I hope you all had a restful holiday period and are adjusting to being back at work, albeit working from home. Last year we hosted three online sessions, one for individuals and two for organisations; each session focused on a different aspect of diversity and inclusion within the arts.
I wrote a summary of the first session and the problems using the term BAME and how it is damaging, particularly when attempting to increase diversity and inclusion. The discussion then turned to the active steps that galleries and organisations to make people of colour feel more welcomed in their spaces.
The second and third sessions featured guest speakers who touched upon several points on improving diversity which I also summarised in a previous blog. The overarching message from the two sessions was that making their organisation diverse is something all organisations should and can work towards; even the smallest step is one in the right direction.
Many important points were highlighted in the first three sessions, which we hope to expand and build upon in the final three sessions. The next three sessions will take a new outlook on diversity and inclusion within the arts, through a Northern Irish context. What became apparent from our sessions is that Northern Ireland is in a unique position compared to the rest of the UK. In terms of the progression of diversity, it is too simple to look at existing models within mainland UK or elsewhere and attempt to implement the in NI without taking into account the complexities of NI.
The goal of these sessions is to continue to facilitate meaningful conversations about diversity and inclusion that are needed within the sector. The session will hopefully provide an open space for organisations to talk to individuals about their needs and what they, as an audience, would like to see improved to make them feel more welcomed in these spaces.
As the year is quickly drawing to a close, it is only right to reflect on it. It goes without saying that 2020 has been one to remember for a lot of reasons (particularly an eleven-letter word on everyone’s mind that starts with a C and ends with an S). And it would be very easy to allow the challenging and difficult times to overshadow a number of positive things that have happened this year. But one evident positive outcome of 2020 was the fact that black lives matter was brought back to the forefront of many minds. The BLM protests central message of racial equality made waves throughout several arts institutions, who became conscious of – or were forced to confront – their lack of diversity.
Over the past months, as part of its Community Foundation NI New Needs project, the Golden Thread Gallery has hosted three sessions to discuss how we as arts organisations can all endeavour to put diversity and equality at the forefront.
In the second session, our guest speaker Seema Manchanda, Managing Director of The Showroom, accurately pointed out that when it comes to making progress on the matter, as long as an organisation is consciously attempting to improve diversity, even small actions count to begin with. A similar sentiment was expressed in our third session by our two speakers Jade Foster and Pier Vegner Tosta: namely that improving diversity is not something that can be solved in a couple of weeks. It’s more along the lines of a marathon. Policies around diversity and inclusion should be viewed as a long-term strategy.
Two particularly useful pieces of advice that I took from the sessions were:
Reach out to diverse communities and cater to their needs
This can range from allowing your space just to be a community shared space that can be used in alternative ways. By removing the pressure of getting the community to come to your venue and participate in what you have to offer, a suggestion was to allow your space to be used by them in other ways that they actually need more. This could be a meeting point, learning space or simply a place with no pressure to buy something, offering free tea and coffee; the aim is to make your space useful for the community.
Create an allyship with other organisations
As mentioned above, striving for more diversity is not an easy and quick job. In areas like Belfast, with a smaller diverse population, having an alliance allows for strength in numbers and sharing knowledge.
I hope you have a lovely holiday period and stay safe. See you all in 2021, where the Golden Thread Gallery and I have planned more sessions and activities in the New Needs project, including a host of amazing speakers to hear from and with whom we can discuss making our organisations more inclusive.
Finally, we wanted to share the wonderful presentation that Pier collated for Session Three, featuring artworks and artists that have inspired and informed his own personal and curatorial journey exploring identity, ethnicity, history and memory, and how these can often be blurred into one.
On the 24th of October, I kicked off the Golden Thread Gallery Improving Diversity webinar series with an informal discussion with individuals, who were Black, mixed-ethnicity and Asian, and from across the UK and Ireland, about their view of the current state of diversity and inclusion within the arts sector. It was amazing to have a conversation, as diversity should be given within society – not an afterthought. I believe the arts should be at the forefront of diversity and inclusion. Yet, the question has to be asked – is the art sector actually doing anything to address the visible lack of representation and slow rate of change within the sector as a whole?
I opened up the discussion with an eye-opening fact from Jemma Desai’s ongoing study This Work isn’t For Us. Desai found that institutions have been repeating the same rhetoric about the need to reform to foster more diversity and inclusivity since the 70s:
“Diversity narratives in public documents often focus on the lacks, gaps and description of the marginalisation of the excluded rather than the behaviours and attitudes of those that are the beneficiaries of that exclusion – often those that do the excluding.”
This only emphasises the idea that a systemic change is needed to end the cycle of only talking about being inclusive instead of making substantial change.
Within this discussion, I wanted to highlight the importance of language and terminology that organisations used to increase diversity and inclusion and how, in my opinion, has restricted inclusion. Therefore, a large majority of the discussion was centred around the term BAME.
The origins of BAME began in the 1960s and 1970s, black people would be referred to as the black community. It became apparent that the Asian community wasn’t represented, so it became the black and Asian community. However, it was brought up that the Black and Asian community wasn’t inclusive, and there were other minority ethnic groups not represented, so it changed to BME. However, as non-black minority ethnics were not defined, and the term finally became BAME. Over time BAME has become more of a buzzword within organisations and the government sector as a shorthand and used when companies and organisations want to target diversity.
The participants and I spoke about the fact that the use of BAME “is damaging”, mainly as it forces those that are not white into a metaphorical box, the term “kind of segregates you…”, in addition to placing whiteness as a default within society. By skirting around the issue – my ethnicity – with the term BAME, the word feels like an attempt to segregate from the white default and make those placed in the category feel like an ‘other’. I am black and very much aware of that fact. I am not a ‘BAME’ woman, I think the acronym is a modern way to call someone coloured. BAME can only be regarded as a dirty word to me, highlighting the fact that I am not a part of the mainstream; however, not significant enough to warrant my own racial category.
However, moving forward if the term BAME is rejected, what should be used instead? Might a new name just have the same connotations, because “would it just be replacing BAME with another word?” Any label would bring about more negative connotation – as one participant noted, “words such as ‘BAME’ or ‘people of colour’ are titles that were chosen for us by other people”. Which made me think about a quote from the book Half a Yellow Sun by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:
“I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”
One of the critical flaws with the term BAME is the term’s ability to diminish the fact that we all face different and unique issues. I cannot comprehend how the experiences of being Asian (which in itself is a diverse grouping within itself) can be lumped into the experiences of being Black. So, by using the term BAME to refer to a target group as a whole to increase inclusivity, organisations fail to look at the nuances that each individual ethnic group have, and ways to cater to what they want. When BAME is used to describe a person, they are basically stripped of their identity and their experiences as an individual.
What was apparent was the fact that we would simply like to see ourselves and individual cultures represented in the arts. This luxury has been afforded white artists as the status quo. The increasing the number of ethnic minorities participating within the arts would go hand in hand with the increase of artists from an ethnic minority background. An example we talked about was a children’s book Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne; the illustrations in the book depicted a culture that resembles their own, it showed Africa, the culture and the landscape.
To put it simply, if people from a black, Asian and ethnic minority background saw more of their culture represented within the arts, they would be more inclined to engage with and participate in it. It is easy to say, in a place like Northern Ireland that lacks diversity, that there is less urgency to expand and diversify the programme to showcase artists of different backgrounds. However, the ethnic landscape has changed dramatically in Northern Ireland and the works of art and institutions that present them should reflect this change.
It is a well-known fact that the Arts sector is predominantly white and too hard to break into; active steps need to be taken to make the industry more diverse and welcoming. There should also be more of an attempt to seek out and find ethnic minorities and show their work, connecting with the artists over platforms such as social media.
Organisations in NI and ROI that are doing amazing things!
Please note this is not an exclusive list – If you are aware of more, please email them to us!
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