Change the whole agenda

'The infrastructure of the arts is invisibly conditioned - there are many "keep out" signs. Arts organisations have to point out this discrimination.'

Naseem Khan

Topics Culture

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Naseem Khan has been helping to promote diversity in the arts for 40 years – as a journalist, an arts administrator and policy advisor. Here she tells James Heartfield why arts bodies need to change their whole agenda.

‘Things have changed enormously since the 1970s, not just the cultural background but the aspirations of the artists as well. With the first generation of immigrants their work was concerned with conserving the basis of their culture. Newer generations are looking at the situation in Britain. I don’t like the word “hybridic”, but they are creating a different voice.

‘The way that white audiences react has changed, from being a benign curiosity about the “exotic”. The arts have created a kind of neutral space between cultures.

‘Take the Indian dancer Shobana Jeyasingh. She is from a very rigorous Indian classical dance tradition. She says white people were nervous about commenting or criticising her traditional dance, as if they were afraid of offending some religious sensibility. Now that she is working with contemporary western music, like Michael Nyman’s, white audiences find common terms of reference that they can understand.

‘I don’t think that cultures – at the bottom line – are nationally or ethnically specific, and there is less of a sense now of separate enclaves that you have to show a passport to enter. There are many cultures circulating and brushing against one another.

‘At the same time people need their cultural basis. A dancer like Akram Khan combines traditional training from his Kathak guru with his training at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. He often dedicates his performances to his root guru, because it is his necessary starting point.

‘Indian novels have definitely become a hot number. It would be depressing to think that publishers are following a formula, but there is a greater interest. The way cultures present themselves, is different in the novel too. There used to be a big emphasis upon culture clash, and problems like arranged marriages, but now writers have a greater sense of being able to explore identities.

‘As a teenager of German and Indian parents I was always being asked which race do you belong to, as if I had to chose a football team to support. You have to hope the idea of purity of nationhood is falling away, but in some ways it is getting stronger.

‘With the greater openness you might think “why do you need a cultural diversity policy?”. But it is a mistake to divorce the arts from the political and social conditions, like who runs the organisations, and who gets the grants. The Eclipse Report 1 footnote reference shows up the persistent discrimination in British theatre.

‘What the Arts Council is trying to do is make people realise that the infrastructure of the arts is invisibly conditioned – that there are many “keep out” signs. What the Council has to do is point out the discrimination – create sticks, and better still, carrots for people that run venues and touring networks and who devise the syllabuses for vocational training courses.

‘I think at first arts bodies thought that you could pick and choose from other cultures without changing yourself, but now we can see that you have to change the whole agenda when you bring in people that have historically been on the outside.’

Nassem Khan was until recently a senior policy adviser for the Arts Council, and is currently working as a consultant and journalist. She set up the black community newspaper the Hustler with friends, and worked for the New Statesman, the Guardian and Time Out, and in 1976 she founded the Minorities Arts Advisory Service. She also wrote The Art Britain Ignores (1976), the first real challenge to funding bodies, and in 2002, wrote the Arts Council’s report Towards a Greater Diversity 2 footnote reference.

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Topics Culture


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