What does it mean to be British? Read five outspoken collectives' views on identity in UK culture in this roundtable
If you’re a person of colour, remotely creative and/or working in the arts, you probably have a memory like this. You’ll be looking around a room – it could be a gallery opening or a book reading or a private view – and you’ll suddenly realise yours is the only face in the room. The only face that isn’t white, that is.
Here’s my story. I was 20; I’d sneaked into the afterparty for some university theatre group, grabbed a free glass of wine and cast my eyes around for anybody that I might know. Nobody. What I did see was a sea of white faces, laughing at this or that backstage in-joke and downing house white. The gratis booze turned sour in my mouth.
Why did it bug me so much? Why did it matter? I probably had a few friends in that crowd. But there was something about the whole scene that made me feel alone in a room of a hundred people: the yellow girl in the corner, turning redder by the second. I slunk off.
In February, the Warwick Commission released a damning report that stated that the creative arts have become whiter and more middle class over the last two years. It’s no coincidence that the same period has seen the poisonous growth of anti-immigration rhetoric and xenophobia, from both right and left-wing political parties.
People of colour (POC) rarely see ourselves reflected in British media; when we do, it’s usually because one of us has done something wrong and we are immediately called on to apologise for their behaviour. We’ve become a cipher for someone else’s anxieties and insecurities, or a quota to be massaged, fact-checked and disputed into oblivion.
But a new wave of POC artists and creatives is challenging that narrative. Between them, they publish zines, curate shows and create platforms for people to come together, not apart. They show that British artistic identity is more than ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ tea towels and cocktails at Frieze. I’ve gathered five of the most exciting ones below for a frank convo on the diversity in the arts and carving out their own space in the “bougie art world”.
The Lonely Londoners are Rianna Jade Parker, Kareem Reid and Pelin Keskin. Based in London, Toronto and New York, the collective of artists-curators organise multi-disciplinary shows and events.
Motherlands is Rayanne Bushell and Halina Kaszycka-Williams. The zine showcases the work of POC creatives, particularly diaspora artists born or based in Britain negotiating the margins, their identities and the nature and notion of ‘home’.
Variant Space is Nasreen Raja and Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail. The two met on Instagram and first developed the collective as an online archive and platform for female Muslim artists.
OOMK is Rose Nordin, Sofia Niazi and Heiba Lamara. The biannual publication began when Nordin and Niazi began talking to Sabbah Khan at a zine fair about making a zine that was relevant to Muslim women engaged in activism and the arts.
Diaspora Drama is Isaac Kariuki, Eileen Roman and Amal Hassan. The zine celebrates creative POCs with overarching themes of the internet and technology.
Let’s start with the basics. Why now? Why make a zine, why start a collective?
The Lonely Londoners: If not now, when? We understood the urgency and radical potential of our ideas from the very first meeting in the kitchen. We each had our personal areas of concern that intersected, sizeable followings on social media and a vested interest in the arts so starting a collective was a natural progression based on the interactions and conversations we had been having for years. We found the people we wanted to work with.
Motherlands (Halina): I come from a History of Art background that perpetuated an overwhelmingly gendered vision and Western rhetoric that just stank of exoticism. I got really bored of these old ideas in these dusty old books and definitely felt a sense of urgency – it’s time for a shift and for us take this into our own hands. But there’s a meme circling the net at the moment that says ‘You’re not deep, you’re not an intellectual, you’re not a critic, you’re not a poet, you just have internet access’ which I thought was incredibly dangerous. We exist outside of the canon and occupy another space. And whilst we are still constantly being told that certain formats are devoid of authenticity, we aim to break down these barriers but aren’t seeking validation.
Variant Space: The media has almost always had a damaging impact on the portrayal of Muslim women. Contemporary imagination and dialogue conceptualizes Muslim women as weak, disregarded, affronted and chained. With Variant Space, we want to show the complete opposite of this picture and elevate the dialogue from a vantage of choice and freedom. We want to display the realities of Muslim females (through art) – reclaimed – as they are, while opening channels for interactive experience with the public. Essentially, it is an assertion of creative agency.
How much does your own identity feed into the work you do?
OOMK: For us so much of OOMK is a demonstration of and reflection of identity being complex and fluid and allowing this to be so. Mainstream media and culture is so rigid in its limitations and categorisations that it lacks any room for growth or the expression of difference without making it ‘other’. As a collective, it’s hard to separate how each of our identities feeds into our work. As a publication we hope it gives people the opportunity to express theirs on their own terms.
The Lonely Londoners: Collectively we’re the children of West Indian, Middle Eastern, African, Asian and Latino immigrants living in the global north, that already is a great place to start. Being very deliberate in the documentation of our lives and art helps us to make better sense of ourselves and how we navigate the world and all of its systems. We’re rooted in our identities but in no way are we restricted by it.
“We’re rooted in our identities but in no way are we restricted by it” – The Lonely Londoners
Variant Space: The collective includes Muslim women from divergent cultural backgrounds, although the religious context is the same (Islam). On a personal level, it would be very hard for us to box our identity into a singular description. Nonetheless, our works of art are highly influenced by social forms taken from the different cultural spaces that we have inhabited. This feeds into our work and how we display the variety of realities through photography, fine art, textiles, mixed media, installation, sculpture, drawing and painting. We would define our identity in purely general terms of our relationship with our artistic production within the parameter of our shared heritage.
Diaspora Drama: Amal and Isaac are African and Lulu is Afro-Dominican. Even beyond that some of us are poor, some of us are queer, some of us have disabilities and all these identities intersect during decision making. Isaac and Lulu at one point were debating on the relevance of adding a love poem into the first issue but even relationships as people of colour can be political and we have to remind ourselves that everyone experiences things through all their identities.
Motherlands (Halina): Well... Our “work” will never be done! Identity is both plural and partial, conflicting and corresponding... And as OOMK have said, fluid and complex. For me, it seems like a natural starting point as a subject of creativity. My own personal journey – as someone living in Britain of mixed Jamaican and Polish heritage is so multi-layered. I’ve always been asking questions about the hybridity of historical and cultural experiences and I think extending this dialogue with Rayanne and the wider world through Motherlands isn’t merely an option - it’s a necessity.
Who are your role models? Who inspired you to get to this point?
OOMK: Starting a collective was largely inspired by the lack of role models or existing space to feel welcome. Not to say we don’t have role models. In terms of prominent magazines and zine culture we were inspired by everything Oh Comely achieved as a magazine, Girls Get Busy collective, and artists like Miranda July and riot grrrl culture. Many of our role models are in fact family, friends or peers. We have real love and admiration for The Lonely Londoners as a collective and the writings of Kareem Reid and Rianna Jade Parker, and more recently the talent and graft of filmmaker Cecile Emeke. They’re so far ahead they just might have been sent back from the future. We’re constantly trying to dig past institutional erasure to find people who speak to us on a level – often individuals are connected to movements wider than themselves. The history of the New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park and the publishing mission and international network of its founder Trinidadian activist and poet John La Rose has had an enduring influence. One of our friends, Hudda Khaireh, introduced us to the Martiniquean literary journal Tropiques and the work of Suzanne Cesaire. Feverish sharing and absorption of ideas is our default mode.
Motherlands: The art and activism of Maud Sulter and Lubaina Himid, particularly the book Passion and the Making Histories Visible Archive respectively have influenced the work, though we’d agree with OOMK in that the zine was inspired by a lack of an existing space and it’s our peers that we meet and/or become aware of through the work who have been most inspiring, not to mention supportive.
Diaspora Drama: It’s always the offbeat and weird creatives like Aki Nawaz of Fun-Da-Mental, Hassan Hajja, M.I.A. and Wangechi Mutu. Also Osa Atoe, the creator of the black punk zine Shotgun Seamstress and Beth Siveyer of Girls Get Busy – two zines that set out specific goals in trying to motivate their people.
The recent Warwick Commission report said that the creative arts were getting less diverse. Does that jibe with your own experience?
OOMK (Sofia): The lack of diversity in the arts becomes more and more apparent the higher up you go. We were at the Occupy UAL talk about institutional racism and one of the speakers was saying that non-white students actually perform better than white students at Art Foundation level but at degree level they perform comparatively worse with massive dropout rates. At the educational level government policy and profit-driven arts institutions are responsible for the lack of diversity. The £9,000 a year fee to study art at degree level ensures that the arts are and will continue to be the playground of the most privileged students. I think one really good thing about all of this is that a lot of young creative people are developing their practices outside of the stifling environment of formal arts institutions. There's so much exciting and relevant work being produced by people who didn't go to art school and don't care about the bougie art world, they're using the internet to learn and find other artists, they're making their own collectives and they realise that you no longer have to go through any establishment to get your work seen. Maybe it's better for art? Maybe formal arts institutions are becoming less diverse but also less relevant?
“The £9,000 a year fee to study art at degree level ensures that the arts are and will continue to be the playground of the most privileged students” – OOMK (Sofia)
The Lonely Londoners: Things were bad 20 years ago, they are just plain ugly now. Six per cent of museum and gallery workforce in London is of a BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) background and a menial number of 15 artworks out of three thousand in Tate’s collection are by black British artists (of which only four are by black women) and this is all very apparent so the report is of no shock to us. We feel it anytime we go to a gallery or museum in London. If you were to ask the average art aficionado to name ten non-white artists whom they would readily cite, so few if any of them would be from our generation or even British.
Motherlands (Rayanne): Things are awful, but I don’t think that’s a surprise to anybody paying attention. I’d be interested to see if the policymakers in the UK actually make some worthwhile and productive changes in light of the report, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. There’s no point relying on a broken system.
Motherlands (Halina): Well, it’s funny that the Lonely Londoners mention the lack of black women artists in the Tate Collection, because I actually work with one of those four. When I found out, I was disappointed that we were so under-represented, but like Rayanne said, not surprised. It’s strange, because you’d sort of think things would be getting better. But I think in a way things have to get worse to make progress – but it’s definitely cyclical – the 1980s spawned so many incredible grassroots movements, and I can see lots of parallels in what we are all doing now, working outside of the traditional frameworks and institutions. If you can’t beat ‘em, don’t join ‘em – make your own spaces and don’t be disillusioned by the mainstream.
Diaspora Drama: The most startling part of that article and study was the part regarding the drop in students taking creative arts at the GCSE level stating, “it’s about making sure that culture is relevant and representative”. That really highlights the covert violent erasure taking place. The less our art is present, the less involvement we had in shaping the culture and the less we existed, right? I always talk about how important it is to archive old cassette tapes of your grandparents music and convert them to digital files to preserve history and culture that’s being erased and the same goes for art now.
Variant Space: Both of us felt that the shadow of being a minority within the courses we chose followed us the duration of our studies. This is not because the universities were prejudiced; misunderstanding of perspective predominated due to lack of cultural variety within courses. Nevertheless, we were given freedom to express the differing viewpoints that we had. It is important to note that it is not always a lack of diversity that creates impasses, but a lack of awareness of the unique situations in which people have developed their differing visions. For example, former students like us, with Pakistani and Saudi Arabian backgrounds, found it difficult to connect to a priori assumptions of what constituted artistic forms. The situation in the UK is not terrible; however, it must undergo directional reform in content and structure
Time to talk politics. Do you consider your work political in any way, shape or form?
OOMK: Yes. We wouldn’t know how to separate our work from politics, we’re affected by it at every level. Whether it’s institutional racism, Islamophobia, unemployment or the housing crisis. But it’s not always negative and it’s doesn’t define who we are as creative women or what issues and ideas we feel we are able to engage with. Issues of social justice give us common ground with so many other people and groups. We find the meetings, groups and communities we are interacting with are becoming increasingly diverse and active. We organise events like Crit Club, Zine World and DIY Cultures with the intention of being as open and collaborative as possible. We want to be part of a broader community embracing self-organisation and challenging mainstream or prescribed notions of what society should look like and how people should organise and engage with wider issues.
Diaspora Drama: Kehinde Wiley said that everything is political. “If I were to paint a bowl of fruit I’d be a young black man painting fruit”. It’s inevitable and it’s also personal.
Why is it so important to define your group and work along the lines of ethnic or cultural identities?
The Lonely Londoners: Where else would the beauty come from?
Motherlands (Halina): That’s the million dollar question. Doesn’t it actually just reaffirm the old tropes of ‘otherness’? Have we nothing else to say for ourselves? In the words of Audre Lorde: “If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
How do you see your work fitting into the wider art world?
Motherlands: We’re not interested in fitting into the wider art world. It’s a lot more fun and interesting to make a way out of no way and carve out spaces for ourselves as an alternative to the current system.
The Lonely Londoners: I’m sure we’ll never fit in and that’s fine by us. Our role is to disrupt the centre, agitate the order and to unapologetically take up space because we can and are no less deserving than Matisse.
Diaspora Drama: That implies we’re even invited in the first place. We’re about cyber-resistance and like LL said, taking space.
What pisses you off about Britain today? How do you think art or creativity can change that – if it can at all?
OOMK (Heiba): There is no succinct way of properly encapsulating the collective piss-take that Britain is currently on. It’s breath taking; as in, “I cannot breath; this may or may not be a panic attack”. Somewhere in-between Yarl’s Wood, Brixton police station, GCHQ, the invasion of non-European countries, the denial of a colonial past (and present), the primacy of anti-blackness, the collusion of almost every institution in the War on Terror, £9,000 student fees and the annihilation of legal aid, communities are still committed to living and not just existing, and that is art, and that takes creativity. Art and creativity, or the application of imagination and ingenuity can change so much; it comes from those places and it also transforms those places. Art can lay siege to so much if we want it to.
The Lonely Londoners: So much is wrong with Britain we won’t even bother to begin to count the ways. Art can truly change perception, where it is rigorous it is also rewarding. It’s not easy or a one-time event. James Baldwin told us: “The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see.”
Motherlands (Rayanne): If I started a list, I’d probably never stop, but I agree with Heiba completely and admire your ability to come up with a succinct answer. “Collective piss-take” is right and a lot more diplomatic than anything that first came to my mind.
Diaspora Drama: We’re also here for the “collective piss-take”. I wanna see that on a bus passing through gentrified neighborhoods with unbelievable housing prices.
“In short, what pisses us off most is apathy, the belief that collective action will not be useful, that we will not be heard and that organized activity may be futile” – Variant Space
Variant Space: The most frustrating and sickening aspect of Britain today is duplicity of intention and inaction. People are either patronizing while attempting to “solve” the problems of “the other”, or inactive when able to aid those who need it most. People need to stop complaining and talking in terms that are conceptually unsound and which they may themselves not understand. Let us be real and human, inspiring and genuine; instead of a path that is hidden behind verbosity. In short, what pisses us off most is apathy, the belief that collective action will not be useful, that we will not be heard and that organized activity may be futile. Therefore, we took it upon ourselves to be brave and open about the realities experienced by female Muslim artists. Via showing the differing cultural aspects and touching upon uncharted territory, we are making it possible for interactive change to take place. Creative motivation is essential when trying to elicit transformation. Creativity – and creative art – is a powerful voice. It has been in the past and it will, with creative intent, guide the present and build the future.