Diversity in the arts: reframing minority artists and white voices

In a workshop run by Diversity Arts Australia in Canberra called ‘Stories from the Future’, I was asked to imagine myself in the year 2050. By this time, diversity of representation in the arts has been achieved and I am writing a letter to thank those back in 2020 who made it possible. What would I say to them besides ‘thank you’?

The exercise requires one to really think about what diversity should look like in the future. For me, it’s about valuing diverse artists as artists, not just as diversity quotas or the expression of a good business model.

In a radio interview I conducted with Shireen Taweel, a Lebanese Muslim Artist, she tells me that for some time her work was only situated in migration shows rather than forming part of mainstream exhibitions. Like many minority artists, she’s seen as the ‘ethnic artist’ – the other to ‘our’ Australian arts, instead of being part of an industry that is uniquely and fluidly Australian where collective identity isn’t shackled to a mono-cultural ideology.

Joanne*, an artist of African heritage present at the workshop, shared similar sentiments. In her arts practice, she was made to feel like a black African paid to dance for a white audience. This cultural spectatorship reinforces the superiority/inferiority power dynamic that has existed throughout colonial history and slavery. Joanne was not treated as an artist whose work was valued and for which she could demand a reasonable fee. Aboriginal artist Elizabeth Close has made similar complaints.

In the Oscar-winning film Green Book (2018), we witness similar attitudes within a racialised 1960’s America as black pianist Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) finds himself as the spectacle for white ‘culturalists’. It’s disconcerting that this sort of attitude should still exist today.

Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s book The Lebs also gives us the token ethnic performing in a white theatre production through the main character of Bani Adam. As Ruby Hamad writes, Bani’s ‘presence is only useful insomuch as [the white theatre performers] can project their own world view onto him and manipulate him into saying what they dare not.’

All these instances, whether fictional or actual, speak to a truth and reality that many diverse artists face and experience. This ‘ethnic showcasing’ has also been criticised by Samoan Japanese artist Shigeyuki Kihara, as noted in the Australian Council of Arts case study report.

Beyond valuing diverse artists as artists, what the arts sector suffers from is diverse leadership. In a report entitled ‘Shifting the Balance’ released in August, it was found that cultural and linguistic diversity was under-represented across every leadership role in every cultural sector. Minorities are seldom represented on boards, editorial teams, as performing artists, as executives or in publishing.

The existence of systemic or structural barriers in the arts has compounded a self-defeatism that many minority artists experience – the sense of not being talented or qualified enough to take on artistic opportunities, including leadership roles. We are just not used to seeing ourselves in such positions, as the decision makers, as people self-determined to confidently project our value.

This view was shared by many participants at the workshop. When asked to jot down words that reflect their experience or how they feel about the exclusivity of the arts sector, they voice words such as: tired, isolated, angry, frustrated, racism, selective appreciation, lack of mentoring, lack of funding and unequal pay.

The words I wrote down were ‘value of voice’. For me, the arts suffer from the failure to value diverse voices. It is emblematic of our Eurocentric education system, where European writers, artists, thinkers and scholars are the standard bearers of higher learning. If you want to sound erudite, educated or impressive, you had better learn how to read and cite European thinkers. This idea trickles down into our social values and criteria of artistic appreciation.

The weight of authority given to white voices above all others is something that needs to be critiqued and understood as a remnant of the colonial mindset that informs our social knowledge and notions of artistic merit. You cannot have a diverse arts industry where such artistic expressions are subordinated to white ones.

The fact that arts funding is becoming increasingly difficult to secure also makes it more difficult for diverse artists. If there are less opportunities around, then diverse artists are less likely to be able to create or practice their art, gain mentoring opportunities or financial support – all key ingredients to diversifying representation that workshop participants identified. Many of us don’t come from wealthy or privileged backgrounds, so less funding ultimately favours the privileged class – namely, white Australia.

One of the recommendations put forward in the Shifting the Balance report is to research the barriers to inclusion. It is a problem that many diverse artists face. Whether it’s getting published, exhibited or cast, there are many structural barriers which prevent them from realising their creative practice.

A lot of it has to do with power and privilege. For those without either, luck seems like the only hope. Writers such as Michelle De Kretser, for example, shared with me in a radio interview on 2XX FM that her first published work was the result of a chance encounter with a publisher which meant she didn’t have to go through the institutional slush pile as many minority writers have to. It’s a strange thought to think that a two-time Miles Franklin winner’s initial success was fortuitous.

To those in 2020 I say thank you for not leaving our talents to luck, for recognising the disenfranchisement of our stories, our expressions and our histories. Thank you for altering the discourse around our art and us as artists. Thank you for valuing our artistic integrity and seeing worth in it as a seminal thread in the Australian tapestry. Thank you for redefining our notions of Australian identity. Thank you for understanding the importance of diversity in leadership, for building alliances with those who want to embed human rights into our arts practice.

While my future self is thanking those in contemporary Australia, it is incumbent on us here and now to make diversity in the arts an exigent inevitability – a sign of a mature and self-reflective Australian arts industry cognisant of a long history of arrogance and cultural deracination. As the adage goes, there is no time like the present. We don’t need to wait for 2050. For, as John Trussler wrote in Proverbs Exemplified, a thousand unforeseen circumstances may prevent us at a future time. Let us not miss the opportunity for righting wrongs, for making Australian arts culturally richer, more accessible and a shared human right.

*not her real name


Image: Detail of the Benalla Lake Walk ceramic mural, Flickr

Daniel Sleiman

Daniel Sleiman is a freelance writer and radio producer based in Canberra.

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