Wales Arts Review can reveal that despite a statement from Seren Cornerstone Poetry Festival claiming that, in the wake of controversy surrounding one of the panel debates at the festival, they would “listen” and “learn”, there is evidence that concerns raised in the weeks leading up to the festival were dismissed, and complainants “ignored” and “gaslighted”. Gary Raymond outlines the story.
On February 14th, Wales Arts Review published an edited transcript of associate editor Jafar Iqbal’s recent speech at the Seren Cornerstone Poetry Festival in Cardiff on February 9th. Jafar writes how the event, titled “How BAME Are You?”, was a prime example of the institutional racism still at work in Wales. He also made clear the reasons for his decision to accept the invitation to take part in order to use that platform to draw attention to the issues. Every line of Jafar’s piece hits a mark, but this is surely the best illustration of his point:
If you look through the rest of the festival programme, you’ll find writers of different religions, different sexual orientations, different disabilities. None of those things are flagged up, though – they’re writers, they don’t need to be anything else. Why couldn’t I have been treated the same way? Why isn’t there an event called ‘How Disabled Are You?’ with six disabled performers? Or an event called ‘How Womanly Are You?’ with six performers who identify as women? I’d argue it’s because, at best, those hypothetical events are tokenistic and offensive.
(You can read the whole piece here)
To many (I hope), that a festival event with a title like this could get through the first planning meeting might be surprising enough in 2019. But all organisations are on a learning curve when it comes to matters of representation, and some of those curves are steeper than others. The decolonising of the arts and culture of our country will take time enough, even if we are all working to the same ends. Wales Arts Review over the last few years has published many pieces discussing the attitudes to representation in different sectors of the arts – including opera, theatre, and in more mainstream popular forms of entertainment. In all of those cases the subjects in focus have displayed themselves to be at different stages of evolution on matters of representation of minority communities.
But over the last few years a pattern has emerged. A mistake is made, it is called out, and those at fault issue a statement saying they will “listen” and “learn”. But how much is this becoming a stock response, a collection of phrases that even a casual observer may begin to think are arranged to put an end to any negative attention? Mea Culpas are getting easier perhaps, in the age of cut n paste. Are these phrases little more than armour-plating now, attached to the caterpillar tracks that allow these organisations to move fatefully on, untouched by their mistakes, arrogance, and institutional bigotry? After all, there appears to be a disconnect between the idea of giving those with “protected characteristics” a platform, and giving those voices agency.
Seren, the publishing house whose name is attached to the Cornerstone Festival, very quickly put forward a statement in response to the publication of Jafar’s article. The statement (which can be read in full here) thanks Jafar for his “honesty”. In the last paragraph it states,
The most damaging thing organisations can do is ignore concerns and refuse to confront realities of unequal representation. There is much work to be done in Wales and beyond, and we are listening and learning.
These sentiments are correct, but are they sincere?
Wales Arts Review has spoken to several sources that have been able to detail how concerns and complaints were raised weeks before the festival began, and that none of these concerns or complaints were listened to. We are also aware of at least one complaint to board members of Seren, as well as to Seren’s Publisher, Mick Felton, in January. We understand that the complaint detailed the dismissive attitudes of festival organisers in response to the original vocalising of concerns. Another different source tells us that Seren received complaints and concerns and reservations from individuals before the festival started and that festival organisers either “ignored them” or “gaslighted” the complainants. Another source tells us that after raising concerns about the issues, several weeks before the festival began, they were told that they were just “determined to be offended” by one of the festival organisers.
The gulf between the picture Wales Arts Review has been painted, and the one sketched by the statement from the festival raises many questions. What, if anything, was done at Seren to address these concerns before the festival? It seems oversight of the Board has been ineffectual; but Wales Arts Review understands that in actual fact the Board went without consultation by the festival organisers throughout the stages of the festival’s development. This begs the question: who exactly was running it and who exactly was responsible for signing off such a problematic panel event, and why were concerns not dealt with before the festival? Why were the structures put in place to ensure good governance not used?
The recent Corporate Plan published by Arts Council Wales late last year focuses on the need for Wales to lift up those artists within the brackets of “protected characteristics”. Although it’s not the Arts Council who is responsible for the funding of Seren, this Corporate Plan marks a welcomed progressive strategy that all arts organisations in Wales would do well to look at. It is clear from the evidence, that what has happened with the Cornerstone Poetry Festival is not a case of an organisation on a learning curve, as Seren’s statement claims, but that at some stage in the festival’s development a sclerotic attitude to BAME writers was allowed to control the narrative. Writers of any protected characteristic are not available to be paraded for the curiosity of Wales’s white, able-bodied, straight, middle classes. Diversity, transparency, and good governance means that the attitudes displayed by festival organisers toward the BAME community at Cornerstone can no longer flourish. It is now up to Seren to do better in future, but it is also up to us all to speak out loudly and clearly when we know this is going on.