The National Eisteddfod is Wales’ biggest cultural event, held annually over eight days. It draws a crowd of around 150,000 coming from all parts of Wales and beyond. This year, organisers have worked hard on breaking down real and perceived barriers, having for the first time an open (and free) festival sight in Cardiff Bay, and a tag line that welcomes everyone, no matter what language they speak. Yasmin Begum asks whether a new open festival is as diverse as it could be.
Perhaps the most interesting panel at this year’s National Eisteddfod is titled “The Role of Women in Politics”. The blurb reads, “As we mark 100 years since the successful campaign to secure the vote for women, join Elin Jones AM, Llywydd of the National Assembly, on politics in the past and present.” Politics past and present suggests, in some way, that “the past” will be reflected in the conversation, that there will be some focus on the influence the last hundred years has had on the current political landscape of Cardiff and Wales. After all, a hundred years ago, Cardiff had the second largest branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage outside of London. South East Wales, historically, has had a significant role to play in Britain’s radical political shifts.
The Welsh Senedd, Wales’ political hub, sits towards the bottom of Butetown, in the now-gentrified Cardiff Bay, formerly Tiger Bay, laden with North Walian slate, on the doorstep of one of Wales’ most diverse communities; indeed Butetown the second most racially diverse ward in Cardiff (with 25% of its population in 2011 self-identifying as having a BME background). In 1911, Tiger Bay had the second largest proportion of foreign-born males in that year’s census, and it was one of the UK’s first multiracial communities spawning famous people of colour such as Shirley Bassey and the hugely influential Betty Campbell, the first black head teacher in Wales. The National Eisteddfod, Wales’ largest cultural gathering, takes place just a stone’s throw from Butetown, enveloping the Senedd; The National Eisteddfod, where poets and singers and artists will be crowned and lauded, and a hundred years since suffrage for women will be celebrated. Yet, there are no black and minority ethnic women or women of colour participating on the panel about the history of women’s political participation in Wales.
Earlier this year, Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Sian Gwenllian said that action was desperately needed to push for a 50/50 gender quota in Welsh politics. Already 42% of the Senedd are women, which is healthier than most other political chambers in the UK. And yet these conversations about quotas continue to take place, though they rarely, if ever, include that four-letter word: “race”, never mind intersectional conversations on women of colour.
It is a shame, a missed opportunity, that the Eisteddfod has not taken the time to invite the perspectives of any number of brilliant BME women on this subject. This year alone I have seen tremendous discussions on the double standards of the celebration of Suffrage in the UK and widespread discussions on the intersectionality on women’s political participation, race and Empire. From a personal point of view, it’s worth remembering that while my great-great-great grandmother on one side of my family was able to vote in Wales, my great-great-great grandmother on the other side of the family, in India, was not. Why do we celebrate white women in the UK getting the vote and ignore subjugation of the women of Britain’s Empire? By presenting an all-white panel on the subject of the history of women in politics since 1918 Wales’s largest cultural event plays up to the white supremacy of women’s suffrage.
Wales has amongst the lowest percentage of BME people working in the arts of any part of the United Kingdom, according to the Creative Skillset Census in 2012. In fact, the last time a census was taken of the workforce in Cardiff only 0.7% of people in the creative sector are BME. A third of people in Wales live in the “wider Cardiff area”. An overwhelming majority of the creative industries takes place in Cardiff, and the industry generates £1.2 billion annually. In 2011, 15.3% of Cardiff identified as BME, and Cardiff is now the second fastest growing city in the UK after London. Those numbers are eight years out of date, and combined with underreporting in the census, we’re probably closer to the 20% mark, making an all-white line up organised by the Welsh Assembly even more shocking.
2018 marks 100 years since women were afforded the right to vote. It’s 50 years since the founding of the Welsh Black Panther Party (in Butetown, interestingly enough), and it’s 21 years since Devolution. We’re at a crisis point in Wales when it comes to representation, with race being mitigated by class amongst practitioners to ensure that gatekeepers are given keys to lock out racialised communities, for funders to create “model minorities” and perpetuate classism and colourism against vulnerable communities. It gives a few people a lot of power.
Now, more than ever, diverse and working class Welsh creative people of colour must come together to think big, act radically and most powerfully, create artwork that reflects our lived experience while holding institutions to account on a lack of racial representation and diversity. The National Eisteddfod is taking place on the doorstep of one of Cardiff’s most multiracial areas, and yet no woman of colour has been invited to talk about the last hundred years of women in politics. The organisers did not have to look far for possible participants. If it’s an oversight, it’s an inexcusable one. But during the festival, in the heart of Wales’ oldest multiracial community, Chairman of the Eisteddfod’s governing body, Eifion Lloyd Jones, referred to Ugandan people as “savages” and has since refused to apologise. So perhaps the problem is more obvious than a mere oversight.
You can follow Yasmin Begum on Twitter @punkistani93
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Arts Council Wales was one of the organising bodies behind the “The Role of Women in Politics” panel. You can find out more about the Societies Sessions here.