In November 2019, NEoN worked with Dundee based artist and curator Saoirse Amira Anis to develop the first workshop in our Change:Debate series addressing the work that must be done to champion, support and nourish the work of artists of colour.
The workshop was led and delivered by Black artists, makers and activists who work in the digital sector to discuss their practice, share their experience of the industry and lead a dialogue about the vital challenges it must overcome. The workshop was to be safe but challenging, a place for listening but for being heard, a place for growth and change.
With the onset of a pandemic, we were unable to deliver any further workshops, so NEoN commissioned Saoirse to undergo a period of research and to continue the conversation. Here we present some of the findings so far.
MID-REPORT // Saoirse Amira Anis
// In the following report, I use the “Institution” to refer to arts/cultural organisations that operate in hierarchical and often exploitative ways, as has become normalised in the West. It does not refer to The Institution of the Monarchy as has been popularised by THAT Oprah interview. //
This research project aims to assess ways in which to tackle structural inequalities within arts institutions. It hypothesizes two options: to disrupt and reorganise from inside the Institution, or, to build from the outside and render the Institution obsolete.
Over the past few months, I have interviewed five creative practitioners who all identify as Black. I asked each of them the following questions:
Should grassroots organisations be informed by the structures of the Institution, or should they follow an unrelated model?
Can (compliance with) tokenism act as a trojan horse?
What is your imagined art world utopia?
Do you think revolution is most likely to be successful when it is loud and assertive, or subtle and covert?
Can we get rid of the phrase “Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion”?
Is it possible for a movement to be revolutionary if it collaborates in some way with the Institution?
I interviewed Sarra Wild, Jazmin Morris, Christian Noelle Charles, Natasha Thembiso Ruwona, and Tayo Adekunle.
Jazmin suggested that these questions were “wicked problems”: “social or cultural problem[s that are] difficult or impossible to solve—normally because of [their] complex and interconnected nature.” I agree with this sentiment; this project does not aim to provide a solution to white supremacy and racial oppression within the arts, rather to forge a space of comradery for those who are affected by such. (Let the records show that I am categorically not opposed to this comradery eventually leading to uproarious radical change.) I am certain, however, that if we don’t centre our efforts around care and community, all will fall apart. We must not mimic the apathy and exclusivity of the Institution.
In response to these interviews, I have considered the threads that ran through each of them, noticing the similarities and convergences of opinion. What follows is the thoughts I have formed so far.
Audre Lorde famously said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. This quote – along with Audre’s wider body of work – has laid the groundwork for this project. Her sentiments have been echoed by many of the people I interviewed. The general consensus seems to be that we should not completely dismiss the structures of the Institutions. Instead, we should analyse which parts of it have helped it to become successful, and which perpetuate systems of oppression (though these are by no means mutually exclusive). If Audre is to be believed (and she should be), we must be critical enough of the Institution to understand how it works, but not get caught up in its slippery wiles.
It is important also to acknowledge the Power of the Institution and the ubiquity of its influence. The bottom line of almost any “wicked problem” is money, and the Institution has more of that than any grassroots organisation could hope for. This implies an unfortunate reliance on the Institution, as we reluctantly give in to its pull of funding and security. Does this equate to getting into bed with the devil? I haven’t decided what I think about this yet.
A scenario: I’m involved with a grassroots organisation for queer Black people, and we have funding available to us from an Institution that has upheld white supremacy and has historically benefitted from the slave trade and/or stolen native land. If we accept this funding, is the implication that we are a-okay with the morals of this Institution and are indifferent to accepting blood money? Or is the implication that it’s an act of reparation? Perhaps a way in which grassroots organisations run by people of marginalised identities can thrive is by exploiting the ruling class – siphoning their resources to advance our own goals.
Trojan Horse/Robin Hood or traitor?
Something that became apparent during these interviews was the issue of calling actions towards equality “radical” or “revolutionary”. Equality should not be viewed as radical, and perhaps we should be more selective in how we use this word. It is not radical to demand that Institutions stop upholding values of white supremacy. It is not radical to suggest that stolen artefacts be peacefully returned to their country of origin. Yet, thanks in part to the West’s irrational preoccupation with ownership, it often is.
People and cultures and countries and lives cannot be owned.
In the interviews, a recurring answer to the question about utopia involved the rectification of this misplaced ownership: the repatriation of all cultural artefacts to their country of origin. Straight away this would eradicate the numerous Institutions that only exist because of white supremacy. This is a very basic request, and when Sarra first mentioned it to me it felt like such an easy, actionable solution. Admittedly, I know nothing about the practicalities involved in this, but I do know that the arguments against it are centred around racist notions, and delusions of ownership rooted in Imperialist ideals. This is only a utopian concept because the gatekeepers/change-makers/powers-that-be have all benefited from white supremacy and are reluctant to let go of it, or admit any guilt or privilege.
Each of these interviews eventually centred around the Personal. No matter how we go about effecting change, we still have to engage with triggering topics; performing our trauma either for the benefit of the Institution, or the benefit of our peers. Naturally, the latter is a lot more fulfilling, but the former is more likely to reap financial benefits.
And there it is again – money. As Black people in the arts, we have to balance our need to put food on the table with the energy we can afford to spend on EDI-related projects. The burden falls too often on us to change the structures that have been historically anti-us. The extent of this labour is intensified by the fact that we are likely to be subjected to micro-aggressions, questioned about the validity of our trauma, and asked to lay ourselves bare so that the Institution can tick its EDI box. We’re tasked with weighing up who is going to benefit more from our labour – ourselves and our community, or the Institution. Even trying to figure that out is difficult.
So, we become Trojan Horses. We accept tokenism and decide to be a force for good for our communities. We try to use this opportunity to make a change from the inside – to ensure that this is not a one-time-only thing. We acknowledge our own privileges and uplift those who face even more barriers. We leave a legacy that will create more opportunities for our community. Yet these actions still feed into the rhetoric that the Institution is the gatekeeper – that success can only happen when it's been formally granted by the Institution. Perhaps we can work towards defining our own success. (This interesting train of half-thought only emerged after doing the interviews – it feels like there must be a lot of theory written about this that I can’t wait to delve into.)
The alternative, it seems, is that we build without the Institution. We challenge it without stepping over the inevitable picket line. We support ourselves. Yet, once again, we have to consider money.
I recently participated in an online workshop, in which we discussed the metaphor of things growing on things in relation to fairness. The visual prompt was a rock with moss and lichen growing on it. The discussion took several wonderful twists and turns, and one thing that stuck out for me was a comment about how, eventually, the new growth would overpower and outshine the old rock. I suppose grassroots networks are the fresh new growth, and the rock is the Institution – unmoving and soon-to-be-obsolete. It might take a while, and it might be difficult – but that’s the inevitable end result.
Going forward, I will continue to spend time with these interviews, pulling through other threads that have run through them all. Maybe a third alternative will emerge – maybe I will feel as though I have struck the metaphorical gold and will be able to apply this mysterious and ingenious new idea to strike actual-real-life physical gold that we can spend on actual-real-life physical things like food and warmth, and perhaps we’ll eradicate white supremacy, etc. Or maybe not.
I have not yet decided what physical form this project will take at its completion – or if it will take a physical form at all. I do know that whatever decision I make, it will first and foremost (and always and forever) be an act of care that will extend to my community.
This is, ultimately, for us.
 The Interaction Design Foundation. 2021. What is A Wicked Problem and How Can You Solve It?. [online] Available at:<https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/wicked-problems-5-steps-to-help-you-tackle-wicked-problems-by-combining-systems-thinking-with-agile-methodology> [Accessed 2 April 2021].
 Lorde, A., 2018. The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. [S.l.]: Penguin.
 lookANDsee. 2021. February 2009 – lookANDsee. [online] Available at: <https://lookandsee.me/2009/02/> [Accessed 2 April 2021].
About the Artists
Saoirse Amira Anis is a Dundee-based artist and curator. Through her practice, she considers the potential that lies in caring for ourselves and others, and the extent to which this nurturing can benefit us both personally and politically. This is informed by the calls for radical community-based approaches to governance and care that run through most queer Black feminist thought. She is also interested in her personal ancestry and often uses her art to explore the ways in which she is responsible for the continuation of her cultural heritage.
Jazmin Morris is a Creative Technologist. Her personal practice focuses on the complexities within simulating culture and identity through virtual games and experiences. Technology is used as a creative toolset to respond to predetermined ideologies and cultural and political theory. Jazmin works across institutions around London focusing on alternative STE(A)M education for diverse groups of people. The workshop, Redesigning representation in games, will provide an insight into Jazmin’s conceptual practice as well as guide participants through basic game development concepts.
Sarra Wild is a DJ and curator based in Glasgow. They co-founded OH141, a club night and collective which creates safe spaces for the queer community and people of colour. Sarra Wild and OH141 have also collaborated with Jupiter Artland to create Rising Residency: A week-long fully-funded residency for emerging artists based in Scotland who identify as working-class Women, BPOC, LGBTQ+.
Christian Noelle Charles is a contemplative visual practitioner based in the city of Glasgow, Scotland. A Syracuse, New Yorker, Christian's work is an exploration of female representation and self-love in a contemporary world.
Natasha Thembiso Ruwona is a Scottish-Zimbabwean artist, researcher and programmer. They are interested in Afrofuturist storytelling through the poetics of the landscape, working across various media including; digital performance, film, DJing and writing. Their current project Black Geographies, Ecologies and Spatial Practice is an exploration of space, place and the climate as related to Black identities and histories. Natasha is interested in different forms of magic and is in particular drawn to the power of the moon.
Tayo Adekunle. Originally from Wakefield, West Yorkshire, Tayo Adekunle is a British Nigerian photographer based in Edinburgh. Working a lot with self-portraiture, she uses her work to explore issues surrounding race, gender and sexuality as well as racial and colonial history. Her work is centred around the reworking of historical tropes relating to the black female body, taking from contexts that include art historical paintings and sculptures as well as 19th century colonial photography