by Marsha Lowe
A couple of years back I took my mum and kids to the primary proms, a concert for schoolchildren, at the Royal Albert Hall. My mum is in her seventies, lived in London for over 25 years and had never once set foot in the place. My children on the other hand, ran straight to their favourite hand rail and began sliding down it before complaining that we were assigned the stalls – again. Can we talk about a snapshot of generational difference? I’ll modestly take some credit, being determined from the moment I had children that no ‘cultural’ barriers to access would ever come knocking on their Grand Tier box seats. However, to be fair, much of the credit should go to the vast majority of these institutions, and their funders, who have made concerted efforts to encourage and attract diverse audiences in general, and children in particular, often with little or no resources.
I recently interviewed the artist and academic Eddie Chambers for the No Colour Bar[i] exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery. We had a long discussion about the lack of diversity within the infrastructure of the cultural industries, i.e. those who make the decisions about what to commission, exhibit or publish. We also considered whether black cultural institutions were still needed to promote and nurture a more diverse representation of work from black and minority ethnic artists and writers. Eddie was confident that there was still a role for them to play however, when I broached the topic of whether these institutions could help to develop black audiences, he was rather more circumspect:
Developing or servicing black audiences have always been difficult issues. Many people in the wider populace are uncomfortable with an art gallery environment. When you have an environment that exists within quite elitist terms of reference, very, very few black people are going to be comfortable engaging with those kinds of spaces. However, if you look at somewhere like the Black Cultural Archives, it’s free to get in but a lot of people throughout South London are never going to go there. They’re never going to think: ‘Oh I have an hour free I must go to the BCA’. But the reasons for this are deeply cultural and deeply embedded, which is why we need to introduce children to museums and galleries and help children realise that they’re not scary environments and they can be enjoyable places to visit.’
While I’m never one to shirk an opportunity to implicate a cultural system that remains steeped in Eurocentric ideology; I’m gonna give it a miss this time. There’s been a range of evidence to attest the importance of making traditionally elitist establishments more accessible. As I stated in my opening, I also believe that considerable progress has been made since the period that birthed my parents’ assumptions that these types of cultural spaces simply weren’t for them.
However, as cultural consumers, we have a massive role to play in supporting these institutions both when they do programme work of specific interest to our communities but also when they don’t. Many of our museums and galleries are free to enter. Most of them have some type of events programme for children and families. Our children’s academic success, their physical health and their spiritual well-being are inseparable from the richness of their creative experience and this concept[ii] needs to be more widely understood. Our responsibility is to introduce our children, nieces, nephews and cousins to these creative spaces so that they are not relegated to school trip fodder. Because only then can we ensure that the brick wall our parents collided into does not continue to derail future generations.
(i) No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 -1990, Guildhall Art Gallery, London
until 24 January 2016:
(ii) The Children’s Society’s Ways to Well-being report found five actions for children and young people: Keep learning, Be active, Connect, Take notice and Be creative and play:
Rethinking European History or
William Davidson and the Big Axe
by Marsha Lowe
I was wandering round the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition with my two children when they suddenly demonstrated far more excitement than I would have expected when viewing medieval texts. Because there, in the centre of a display case was a huge, shiny axe, specially created to dispatch the leaders of the 1820 Cato Street conspiracy to assassinate the British cabinet. The axe was on display because William Davidson, one of the alleged leaders of the conspiracy, used the Magna Carta to defend himself at his trial. All quite interesting, until I came across a picture of said Davidson, the black Jamaican son of the white British Attorney General of Jamaica. Davidson was educated in law in Scotland, ran away to sea and was press ganged into the Royal Navy, turned cabinet maker in Birmingham before settling in London and becoming involved in radical politics, before being publically hung and decapitated for his efforts.
I knew that. We, er, did that last Black History Month sandwiched somewhere in between Mary Seacole and Nelson Mandela, didn’t we? Similarly, while looking up Davidson, I came across William Cuffy, grandson of an African slave, born in Kent, leader of the London Chartists in 1848. Probably a bit more famous, I think I’d actually heard of him but I still don’t think I knew he was black. Agitator for political reform, plotted to depose the Queen, convicted of treason, transported to Tasmania where he campaigned for workers rights before dying in poverty. So, other than the barbaric way in which they were treated, why am I annoyed about these two men?
First, I know there are more pivotal figures from our collective past that I am wholly ignorant of, even though I studied history and I have a university degree and I have, let’s say, a more than general interest in the subject. So incidents like these bring me right back to the rage I felt when, after years of having immersed myself in nineteenth century Russian literature I discovered, in the most off hand way possible, that Pushkin was black. Because when you study European history and culture you assume that the figures under discussion are white unless you are explicitly told otherwise. And their race seems to be obscured not through any real intent but more though a kind of blinkered view that fails to consider the colour of their skin as relevant. Which of course it shouldn’t be, if all histories were equal.
The second reason is that both of these movements sound important to me; signifying a tradition of opposition to the abuse of power and an ongoing attempt to promote the rights of ordinary people that apparently aren’t deemed worthy of a significant place in our history curriculum. So while my head remains stuffed full of useless details on syphilitic Tudor kings and the man with the little black moustache, crucial information and context that could have helped me to understand why our democracy has become quite so farcical, is ignored.
Now we do have a general election coming up. Yet so far, education has largely been absent from the debates which remain polarised around fiscal policy and immigration. And yet the very quality of political debate in this country is a result of the failure of our education system. I’m not teacher bashing, because god forbid they actually be allowed to get on with the job of equipping our children with the information they need to understand and negotiate their lives. But imagine for one moment that our children were actually taught the history that has shaped the world they live in. That they were taught the truth about Empire, class struggle, state repression and the utter fallacy of a separate white or black history, particularly when it comes to Europe. Because the time has come for us all to understand that these histories, our histories, are hopelessly, seamlessly entwined and no purpose-built axe, no matter how sharp or shiny, can separate them.
The Distance Between Two Points
by Marsha Lowe
I first heard about the Barbican’s planned Exhibit B project in a request from one of the raft of organisations who have somehow acquired my email address to sign a petition demanding it be banned. My gut said no to this censorship, immediately. Even after reading the details on the exhibition, I felt sure that the Barbican, one of my favourite art venues, would have a reasoned response to the criticism. So I resorted to my tried and tested research tool – I Googled it and came across a Guardian interview with the artist responsible, Brett Bailey.
Bailey, I discovered is a white South African (heart getting antsy), who regularly courts ‘controversy’ with his work (heart sinking) and who describes his exhibition, which includes a half-naked woman being chained by the neck to a colonial master’s bed as: ‘…a journey that’s embracing and immersive, in which you can be delighted and disturbed…’ (Heart in free fall).
It got worse. So rather than producing a thoughtful and considered rationale for the show, or even attempt to properly justify the more extreme elements, Bailey describes his intent and thought process as follows:
‘What interests me about human zoos, is the way people were objectified. Once you objectify people, you can do the most terrible things to them. I’m interested in the way these zoos legitimised colonial policies.’
Stop press, hold the front page, we have our headline: ‘White man discovers racism! Boo to imperialism! The world is magically transformed into a better place where we all, just, get along.’
Even some of the performers themselves were unsure whether the show was critiquing the human zoos of the colonial era or simply updating them for a new generation. Although one was markedly more enthusiastic, claiming:
‘… Brett’s whiteness perhaps gives him a degree of distance necessary for wading around in this intensely painful material.’
If this were The Daily Show, I’d now be having my Jon Stewart moment, searching the heavens mutely for answers, adrift in a world that no longer computes. Because clearly, obviously, overwhelmingly, the gap in the representation of the black colonial experience has been the white perspective. Why has this not been addressed? All I ever see are the ancestors of slaves, telling their stories, imposing their view of history on poor, unsuspecting white people, deflecting that colonial gaze with their pearly whites and soulful eyes full of silent suffering. Thank you Brett, for coming along and enlightening us with your ‘distance’.
And that really is the crux of the matter – distance. The distance between the cultural arrogance of a renowned institution like the Barbican and the protestor with the placard decrying yet another example of white privilege. Between an individual like Bailey who feels completely within his rights to dip into the black colonial experience as and when he feels like it and the black people who for whom the past remains present. Because what the defenders of this show see as a journey, across distance, of discovery is a lived, inescapable reality for many of us. I don’t need to wander through an exhibition to know that my great, great, great grandmother was raped by her white owners – I just have to look at my skin colour.
But rather than trying to bridge this distance, the Barbican became increasingly contemptuous in their response to the criticism; planting their feet firmly in the territory of freedom of expression and signally failing to recognise that with that costly won freedom, comes significant responsibility. Had they chosen to retreat from their entrenched position of privilege and properly engage with their detractors on the issues they raised from the outset, the ensuing dialogue may well have led to a more satisfactory conclusion. Instead, rather than acknowledge their central role in this debacle, they simply chucked their toys out of the pram and pulled the exhibition on the grounds of performer safety. Hardly their finest hour.
So here’s a suggestion for all those disappointed show goers, and evidently, the senior management of the Barbican Arts Centre. If you’re genuinely interested in the history and legacy of colonialism and slavery – Research it. Read it. Online. Offline. On Google. In a book. There are no excuses. Because it’s your responsibility to know your history and because I’m no longer willing to allow my blood to run cold so that you can exert your ‘right’ to ‘hear’ the crack of a whip. At some point we all have to move beyond the ‘exploration’ which always seems to entail a reproduction of our past suffering for the edification and enlightenment of the very people who continue to benefit from it.
*For more on this topic please see Julia Farrington’s article for the Index on Censorship – the most intelligent piece I’ve read on this issue.
Other articles on this topic
Joel Sharples comments on the double standards at play: http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/more-cage-stage-exhibit-b-censorship-liberal-outrage/
Akala’s barnstormer: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/akala/barbican-centre_b_5809508.html
Stella Odunlami and Kehinde Andrews debate the issue: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/27/is-art-installation-exhibit-b-racist
O. Molefe’s view from Cape Town: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/28/opinion/t-o-molefe-racism-and-the-barbicans-exhibit-b.html?_r=0
The Colour of Capoeira
by Marsha Lowe
In the past few years, rather than use my dwindling amount of free time to devote to my next literary masterpiece, I’ve taken up Capoeira, the Brazilian martial art developed by African slaves. And while the health benefits of this have been amazing, despite my occasional inability to walk or stand unaided, one of the main results has been my increased exposure to Brazilian culture; a culture that, for all its joy, has to have one of the most regressive, ‘let’s bury our heads in the sand even as we see the tsunami coming’, approaches to race relations since apartheid South Africa.
To give a very basic idea of what I mean, in their official census, the population is required to self identify as either white, brown, black, yellow or ‘indigenous’. Yellow??????? Unsurprisingly, this causes some confusion, particularly when it is widely accepted that almost all Brazilians, regardless of their skin colour, are a mixture of African, European and Amerindian, rendering racial categorisation in this context almost completely meaningless. In fact, this mestiça heritage is widely celebrated in Brazil and ironically, has helped to justify the current situation where ‘black’ people are almost entirely absent from their television screens, from their high-priced Copacabana residences and, most recently, from their World Cup opening ceremonies. In fact, the only places where ‘black’ people are seen in numbers are in the favelas.
A few years back I wrote an article for SABLE on the preparations for the South African World Cup – I probably could have just slotted in Brazil’s name into the same article for this summer’s event. Unfortunately, I’d need far more than the word count than this column permits to do justice to issues such as the military ‘pacification’ of the favelas, or the forced evictions of families to pave the way for urban ‘transit hubs’. I could even reserve some space in an appendix for a discussion on the morality of spending £7 billion on a sports tournament when some of your less fortunate citizens are being treated for leprosy with Thalidomide.
However, the self-delusion of a programme that seeks to subdue and ignore the very people who are at the heart of a culture that is celebrated worldwide, should also not be lost here. It would be almost impossible to name a significant Brazilian cultural achievement that does not have its roots in Africa, be it samba, carnival or indeed Capoeira. Yet the largely ‘white’ establishment seems hell bent on promoting a wholly mythical, homogenised culture, full of happy, smiling Portuguese descendants, sparingly sprinkled with the occasional ‘brown’ person.
Meanwhile, I’m slowly making my way through Jorge Amado’s novel, Tent of Miracles*, a satire on the cultural and intellectual insecurity of Latin America. Within it, a humble, long forgotten ‘brown’ poet from Bahia, Pedro Archanjo is praised by an American academic, leading to a mass scramble by the Brazilian cultural elite to re-establish him in the canon. Amado ruthlessly parodies all involved, but I remain struck by the continuing relevance of his theme. This insecurity is in no way peculiar to the region; Achebe also wrote scathingly about it in relation to African writers seeking approval from the West. But in their promotion of this warped cultural identity, enmeshed as it is in racial imperialist propaganda, Brazil have only succeeded in advertising their insecurity and lack of self awareness to the world. Let’s hope that they take the opportunity presented by the 2016 Olympics to reflect on how their history and diversity has determined who they are as a nation – and that this reflection brings some much needed clarity.
*Tent of Mircles by Jorge Amado was originally published in 1969 and republished in 2003 by The University of Wisconsin Press
My Ideal Slavery Film
by Marsha Lowe
‘Films are not necessarily good because black people make them. They are not necessarily ‘right on’ by virtue of the fact that they deal with the black experience.’ Stuart Hall (New Ethnicities)
I’ve had some really interesting conversations recently about my blank refusal to see Steve McQueen’s Oscar nominated film, 12 Years a Slave. While I always try to support black British artists, I couldn’t fight the feeling that this film really wasn’t for me. If I were one of those holding the opinion that ‘of course slavery was hideous but can we stop banging on about it now’; I would go get a ticket. And if I were one of Michael Gove’s favoured revisionist historians of the ‘Empire wasn’t all bad – we built roads’ ilk; then I would probably book a private screening.
Fortunately, I fall into neither of those categories and I have to admit that I greeted the thought of two hours spent reliving the horrors of slavery in all its unsparing (by all reports) detail with a degree of dismay usually reserved for South Korean cinema. It’s not that I’m squeamish (I am) but I genuinely don’t mind being revolted if I gain something other than the return of my dinner in exchange. But I’m pretty sure that I know slavery was violent, horrific, and dehumanising of both the owned and the owners. I’ve visited slave holding cells in the Caribbean and imagined members of my family imprisoned there, with all the brutality that lay both behind and ahead of them. I’ve heard descriptions of the fortresses in Ghana and elsewhere, where the slave faeces was so compacted that it formed an organic floor, and the dungeons for the female slaves had stairs leading directly to the governor’s quarters. Trust me, my imaginings of what my ancestors endured have plenty of source material; I’m just not convinced that McQueen had anything substantial to add to the picture.
However, he did make an important point about his film:
‘The Second World War lasted five years and there are hundreds and hundreds of films about the Second World War and the Holocaust. Slavery lasted 400 years and there are less than 20. We have to redress that balance and look at that time in history.’
While I agree with this, I am also old enough to remember the debut of Alex Haley’s Roots as a child in the seventies, and the incredibly complex mixture of rage and shame that it evoked in my young mind. I do not recall feeling particularly enlightened. And so because the issue of slavery, and Empire, has been chronically ignored in mainstream cinema, it becomes more important that any contemporary film on the topic adds something new to our understanding of ourselves and wider society. It’s simply not enough to dig up past sufferings solely to inform those who may be unaware of them. I know that I’m setting the bar high here, and perhaps unreasonably so, but my ideal slavery film would both implicate current power structures while addressing the personal legacy expressed so poignantly by Hall, who sadly died earlier this month:
‘I am not a liberal Englishman like you. In the back of my head are things that can’t be in the back of your head. That part of me comes from a plantation, when you owned me. I was brought up to understand you… You don’t lose that, it becomes stronger.’ 
Stuart Hall (1932-2014)
Honouring the Intent of a Text
by Marsha Lowe
I went to the theatre earlier this year. Not a particularly startling announcement until I mention that I went without the children, which then lifts the occasion into the realms of the almost unheard of. Unsurprisingly, it took the mixture of James Baldwin and the actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste to end my exile from adult theatre.
Unfortunately, the National Theatre’s production of Amen Corner was interesting for all the reasons I didn’t want. The lead performances were, as expected, superb. Jean-Baptiste rendered her character, Margaret, with all of the coiled tension of a woman trying to hold on to her faith while everything she dedicated her lift to, crumbles. Lucian Msamati as Luke, her dying, itinerant, jazz musician ex-husband delivered just the right mix of power and pathos. And Sharon D. Clarke brought a quiet strength to a role that was always in danger of being overshadowed.
But the real problem with this production was that it failed to understand the world it was trying to portray; the world that Baldwin knew intimately. And this became immediately apparent in the opening church scenes, where the representation of Pentecostal worship elicited, and seemed designed to elicit, sniggering from the audience. The character most responsible for this, Sister Moore, was drawn so crassly that honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see her start chomping on a watermelon.
The production also seemed to struggle with the melodramatic nature of the story and so rather than just going with it, they tried to temper it. In doing so they managed to produce the precise response from the audience that they were probably trying to avoid. And this uncertainty of tone from the outset, led to several mismatches between what was happening on stage and the audience’s reaction. The most jarring example of which being the laughter that greeted Luke’s moving death scene near the end of the play.
When Baldwin wrote this play in the Fifties, he would have assumed a level of understanding and, more than likely sympathy, with his characters that simply didn’t exist in most of the people in the theatre that evening. Furthermore, church was a subject that Baldwin took extremely seriously, having briefly been a preacher in his teens. And it was a world he understood, not just for the central role it played in Black people’s lives at that time but also as the single most important unifying point in the burgeoning civil rights movement. And while he was clearly parodying certain qualities within the church, he just as clearly did not intend to hold these beliefs or believers up for ridicule.
I know I’m a writer and so I’m never really going to support anything other than faithfulness to a text. However, this really is not about a creative team’s right to alter or modify the meaning of a writer’s work. If I were to argue that position, then we may as well rid ourselves of all theatre and film. However, I have always advocated for the importance of honouring the intent of a text, because ultimately this is what drove the writer to produce it. And what this does require from the creative team is a bit of humility, a lot of respect and, occasionally, the courage to ignore the audience.
How the Past becomes Present in British Television
by Marsha Lowe
(Jun2 2013 – transferred from an incorrect section)
I happened to catch part of the finals of last year’s BBC young musician of the year award. Usually I would have continued to channel surf, but my eye was caught by the sight of the black finalist, Charlotte Barbour-Condini. Regretfully, I’m old enough to remember the days when the appearance of any black person on television, except for the news, was a ‘down tools and huddle round’ moment. That this appearance would occur on a classical music programme would have been unprecedented. Conscious of this, I casually pointed her out to my two young children, gently suggesting that perhaps we should watch the show.
Not entirely surprisingly, they were not particularly impressed, which I guess is a good thing. Children’s TV is generally light years ahead of its adult counterparts when it comes to its portrayal of diversity and we as parents have also made a real effort to take them to a broad range of shows, where the performers include people from all races. So the sight of a black person playing in front of an orchestra, on television, was simply not that big a leap for them.
I’m explaining this generational difference because it wasn’t until I read about Lenny Henry’s diatribe in the Telegraph (strange choice but there it is) that I realised that black actors, writers and producers were pretty much absent from the nominee list of this year’s Baftas. However, what disturbed me most about this absence was that I hadn’t actually noticed. Because, let’s be clear here, the problem with their omission from these proceedings wasn’t that their work wasn’t being recognised, but rather that their work simply wasn’t there in the first place.
While the debate in theatre around colour blind casting continues, and in some ways reached its natural conclusion i.e. ‘OK then, I guess we should’, the conversation in the TV world has barely begun. The reasons for this seem based mainly on British television’s obsession with period drama and the subsequent conclusion that audiences wouldn’t accept a black actor in these historical roles.
But why should David Oyewolo be able to play Henry VI for the RSC 13 years ago, or Idris Elba play a Norse god in the Thor movie, while the black actor Paterson Joseph currently contends that ‘it’ll be a cold day in hell when I’m even in the room for the Mr Darcy auditions’. Please note that I’ve only referenced men here, as the situation for black British female actors remains considerably worse, as I’m sure Marianne Jean-Baptiste would testify.
It seems somewhat tenuous to suggest that the suspension of disbelief required when we enter a theatre or cinema is any greater than that mandated when we plonk ourselves down on the sofa in front of our 40” flat screen. Yet we appear to have sleepwalked into a position where this view is largely uncontested, and in my own case, barely even noticed. It cannot remain so. In many ways, the depiction of diversity on television has changed beyond recognition in the past 40 years but when we take our eyes off the ball, institutionalised power always finds a way to reassert itself. And in some distant future, I have no desire to find myself hauling my grandchildren to the TV, simply because I’ve managed to spot a black person.