Pardon your expression

In February, Sydney Morning Herald’s Arts editor Nick Galvin announced a $150,000.00 grant to “significantly increase the depth and range of their arts criticism and reviews”. The initiative had been developed by the Copyright Agency and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas, and would see the publication of a hundred reviews of Australian literature, visual arts and theatre in The Herald and The Age. Executive editor of The Herald and The Age, James Chessell, stated that this announcement was in step with the expectation of “any serious newsroom” to include criticism in their coverage of the arts. While the announcement did not explicitly mention diversity or inclusion, it also did not articulate a preference for writers from any particular community. On first impressions, this initiative suggested a promising opportunity for emerging voices in arts criticism.

As a Creative Producer at Sweatshop Western Sydney Literacy Movement,  I reached out to Galvin immediately following this announcement to introduce one of our projects — StoryCasters, a Diversity Arts Australia initiative which supports culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) arts reviewers, musicians, podcasters and filmmakers entering relevant industries. I introduced my colleagues, Sweatshop Director Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad and General Manager Winnie Dunn, and I outlined some of the fantastic work emerging from our collective of CaLD writers. I was also proud to share some of the successes of our StoryCasters reviewers, such as journalists Maryanne Taouk of ABC News, and Daniel Nour, whose work has been published in the New York Times. In my email, I highlighted that as the Australian arts landscape grows increasingly diverse, it is only fitting that the arts critique space also welcomes new voices. Critiquing Australian arts and culture cannot be a privilege that is afforded to just one community in a country that is home to people who identify with more than 270 ancestries.

Mohammed, Winnie and I never received a reply to our inquiries from the Arts editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. I had hoped for, but not necessarily expected a response. However, I was still deeply saddened to hear Monday’s announcement that all of the grant money had been invested towards five white Australian emerging ‘culture critics’.

Diversity is one of the most persistent and ongoing conversations in the Australian arts industry. In August 2019, Diversity Arts Australia released Shifting the Balance, a report investigating the cultural diversity in leadership roles across Australia’s arts, screen and creative sectors. Shifting the Balance found that more than half of Australia’s museums, music and opera companies, screen and theatre companies have zero people of CaLD backgrounds among their board members, award panels and executives. Less than ten percent of artistic directors are CaLD.

These findings were published on numerous platforms — The Guardian, The Conversation and ironically, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the story too, with a headline reading, “Arts sector pays lip service to cultural diversity”. The author of the article, Linda Morris, observed that “The gap between rhetoric and practice is so alarming,” while Executive Director of Diversity Arts Australia, Lena Nahlous, was quoted saying: “I think you do need mandatory targets because if people are receiving public funding and it’s for all of us in the community but it’s only representing a minority, a smaller amount of people, then they need to be held to account.”

While the Herald is ready to acknowledge that the arts sector has a diversity problem and publishes suggestions on how to resolve the problem, it has no qualms about investing one hundred percent of its grant money from the Copyright Agency and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas into exclusively developing the work of white Australian culture critics. This sends a clear message to the rest of our industry: The monocultural face, voice and gaze of the Australian arts reviewership is here to stay.

Scrutiny of white critics’ capacity to review people of colour’s art is escalating in the Australian arts, as is ignorant and insensitive critique of the artistic production of people of colour. Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander writer Nakkiah Lui, has received such treatment in reviews of her 2013 playwriting debut This Heaven, and her most recent production How to Rule the World. Editor of Quadrant, Roger Franklin, crudely speculated on how Nakkiah’s parents’ income may have influenced her art, using this line of argument to question the authenticity of her work. Franklin was dismissive of Lui’s representation of life for a Mt Druitt Aboriginal family, and throughout his review pined for more ‘encouraging’ representations of ‘Aboriginal life’ and in doing so, entitled himself to erasing blackness and non-white experiences.

Just last year in the Daily Review,  Jason Whittaker spent most of his commentary on How to Rule the World — 12 paragraphs to be exact — performing a bizarre ritual of hand-wringing about his white cultural background, only to conclude that his was an objective (read: credible) perspective, despite failing to separate Lui from the character she played. His gestural attempt to engage in criticism-on-criticism with The Guardian’s coverage of the play lacked any concrete references to the review, written by Eualeyai/Kamillaroi academic and writer, Professor Larissa Behrendt. Initially declaring Behrendt’s perspective  ‘welcome’ and ‘smartly’ written, Whittaker then proceeded to dismiss the close cultural context offered by the review as ‘biased’.  Lui’s response reflected a keen sense of frustration as a creator simply searching for informed responses to her work, as did Gomeroi poet and legal researcher Alison Whittaker (no relation to Jason Whittaker), who wrote “We are even more ready to see genuine arts criticism that is responsible for the race of its giver – without white fawning or white tantrums. We are most ready for arts criticism from Indigenous people and people of colour, where we need not brace for either.”

In another instance of critics conflating character with author, white Australian critic and editor James Ley was also criticised for his review of Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s 2018 novel The Lebs. Lebanese-Syrian journalist and author Ruby Hamad noted in her criticism-on-criticism piece that Ley’s review, titled “I’m With Stupid”, almost entirely focused on insulting the fictional characters of The Lebs. Hamad’s criticism-on-criticism further considered other white critics’ responses to The Lebs: “Ley was not the only reviewer who couldn’t seem to accept he was reading a dramatised critique of misogyny, not a documentary account of it. Even the positive reviews seemed fixated on the misogyny of the characters as if books and films about Western toxic masculinity were unheard of.”       

These incidents should play a significant part in the growing pains of the Australian arts review culture. Alison Whittaker and Ruby Hamad’s nuanced criticism-on-criticism pieces exposed and countered the ‘objectivity’ that white Australian reviewers are perceived to possess. This conversation is also emerging on an international level, with the New York Times publishing an opinion piece dissecting the dominance of the white male critic in its local art scene. Authors Elizabeth Méndez-Berry and Chi-hui Yang argue that reviews written by people of colour are “much less visible than that of the white reviewers, a dynamic shaped by the perception that the opinions of people of color are not universal.” Méndez-Berry and Yang also call on mainstream newspapers to employ writers of colour as assigning editors and critics, and supporting writers of colour with the necessary resources to “create genuine shifts in power, not just different bylines.”

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age’s decision to exclusively fund five emerging white Australian ‘culture’ critics upholds a tradition that is best left in the past. Public response to the announcement demonstrated a keenly felt sense of frustration from creators and critics of colour. Chinese-Australian writer and actor Michelle Law, expressed similar views in her tweet: “This is a list of lovely people inc a mate & of course this is an ongoing & complex conversation about race and art criticism in Australia, but put plainly — why is everyone on this list White? This is the problem with the existing culture. Round we go.”

As evidence against the suggestion that no writers of colour applied for these fellowships, Darug writer and emerging critic, Laura La Rosa also joined the discussion, revealing: “I actually submitted an exp of interest for this in Feb. I followed up in April. I didn’t hear back at all. I’m fine with that, but hoping @Engalvo and @mattburgess_mb can explain their decision to allocate all the funding + ops to 5 white *cultural* critics (unless I’m wrong?)”.

Pakistani-Australian journalist and editor of the 7am Podcast, Osman Faruqi, added: “Proud of Nine/Fairfax for hiring an all-white team of cultural critics. In a rigorous, merit-based process the best talent rises to the top, confirming the inherent superiority of the white race. About time news organisations straight up acknowledged it.”

Ruby Hamad posted on her public Facebook page: “Wow, it’s a good thing four out of these five white culture critics recently hired by Fairfax are women, otherwise we might think that they have a ‘diversity’ problem.”

Amid the exasperation from fellow artists of colour, there is also a degree of mirth. If artists of colour received a dollar for every time we have to explain diversity, campaign for diversity or lament the lack of diversity, we might be able to fund a rescue package for the entire industry during this COVID-19 crisis. To be clear, I am not personally attacking the individuals who have been selected by the Herald and The Age. If anything, I offer them my congratulations. The arts community is small and many of us know each other as colleagues and acquaintances.

My feelings of disappointment wholeheartedly lie with the broader structural issues that enable such exclusionary decisions to be made, with no apparent involvement or consultation from peak diversity and inclusion bodies. It is time for the rest of the arts industry — especially its leaders — to consider different ways of working. Naomi Riddle, Editor of online arts platform Running Dog, reflects: “Minor interventions at the top level of any organisation can have large scale repercussions. There is always more work to do, more space to carve out, and more power to give away in the pursuit of equality.”

Sweatshop is an organisation which prioritises writers of colour at every level of our collective and we are not alone. Mascara Literary Review, Peril Magazine, Liminal, and Djed Press — to name a few — do the same. But true change cannot happen unless artists of colour are supported by the rest of this industry. Professor James Arvanitakis writes that there is a “culture of resistance” in the Australian arts industry, where major organisations appear to shift the responsibility of diverse representation to minor organisations, due to Australia’s history of “separating “ethnic” art from the “mainstream” arts community”.

As an advocate for the writers of colour that I co-mentor in the StoryCasters project, contacting arts leaders is part of securing work for the budding CaLD reviewers in our collective. Winnie and I have proceeded with a number of partnership opportunities with other platforms to commission work from culturally diverse writers. The enthusiastic responses from editors such as Sarah Malik of SBS Voices, and Naomi Riddle of Running Dog, demonstrated a serious commitment from arts leaders who are passionate about supporting change.

Running Dog recently commissioned a review of Tabita Rezaire’s art exhibition in Paddington gallery, Cement Fondu, written by Togolese and Burundian writer Bruce Koussaba. Bruce’s review is a piece of art in itself — connecting parts of his experiences growing up in Cartwright to the ‘usefulness’ of anger in activism being explored in Rezaire’s exhibition. Thanks to the StoryCasters initiative, Winnie and I were able to work with Bruce on this review and thanks to Running Dog’s willingness to partner with us, Bruce’s perspective is out in the world.

During our workshops and rigorous editing processes, the CaLD writers in the StoryCasters program understand review writing to be intensely personal and subjective — directly opposite to the cold, distant voice that has long dominated the review space and conned readers into believing in its objectivity. StoryCasters writers treat every review as an opportunity for our readers to understand art and the world around us from a different intersection of life.

StoryCasters writers, credit Tyler Aves

We have read the work of our fellow writers of colour outside of Sweatshop and we know that writers of colour can achieve excellence in cultural criticism. Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung’s criticism of the canonisation of Ben Quilty in the Australian consciousness had our workshop breathless in its searing analysis of the way Quilty’s image is constructed and perceived in mainstream media. Roxane Gay’s review of the latest production of West Side Story had us poring over every single detail she critiqued — from casting decisions to stagecraft. We also analysed the deftness with which Gay linked her critique of the play to the American Dirt saga. We marvelled at her corroboration of such thoughts to present the “distortion of black and brown lives in the white imagination”. This is the sort of richness that championing diversity can bring to cultural criticism in any nation that prides itself on a multicultural identity.

One of the most common rebuttals against diversity quotas and initiatives is that opportunities should be given to those who have earned it. In response to the over-representation of white people in the Australian arts industry, Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad says “Whenever we try and have these conversations, the white community usually reverts to a state of white denial with claims like, “It’s all about talent,” which I find more racist than just admitting that you prefer the company of white people. Because to say that it’s all about talent is to mean that you think genuinely, that naturally, white people are more talented than people of colour.”

When I am sitting in a workshop in Parramatta, surrounded by writers of colour who are sharing their work, I feel privileged to hear from so many different and creative perspectives on art and culture from fellow Australians. And while I am thankful for the platforms willing to champion writers of colour, I also feel a deep exhaustion in knowing that many in the wider industry are still not ready to embrace us. But this is what keeps me going; a vision for the Australian arts and cultural criticism that is bursting with diverse and original contributions to knowledge. I remain confident that we can get there. I stand in solidarity with the First Nations and CaLD writers affected by the Herald and The Age’s decision. Before we can ever call ourselves a free and equal society for all, multicultural Australia must be reflected in all the conversations and critiques that shape our nation’s stories.

Shirley Le

Shirley Le is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Western Sydney and is a part of the Sweatshop Writers Collective. Her short stories and essays have been published on SBS Online, The Lifted Brow, Griffith Review, Meanjin and The Big Black Thing. In 2017, Shirley was a recipient of a WestWords Emerging Writers Fellowship. She is now working on her debut novel through a mentorship with Affirm Press.

More by Shirley Le ›

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