and depth of discourse into any singular phrase, proposal or outcome- no uniform offering would truly suffice here. Amidst the abstract interventions there were moments of dissent and instances in which English as the unifying yet colonial language used to capture the feeling in the room, felt symbolically like that impasse; like the test of navigating between colonial conventions and the decolonial impulse. Yet this moment was a needed moment; from impasse to engagement- making the necessary advance towards creating new and autonomously informed ideas that transplant diversity from the realm of ‘other’ and reposition it as a privilege of multitudes; central and essential to any art that seeks to speak towards a complete picture of humanity.

About the author (@JanaSante/ @CultureKinetica)

Jan Asante is a designer, writer and curator of film and culture. As a designer, she has exhibited at the world renowned Victoria and Albert Museum and has been profiled on the BBC, MTV, CNN, The Guardian and The Independent. As founder of consultancy brand Culture Kinetica, she has curated collaborative installations at Royal Society of Arts, programmed film festivals for the UK's Black Cultural Archives in partnership with Picturehouse Cinemas and has contributed to expert panels at Women Of the World (WOW) Festival and Africa Utopia Festival at The Southbank Centre. As an observer of cinema and television culture, her writings on film have featured on (for 'Shadow and Act').