In recent years one of the Arts Council England’s most significant concerns has been the issue of cultural diversity within the arts sector. It is one of the Arts Council England’s five ambitions for the arts, and was outlined as a particular priority for their 2006-2008 agenda. Of the number of initiatives leading the drive for the greater representation and participation of British artists and companies of ethnic origins, deciBel, a four-day showcase event, which took place in Birmingham from the 3–7 September 2007, was perhaps the most prominent.
While the notion of “diversity” and its proliferation can be problematical, insofar as its implementation can be perceived as playing up to the demands of quotas, and straying into tokenism, in the context of deciBel the term has a very specific formulation and goal. Indeed, the showcase is designed to celebrate “ethnic diversity resulting from Post-War immigration, with an increased focus on British artists of African, Asian and Caribbean descent” and since its inception in May 2003, deciBel has fostered and promoted the work of often-marginalised groups across all the visual arts. In granting artists an audience of national and international promoters, artistic directors, venue managers, agents and producers, the initiative thus constitutes a powerful attempt to combat the traditionally white middle-class hegemony that has pervaded the arts sector.
Niké Jonah, Project Officer for deciBel and lead officer for the Performing Arts Showcase and Visual Arts, asserts that the initiative has gone from strength to strength each year, consistently improving the ways in which it supports the artists both prior to and during the application process.
Over 200 applicants put themselves forward in December 2006 for this year’s showcase, in front of a twelve-strong selection panel consisting of Arts Council representatives for dance, music, theatre, and combined arts, as well as external advisors. Given the choice of three different formats, applicants must outline how they wish to present their work: as an initial idea or “Pitch” in need of development; as “Work-in-Progress”, with a defined artistic direction but not entirely complete; or finally as “Tour Ready”, in which the artist or company are confident that their creative process is complete, and they are available to begin a full tour. As such, Jonah remarked, now more than ever there is a “real emphasis on quality”, and if an applicant states that they are tour-ready, they have to provide enough evidence to justify their place.
Once accepted, the artists are given advice on what exactly the showcase entails, and how best to promote themselves to delegates and make the most of the opportunity afforded to them. The three-strand format also allows artists and companies who would benefit from meeting and forming contacts with industry professionals, but who are “not necessarily tour-ready”, to still present their work in a positive environment, which may enable them to build future creative partnerships. In each case however, the emphasis is on matching the artists’ work with the correct format in which it can be presented, and sign-posting the attending delegates to those pieces most likely to interest them.
The variety of different artists and performance genres represented at deciBel 2007 is staggering. Site-specific South Asian dance spectacles will sit alongside opera from an African perspective, human beat boxing and the UK’s first female break dancer – to name only a few – as well as other music, theatre, spoken word and art shows. The initiative therefore continues to reveal a startling picture of how much there is to still be uncovered in contemporary Black and minority ethnic British Visual Arts.
In themselves, many of the artists show a strong desire to engage with their origins in their projects. Such is the case with Denys Baptiste’s music, spoken word and visual arts piece, Anansi: Reunion. In his own words, it is an effort “to tie together the African, African American and Caribbean strands” of the Anansi storytelling tradition, so that people would “be able to recognize and realise where it came from.” Brought over to the Caribbean from their roots in West Africa during the Slave Trade, Anansi stories play a huge part in the folklore of both the regions, and Baptiste’s project seeks to emphasise the importance of remembering this, as characters from original tales from Africa, America, the Caribbean and Europe are united together in the narrative through a family reunion.
In a similar vein, in Zameen, Kali Theatre Company continue their remit of encouraging and developing new theatre writing by Asian women. Tackling topical issues of globalisation and modernity in the context of the life of a Punjabi farmer, Kali’s most recent production engages with ideas that resonate both with a specific culture, while also being of worldwide significance. Yet Janet Steel, the company’s Artistic Director, commented that it is still “very hard” for Asian theatre companies to be accepted by traditional venues; nevertheless, their own achievements – from being funded on a project-by-project basis initially they are now core-funded, and have taken several past productions on national tours – speak volumes for the considerable theatrical merit of shows which can appeal to a diverse audience.
While only two examples of the Arts Council England’s desire “to celebrate and raise the profile of how Black and minority ethnic artists contribute to contemporary British culture” through the deciBel 2007 showcase, Anansi: Reunion and Zameen – along with all the featured projects – demand that we look again at the value of a culturally-diverse arts programme in the U.K.