Hannah Lawson considers Black History Month Wales as she travels around the country to a number of events celebrating the influence of black culture in Wales.
October was Black History Month, and a wide range of events took place across Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham, Aberystwyth, Hay-on-Wye, Bethesda and Bangor throughout the four weeks. Lectures, storytelling, drum and dance, and a wide variety of films shown as part of the Watch-Africa Film Festival featured in a number of venues.
I headed to my local theatre in Swansea, The Taliesin, who were working with Afrovibes for the first time for their Black History Month programme. To celebrate twenty years since the end of apartheid, Afrovibes have concentrated on South Africa this year, taking eleven different performances of drama, song and dance to venues in Swansea, Hereford and Cardiff.
As part of their partnership in the lead up to the festival, The Taliesin and Afrovibes had worked on a community programme with two local Communities, First schools and artist Keith Bayliss. The café bar of the Taliesin was transformed into a South African township, complete with corrugated plastic porch and brightly painted pallets on crates for tables (these are now going to be recycled into another community project, the wildly popular Vetch Veg) and the children had made the printed decor that formed bunting, tablecloths, banners and wall hangings during their project, with a reward of drumming and dancing workshops and a film at the opening of the festival.
They also had an African-inspired menu that changed daily; during my visit I had a very tasty tagine, while my companion had Congo Tofu – worth it for the name alone in my opinion but also fiery and flavoursome.
We went to see Biko’s Quest, a performance by Jazzart Dance Theatre with a cast of ten. The charismatic and much-loved activist Steve Biko was a founder of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, and died in 1977 in a prison cell in Pretoria from the injuries he sustained from police torture. His crime was to be a politically active black man outside the tiny zone to which he had been restricted. Whilst official reports initially blamed his death on an extended hunger strike, white journalists Donald Woods and Helen Zille exposed the truth of the matter; Woods eventually being forced to flee to England after photographing in the morgue the multiple head injuries which caused Biko’s brain haemorrhage.
The performance was an exploration of his ideals through contemporary dance, and whilst those who were expecting a more narrative approach may have been left a bit puzzled (‘I didn’t really learn anything about him…’ mused my companion), the power of the piece was undeniable, and left much of the audience in tears. The opening placed a central typewriter and small desk centre stage, the little protagonist sitting at it exclaiming ‘I write what I like’ – the title of Biko’s posthumous collection – and throughout, the performance was peppered with quotes of his such as: ‘It is better to die for an idea that will live, than live for an idea that will die’, and ‘The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed’. Bear in mind that it was illegal to quote anything he said, even personal conversations, such was the level of intellectual as well as physical oppression.
The piece was segmented into four very atmospherically different sections: the funky and joyful fifties-inspired dancing of his youth, the chaotic and frightening clashes with police in incidents such as the Soweto Uprising and the gruelling brutality that accompanied it; the roll call of some of the victims of state-sanctioned murder, and a funereal remembrance of them; and a finale which slowly built up from sorrow to hope through an astounding combination of dance, a cappella and an amazing array of sounds from very minimal instrumentation that has become almost a trademark of township culture. One clapperless handbell, one percussive item that I can only liken to a sparring mitt, and a couple of handfuls of fine sand; items which can be associated with pugilism and conflict.
‘Growing up in Soweto, you can’t just find a house with a piano, it’s very rare to find a home with a set of drums sitting there… You just use what you have,’ said Buhle Mda of The Soil, another Afrovibes act who performed earlier in the week.
Biko was a Xhosa, a people particularly close to my heart due to my upbringing. Whilst the closest I ever got to South Africa was a plane change at Johannesburg airport, I grew up across the border in neighbouring Botswana, a self-governed country which had gained its independence from Britain in 1966. The tribal regions bore no resemblance to the clumsily carved lines of colonial borders, so there were many Xhosa among my classmates and my parents’ colleagues.
So the Afrovibes Festival experience was immersive, joyful, provocative and relevant, and made genuine efforts to engage in a meaningful way with parts of the community who may otherwise have been oblivious to Black History Month. Sadly, however, the Taliesin’s events were not listed on the official Black History Month Wales listing website, only Chapter Arts’ Afrovibes events in Cardiff.
The following day I attended the National Waterfront Museum’s free event, which had been listed and advertised, purportedly celebrating black history in World War One. Alongside the children’s craft table, run by Vivian Rhule, there was a beautifully researched and quite fascinating collection of material on the subject; not only looking at Commonwealth involvement in the war, and the often forgotten nations of the world who contributed to the UK’s victory, but also about different animals within those countries and how they were used to further the war effort. It was a poignant reminder of marginalisation and the re-writing of history according to a current agenda – in the current climate of politicians clamouring to proclaim their anti-immigration policies and under a government who sought to eradicate Mary Seacole from the curriculum.
However, that collection remained largely unlooked at, and the audience of around thirty mostly comprised families with children too young for it; only really interested in getting their hands dirty on the craft materials, or young performers who didn’t go near the table at all. By the end of the event, when they moved into a different space for a powerpoint presentation, about half of that audience dwindled away. The low attendance was not for lack of content – the programme contained a great performance from Swansea Gospel Choir, traditional drumming, a catwalk show of African fashion and a combination of history and music from Women in Jazz. The fact that the Museum had moved their entire World War One exhibition out of this space and away from the event only served to make the space larger and accentuate the very small number of attendees, and ensure that it too went unseen, making the whole World War One theme of the day seem shoehorned in and disjointed, lacking any central coordination.
Having worked on many multi-cultural community events myself, I am fully aware that they are not easy to organise and can pose their own challenges, but the contrast between these two events was quite marked and raises questions about how resources and time are best used, particularly at a time when cuts to the arts are getting deeper all the time. When paid-for events not benefiting from official listing can sustain large audiences over a week, while a free event that is listed has a disappointing turnout, I think we have a duty to look for reasons and learn lessons for future programmes. The demand and interest are obviously there, whether the disparity lies in marketing, proper consultation with communities or some other totally different reason needs to be investigated. Other events in Cardiff were similarly affected, such as the Tangled Roots creative writing sessions which were cancelled due to lack of interest, and there was a lot of ensuing confusion as to whether the performance the following night was going ahead or not.
I caught up with the Millennium Centre’s Community Engagement Manager, Hannah Wynn Jones, who has built up a number of the relationships involved in the Black History Month Finale. She agreed that ‘We have to be smarter about how to use resources. Working in partnerships we have to admit our mistakes.’ We discussed the point that Butetown was arguably the oldest multicultural community in the UK, but trust had to be built with those communities after that side of its history had been marginalised in the gentrification and new affluence of the area. ‘[Events like these] put a magnifying glass on things that get swept under the carpet. I’ve seen a shift over the past twelve months in the arts engaging with audiences. It’s a slow and steady race – you keep investing. Profile and recognition will come if it’s good enough, but in Wales we’re not good at shouting about how good we are. We can only strengthen through collaboration.’
To round off the month I went to the Wales Millennium Centre’s Finale, a wonderfully varied mixture of community and professional performances, and an atmosphere buzzing with warmth and celebration. Stand out sets for me included: Kizzy Meriel Crawford, a Bajan-Welsh musician whose soulful and thoughtful performance was advanced for her young age and surely points to a promising career, Ballet Nimba, articulating deep cultural symbolism through physically intense choreography, and Messiah Dub Club brought the evening to a joyful and inclusive conclusion with a wonderfully multi-cultural array of musicians that filled the dancefloor.