Diversity. As buzzwords go, it’s a pretty sexy one. Even consistent abuse of it in corporate conferences can’t render it too drab. Diversity. It’s the hard initial, the meeting of top teeth on bottom lip halfway through, and then the tongue tip to the roof of the mouth, before the open end of that monophthong. Diversity.
It’s been doing the rounds in the hallowed halls of the Welsh arts organisations for some years now, alluring the gatekeepers; and some kind of action has been gathering apace particularly in the last couple, with it becoming a governing preoccupation of most of the national organisations and funding bodies. Along with promoting and sustaining the Welsh language, diversity is where it’s at.
Arts Council Wales regards diversity as one of its primary focuses. ACW is working in tandem the Welsh Government’s ambition of creating “a more equal Wales”, which means – or should mean – that the arts in Wales can no longer be the preserve of white, able-bodied, middle-class, straight men. Progress for gender equality is in motion – we are told the evidence is all before us. Women are very well represented in arts jobs in Wales, and they make up 43% of the Welsh Assembly (way above the national average for political institutions); women occupy a conspicuous number of the top jobs in the arts in Wales. Progress is good, even when it’s not swift enough.
Or is it? Is this progress real progress, or just shifting sands on the same old dune?
One argument that is impossible to ignore, made by crowds of post-colonial scholars, artists, and activists, is that all of this “progress” is indeed neutered by the acceptance of the rules of engagement; no matter how many different faces might be sidling up to the conference tables, the progress is still taking place within the structures built and maintained by the white patriarchy. Gender progress? Yes, women fill important positions at every level in the arts in Wales now, but they do so entirely within the structures of a system built by white men. (I’ve no doubt you can pick out examples that contradict this, but you’ll probably do it on Twitter, or Facebook, a platform given to you by white men). These conversations are hosted by the arts institutions that serve an Arts Council founded by men that answers to a devolved Welsh government dominated by the ghosts and legacies and cultures of its founding fathers. The gatekeepers are forever asking previously ignored sections of society to join them. They want to give away seats at the table, they say. But it is their table. Why do we never discuss dismantling the structures that exist and starting again? This is not anarchy, it is bold, naked progress.
This week, Wales Arts International (the global outreach office of Arts Council Wales) hosted its annual forum at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. Although the title of this year’s event was Shifting Sands and Swollen Seas: Artists in Wales Connecting the World and Our Communities, the keynote was from Tunde Adefioye, dramaturge of the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels (via L.A. and Nigeria, he points out). Adefioye’s address was titled “Decolonising the Imagination and the Arts”. It was an exact and well-read deconstruction of the institutional prejudices that continue to exist with the structures we work within – ie. those built by the white patriarchy. (You can see the same speech here, from an IETM event in Portugal from earlier this year). Adefioye laid out his ten point plan for progress; but the sticking point was the white patriarchal framework. How is progress made to these rules? So Wales, its governing bodies, most of its arts organisations, talk and act when it comes to diversity to varying degrees; but do they do this without sacrifice, without risk? And what is change if it isn’t risky?
The end game here, which nobody really seems to be discussing openly, is what exactly would diversity mean for Wales? And this is a question, when taken seriously and maturely, that strikes right to the heart of any nationalist manifesto. Is Wales an on-going project, organically growing, or is it a ring-fenced frozen idea in the minds of the white middle class ruling faction? It seems impossible to me that a country can be both.
Let’s stick with the arts.
To some, diversity seems to mean seeing different faces on the stage, in the production office, in the boardrooms. But what about the diversity of ideas, diversity of policy? What ideas come to the table spoken with voices from Muslim, or Hindu, or Jewish communities, or the voices of people from LGBTQ communities, or working class communities, or people with disabilities – all of them, if you like, born and bred in Wales and many with a devolved Welsh school education. Having a diverse environment eventually means one thing: a challenge to the presiding political priorities of the white, able-bodied, straight, middle-classes. It means a challenge to the predilections, prejudices and politics of the institutions built by white middle-class men. Perhaps it comes on a bit strong to suggest burning down existing structures and starting again. But then I’m pretty much part of the existing structure, so I would think that.
So, if there is to be no rebuilding, then previously ignored sections of our society cannot be invited to sit in the gatehouses of the arts in Wales and then be asked to adopt the vision of the status quo. That is the definition of tokenism. Are the gatekeepers prepared for the white, able-bodied, male, straight, middle-class priorities of Wales’ policies to be downgraded in favour of ones that are more relevant to the needs of a diverse and further-diversifying country? This is what we’re actually talking about if we talk about diversity. Let’s put it in a soundbite: the things the white able-bodied middle-classes hold dear just might not be the political priorities of a future diverse nation.
Imagine a meeting where, in these cash-strapped times, a wheelchair user suggests money is taken from the Welsh language translation budget of any arts funder in order to pay for more disability access to public spaces in Wales. How will that kind of diversity be received? Or what if the commissioning of yet another documentary where a camera follows some vaguely recognisable face around Snowdonia gets kiboshed because a diverse decision making progress instead sends those cameras into the living room of a Somalian family in Bute town? How about when a young, ethnically diverse team of gatekeepers decide that all road signs in Wales now only hold Welsh language on them, because, frankly, the Welsh Language Act has changed the way entire generations think about Welsh, and how they use it. Imagine the 24 year old in a hijab having keys to power, someone who has spoken fluent Welsh since school and who doesn’t see the need to spend money on printing Casnewydd and Newport on the same sign.
Indeed, who in Welsh public life right now would dare to say out loud that perhaps the Welsh language should not be the first and last consideration in every single Arts Council funding application decision? They would be insane to do so. Welsh language comes before everything else, including diversity. Even though the sustainability and protection of Welsh language is enshrined in law, anybody suggesting maybe in certain job vacancy descriptions that Welsh language might be “desired” for a candidate rather than “essential” would probably result in a public execution at noon on Roald Dahl Plas (perfect spot for it, really – there may even be a funding opportunity for the right company who wanted to administrate).
Yet, this is what real diversity means. It means the priorities of today might not be the priorities of tomorrow. And if the gatekeepers are taking diversity seriously, then they have to accept – welcome, even – that everything is on the table.
If those last few paragraphs seem divisive and confrontational, allow me to try and end on a note of hope. There is a figure in Welsh cultural life at the moment who does seem to embody what real diversity must mean in the immediate future, confined as it is currently within the existing structures. Ashok Ahir is the Chair of the National Eisteddfod, and has become the primary force behind creating a visionary, open and inclusive festival this year, to take place for the first time without fences. At the Wales Arts International forum, Ahir talked with no little swagger – indeed with something approaching a refreshing up-yours attitude – about his passion for creating a diverse and welcoming Eisteddfod for everybody in Wales. As a non-Welsh-speaker (from a Welsh-speaking, South West Walian family tree), I look forward to this year’s Eisteddfod, which promises to be a celebration of the Welsh language with an emphasis on inclusivity, not exclusivity. Ahir’s philosophy may be just a good starting point, but at least it is a starting point, and it is a starting point without walls.