Back in April, Arts Council of Wales appointed writer, designer and activist Andrew Ogun as their Agent for Change, a role that seeks a pathway to inclusion and fairness in the arts. Caragh Medlicott caught up with Andrew over Zoom to discuss the fight for equality in the arts in Wales, the perils of social media virtue signalling and why meaningful change isn’t always comfortable.
Caragh Medlicott: I wanted to start by talking to you about your personal experience of the arts growing up in Wales. Today you’re working across artistic disciplines with an impressive biography as a writer, musician, designer and activist. How did you first get involved in the Welsh arts scene and how do you think, in hindsight, that route could have been made more accessible?
Andrew Ogun: My first foray into the creative industry was when I was seventeen. I launched a clothing brand with my friend Anthony — fashion is obviously very different to all the other kinds of disciplines and artistic areas, it’s probably the one that’s least formulated. There’s not really much of a fashion scene, I would say, in Wales, so it was quite difficult to navigate; if not for the personal connections that I had with people, and particularly my mentor from Newport called Rico who’d launched a clothing brand a couple of months before, it would have been much harder. He guided us a little bit at the initial stages of the process and that would have been harder without external support because it was just us with our own money.
So yeah, that was the first thing I did. And then in between that, I got involved in some local projects here in Newport — as a model actually, not as a designer — and I did Raw Ffest, the youth arts festival. So, I was doing a few things like that in the community, but music was the next thing I really got into. Since coming back from university in Birmingham I kind of haven’t stopped, I’ve just evolved. I do try to approach different disciplines, because I think they’re all important to me in one way, shape, or form. And they all inform and intersect with each other. For me, it’s like a world building thing, you know, it helps with all the other stuff I’m doing to be able to look at things from a very holistic perspective.
For me the key to accessibility is resources. I mean, I was in one of the most urban metropolitan areas in Wales and there was only one music studio. So I think to myself, what would have happened if I hadn’t had a relationship with Jamie, who runs the studio? What if for some reason that wasn’t the studio for me — what would my other options have been? There’s a lack of access, a lack of resources.
I also think, you know, infrastructure, and that kind of support network. I feel like at the early stages, there’s this kind of fear of scarcity, because there aren’t that many opportunities — people in the early stages of their artistic career end up hoarding opportunities. You become fixed on making your own way and surviving yourself, which becomes isolating because you don’t connect with people. Now, I’m getting opportunities, and I’m contacting all my friends, I’m making sure that that network is alive and growing.
Caragh Medlicott: So, you’ve recently taken on the role of Agent for Change with Arts Council of Wales. I know it’s still early days — cultural shifts don’t happen overnight — but I wondered if you could describe your vision for the role and the most important things you’d like to achieve in it?
Andrew Ogun: To me, I think there’s a kind of philosophical aspect, and then a pragmatic, practical aspect — and there needs to be cohesion between the two. So from the philosophical standpoint, it’s all my work in the past year with BLM, it’s been geared towards creating a more egalitarian, a more utopian society. I’m striving for a society in which people are able and enabled to flourish within themselves and in and of themselves. So, taking on this role at the Arts Council, it’s been a way for me to elevate and increase the impact of what I’m doing because up to this point my work has been quite hyperlocal. Now, obviously, what the Arts Council is doing has to reach the whole of Wales. That’s important to me, stepping into this role, that we’re taking Wales as a whole, not just South Wales which has historically been a problem. So it’s about taking those active steps towards becoming a more egalitarian place to live. You know, the arts are supposed to be the most democratic element of any society. The Arts Council has to reflect that, as an organisation we have to set the tone for the sector.
So, especially when we start thinking about money and funding, where that is directed has a huge impact on the makeup of the sector. My vision is to give a voice to the people who have historically felt voiceless. For those on the margins to have their needs and desires put at the forefront. And not in a way, that’s just, you know, ‘let’s just reverse the status quo by putting marginalised people in the middle when everyone else is not’, we don’t want to do that, because that leads to the same problem just with different people at the top and the bottom. It’s about how we approach this in a way that’s sustainable, and in a way that doesn’t cause active harm to any other group or community. So that’s the philosophical element for me.
On the practical level, we need to be reflective of the rich, culturally diverse and ethnically diverse and neurodiverse community of Wales. And that starts with staff. It’s about being able to take risks and be innovative, because I think organisations get to a point where they become risk averse, they want to play it safe. The important thing is to facilitate and give that platform to other people. To create a workforce that is representative of the country that we serve, which is an incredibly diverse place. So that needs to be reflected and represented in our staff — across all levels, not just at the middle and lower tiers, but in genuine positions of power.
Caragh Medlicott: The Black Lives Matter protests which followed the murder of George Floyd — like the one you organised in Newport — played a big part in bringing these conversations to the attention of the general public. However, it sometimes feels — especially in our social media age — that attention can be fickle as headlines cycle in and out. So, I wonder, in your opinion, how we can maintain public engagement in these conversations, and ensure that action is ongoing rather than reactive.
Andrew Ogun: This is something I’ve really had to reconcile myself with because we went from this point last year where, you know, there were 2,000 people at the initial BLM march in Newport. Which was incredible. But then to just see it dwindle, to see how when we moved beyond the significance of George Floyd’s death and into the nitty-gritty, into the action, the numbers dropped off. We were trying to look at how we could take this raw energy, this anger, this horror, and harness it into something long lasting and sustainable, when we really go to that aspect of the work we were left with just a couple of hundred people. For that to happen in only a matter of months is very disheartening. I went through a phase of serious disillusionment, thinking, you know, this is ridiculous. Especially when it comes down to stuff that was actually pertinent on a local level. To use the example of here in Newport, the death of Moyied Bashir, someone from our own community, and we’re not hitting anywhere near the same protest numbers for someone who got killed here on our doorstep.
But I think it’s always going to be like that, and we have to accept it; there are people who’re willing to put in the work and then people who were just there, you know, to feel like they were part of something, or to get the social media post, or to get the picture, or whatever their reason was. But for us it’s about ensuring we don’t stop, because we can’t, this is our lived reality. I have to live every single day as a person of colour. So, for me, it’s about connecting with those individuals who are willing to be selfless and move beyond the simple aspects.
I think we’re past that point of awareness now, this conversation is about every single day across all levels — in the media, in the workplace, on social media, at the societal level. I think that social consciousness raising is intimately linked with COVID-19; being at home, having all our liberties sort of taken away — you become introspective. It means you can scrutinise and evaluate because you’re forced to slow down and look at life. Now, as a society, we’ve reached a point where these conversations can’t be ignored.
So, it’s about how we cannot just be reactive but also proactive — how do we put steps in place and do the work to be anti-racist? It’s about breaking that cycle. What are we going to do now that means, in twenty-five years’ time, it’s not my child or my sister having to fight the same battles I’m fighting, the same battles my mum fought? And let’s not forget these things are still there – there are still protests going on daily. I don’t think there’s been a month since the initial protest where there hasn’t been one here locally in Wales. It’s about platforming these conversations and for me, setting an example to those around me.
Caragh Medlicott: We’ve definitely seen an increase in discussions about diversity in Wales and in the arts more generally in recent years, yet a recurrent problem is that thing we’ve already kind of touched upon of tokenism and virtue signalling. What do you see as the key differences between a performative commitment to diversity and a genuine commitment to cultural change?
Andrew Ogun: I think the key item for me is sustainability. For it to be truly impactful it has to be sustained. Because that’s kind of the essence of performativity and tokenism: it’s a one off. Tokenism is very extractive because it’s when a particular organisation or particular power swoops in and uses another person’s identity to make themselves look good, but then does nothing to sustain that change. How can we firstly create projects and structures and systems that are everlasting? And furthermore, how can we ensure it is a positive project, that’s doing positive work? We’ve achieved this, partially, maybe here in Newport, maybe in Cardiff, so we need to take our learnings and apply this to the rest of the sector. We need to bring everyone with us.
We’ve got to homogenise these processes as much as we can across Wales because it’s the strength of the status quo we’re fighting against; it’s everywhere, it’s intrusive. That’s how structural inequalities work, they cut across all aspects of civic life. I can be oppressed, here in Newport, in the same way I would be there in England, because that’s how strong the structure is. So, in order to reverse that — and I always come back to this quote — we need to “beat systems with systems”.
I think it’s important to understand that while pushing individual people into political representation is great, it’s not a solution to racism in and of itself. Representation is just something that should be happening away, that should be a given. But it won’t fix anything on its own, you’re just inserting a person into the same broken system. Of course, they’ll bring their own experience and perspective, but the system they’re operating in is still the prevalent system. We have to look beyond the simple solutions, and that’s where people are struggling. We’ve got to be radical and innovative to solve a radical problem.
Caragh Medlicott: I actually read a great quote from you where you describe the kneejerk reaction some people have to seeing “black and brown faces in positions of power” and how that “can be quite uncomfortable for people”. Obviously, this is one of the reasons representation is important, as you’ve mentioned, even if it’s not a solution in itself. But do you also think there needs to be more discussion about white fragility and how, when it comes to anti-racism, the process of unlearning unconscious beliefs can be uncomfortable, and that’s an important part of the process?
Andrew Ogun: Yeah, I think, again, this is a big area of discussion. The conversations about white privilege and white fragility have been important, but in order to take the next step, we need to look beyond this particular discourse. And the reason I say that is because Dr Muna Abdi has recently put out a really extensive document talking about this — so a lot of this stems from the ideas that she put out so this isn’t just from me — but she talks about how white privilege and conversations about it, unfortunately, a lot of times often result in white people feeling guilty. And it turns out, then, that guilt is really difficult to work with, because people end up either helping because of the guilt, or they have the opposite reaction and feel affronted.
It’s about intersectionality and class, because a working-class white person will never identify with being described as a person of “privilege” due to the particular hardships that they have faced in that context of being a working class white person. So with this kind of terminology you’re really almost creating a barrier before you’ve even had a proper conversation. If I’m a white person who has been through insane hardship and you label me as privileged you’re absolutely going to cause a visceral reaction. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of resentment and ambivalence and it becomes polarising. And the same with white fragility. I think they’re important terms — and I’m glad we’ve had conversations around them — but I think they’ve sort of served their purpose.
So now what do we do with this information? How do we interrogate what triggers that knee-jerk reaction? Prime example: when the council announced my job, the vast majority of the comments were positive, but then you get the trolls, and people were worried about my mental health. I was fine. I was more curious about what those people who were being negative were seeing. I think a lot of it stemmed from this idea of white annihilation, where they think it starts here and becomes something else. You have to ask why that same feeling isn’t evoked when they see white people. So, for me, that they have been uncomfortable is part of the process. You know, and even with conversations with white people I’ll sometimes get the feeling that maybe they’re nervous of saying the wrong thing – but it’s in the process of getting things wrong that you can identify issues and make changes. I think we’ve become too scared of having the difficult and candid conversations, and it’s that silence which has stunted us. I don’t know why it took such a significant thing, like the death of Floyd, for things to unravel, but I’m grateful. It’s a weird thing to say, but even if it’s been through an incredibly traumatic course, I’m glad we’ve reached this point. You need that uncomfortability. I don’t think we should run away from it.
Caragh Medlicott: So, do you think it’s perhaps about having more of a framework of nuance and empathy around these conversations? Especially online where there’s a lot of shouting over one another, a lot of rushing to find the most morally flawless argument.
Andrew Ogun: Unfortunately, you know, cancel culture is social media culture. There is no nuance on social media, people are only seeing things in extremes. And that is such a barrier to genuine conversation and genuine understanding. People are more concerned with being right, with virtue signalling, than being nuanced when the reality is there’s a lot of grey area with these kinds of things. It’s something we need to work through. I mean, as an activist, there are people in the movement with different politics to me, people who don’t want to have any relationships with white people. But that doesn’t stop us working together, for the same cause, because of these pockets of different views. Ultimately social media is punitive in how it approaches stuff – it’s actively looking for someone to punish. Of course, some people will never learn to be nuanced and that’s okay, you’re not going to be able to bring everyone along on the journey because some people don’t want to learn.
Caragh Medlicott: One of the things you’re striving for in your role is the removal of barriers to entry which can be so inhibitive to people from a variety of marginalised backgrounds, including those who are disabled or neurodivergent. Could you talk a little bit about some of the barriers you’ve identified and how you’re hoping to tackle them?
Andrew Ogun: A key thing for me has been the literal application processes. You know, one of the key things I quickly identified working with the council was job descriptions – if people are applying for funding we need to make it more democratic and humanise the process again. We’re in a society that is obsessed with efficiency above all else and that’s what creates this one-size-fits-all plaster, and that is ultimately a barrier. Especially in the arts, we should have the ability to be more flexible because we’re already all about innovation. I said to the senior leadership team if the job application for the Agent For Change role was a really arduous one I probably wouldn’t have applied for it. Because the description for this job was really kind of vague, but in a positive way, it afforded enough opportunity for me to individualise how I envisioned the role. It was very open – just an expression of interest. And I think that’s something that we should adopt across the sector, instead of having, you know, CVs and cover letters and a million questions to fill out, you should just have a basic expression of interest – ask people, what would you do with this role? We don’t have to turn artistic positions into something so arduous.
So that’s one of the key barriers, another is really associated with geography. Things are so highly concentrated in Cardiff, in Newport, in south Wales in general. So, it’s about how we can reflect the whole of Wales. It’s probably one of the most difficult aspects of the job because, historically speaking, there’s been this separation, but we need to look at it as a more cohesive whole. So I’m really going back to the drawing board on how we can alleviate that tension between south Wales and the rest of Wales because we don’t want to intentionally or unintentionally marginalise areas or deprive them of funding. And that also contributes to how we approach equality, inclusivity, and diversity, because, of course, there might be people from underrepresented regions that are mostly white that still count towards a diversity that’s missing at the moment. It’s not strictly from a racial lens. Diversity is a huge word that encompasses a lot of things. Like you said, we also need to think about neurodiversity, and disabled people, and I’ve already suggested things to do with our website in terms of accessibility.
Caragh Medlicott: Are there any areas of the Welsh arts, in particular, where you feel more urgent attention is needed in terms of diversity? How do you go about addressing and prioritising areas of transformation across the sector?
Andrew Ogun: With this question I really speak as an artist first and foremost, and I kind of look at ethnically diverse people, what kind of areas they gravitate to, and you can definitely see the gap around certain disciplines. Like when I think of theatre, people of colour don’t immediately come to my mind, or with literature here in Wales. It’s not necessarily just about funding but whether these spaces feel welcoming, it’s about interrogating what it is that might make them seem less attractive to certain marginalised communities. On the other hand, music is quite well represented across more lines than any other art in Wales really, but when you move into an area like opera – that’s when work needs to be done. In spaces which, historically, have been white male dominated.
And it’s like, how do we shift this kind of perception? How do we shift the paradigm, so that people are more comfortable approaching things? In terms of urgency, I don’t think it would ever be fair to prioritise because in my opinion, again, it comes back to that word intersectionality – there is no point saying, we need to prioritise Welsh language, or we need to prioritise the LGBTQ+ community, or we need to prioritise the black community, all of these issues are interlinked. And as long as I live in a society where one of these marginalised groups feel that there isn’t equality, there isn’t equality.
In terms of the agenda, obviously I’m not an expert in every single area. Two of my sisters have severe autism so I do have some experience with neurodiversity and accessibility and feel comfortable carrying out that kind of work. But in terms of other areas, I would never claim that I’m the best person to drive the economy forward; part of my job is calling on the experts, the leaders in the field who have that lived experience, and then our job is to facilitate them. We need to think: Who are the best people to do this? And how do we ensure, again, that we’re not using an extractive model. We want to work with people across the board co-creating and co-establishing our overall vision.
Caragh Medlicott: Lastly, in ACW’s BLM statement they address the importance of having “the expertise of lived experience […] embedded in […] policy”. How important is it that organisations both prioritise those with lived experience of racism while also providing full support and not placing all the burden of work on marginalised groups and people?
Andrew Ogun: It’s a balancing act, it’s a balancing act – because it’s not black people’s responsibility to solve racism. We aren’t the ones perpetuating these behaviours, we’re the victims of it. So, to ask a victim to then do the teaching, it doesn’t make sense. It’s counterintuitive. I mean, I can speak for myself in the short time I’ve been at the Arts Council and I’ve been fully welcomed, and fully supported. I’ve never been put in a position where I feel, you know, I’m having to do the work of being the teacher even though I’m the one who is the victim of something. I have the full support of the Arts Council internally and externally. And I know a lot of people were quite worried about that initially, because this role is a big task for just one person, and people wondered how the Arts Council were going to support whoever took on the role, but I am being looked after so I do want to assure people that that’s the case.
But I do think it’s important that the strain is not placed on marginalised communities that are already strained in and of themselves because of the nature of oppression. It’s different between people, too. I’m quite comfortable and confident – I can have the difficult conversations, but for some people it’s very traumatic and you have to respect that and leave room for that. Having to do this work and constantly talk about traumatic experiences isn’t beneficial to anyone’s psyche and certain people aren’t going to want to do that and that’s fine.
Still, I think that the strength of lived experience, that perspective, is so important. How can you purport to understand and know a community without that lived experience? That’s not to say you should never try. We all have to step into each other’s shoes sometimes. But when we’re talking on an institutional level, having those people in the room is eye opening. That’s how we make change happen – from the intangible to the tangible. The conversations we’re having, they’re important, but they’re intangible, the real victory will be in how much legislation we change, how much policy we change, because that’s how we change these structural issues by innovating and reiterating long standing policies.
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You can read more about Andrew Ogun’s work as Agent for Change at Arts Council of Wales here.
Caragh Medlicott is a Senior Editor at Wales Arts Review.