IETM Porto keynote speech: “A Critical Ten Point Plan to Creating Professional Sectors that Reflect Society” by Tunde Adefioye

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IETM Porto Plenary Meeting, 26 - 29 April 2018, gathered 651 participants from the different corners of the world to discuss how art relates to the processes of transforming centres of creation, dissemination and decision-making. Watch the video recording of the meeting’s keynote speech “A Critical Ten Point Plan to Creating Professional Sectors that Reflect Society” by Tunde Adefioye, City Dramaturg at KVS - Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg, and read the transcript below. For music fans there is a whole playlist inspired by this talk.

In the past year, many have written articles highlighting the pain that individuals of color and other individuals that are relegated to the margins of society experience. A broad spectrum from erasure, microaggression, to psychological difficulties.

What a letter by Fannie Sosa a Latinx artist about the whiteness and “uncritical inclusivity” of Impulstanz in Vienna alludes to [1]and as MeWe360 in the UK highlights in the Black Arts funding trap, is that Europe has a problem[2]. Whether it is the halls of Denmark, the festivals of Belgium or streets of Edinburgh, urgent and collective action needs to be taken. As Paul Gilroy suggests we need to take sober actions to remove ourselves from the stupor of postcolonial melancholia. It is also tiring to see the continual denial of the role of racism as a way of propping up the fantasy of white innocence in many structures.  This speech is a call not only for allies and accomplices in Porto but also to start making transnational alliances that will benefit the cultural (and other professional ) sectors so these institutions better reflect the differences in society.  Here is a quick run down of the points. Now a more in depth look:

  1. Ask how can my instution be decolonized? For those who are misunderstood, decolonization is not only something white folks need to do to redress their histories. As Frantz Fanon puts it “ Decolonization never goes unnoticed, for it focuses on and fundamentally alters being, and transforms the spectator crushed to a nonessential state into a privileged actor, captured in a virtually grandiose fashion by the spotlight of History. It infuses a new rhythm, specific to a new generation of men, with a new language and a new humanity. Decolonization is truly the creation of new men. For another take on that new rhthym I would like to play a bit of Mick Jenkin’s Black Sheep. bell hooks tells us “Looking and looking back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory, using it as a way to know the present and invent the future” . Institutions need to make sure that more individuals that mirror the current society are included in policy making processes, programming , hiring decisions, and help in writing a more inclusive mission and vision statement.  Do not be content with hiring one or two magic negroes or unicorns and think that makes you the beacon of diversity. Who sits on your board of directors? It is important so change that too. As Matt Fenton suggest, make sure if you have a white cis male director, he gets the right mix of people around him. People that represent newcomers, trans people, individuals with disabilities, communities of color and or religious minority groups. Pay all artists on an equal pay-scale.
  2. If you are 60+ a white cis-male, start thinking of an exit plan. No, don’t feel discriminated. It would be discrimination if a committee gave the advise to step down for someone younger. Just heed that advise and mentor mentor mentor. Think of how you can mentor a person that does not identify, gender like you or think like you? Preferably start 5 years in advance. And allow your support from the background to speak for itself. If you don’t know how to do this, call upon the wisdom of Harry Belafonte: he found it more important not to be in the spotlight of the Women’s March in Washington, but his money and advise played a supporting role. Yes, you can! Bob Dylan said it best, “times they are a changing”. There are many individuals waiting in the wings, especially “womxn” (of color), who are already showing that they can defy and blaze a new cultural path. : We need more individuals in the arts who are willing to share their expertise and experience and then step aside to allow a new generation to sharpen their own tools to fight the fights that need to be fought and as an extension create the society that they see fit.
  3. Funding bodies need to make sure that resources are better redistributed? Not only large institutions should be getting funding for new projects. Institutions like the Flemish Royal Theater in Brussels, Kammerspiele in Munich, Royal Court Theater in London and De Singel in Antwerp need to find new backdoor ways to give some of their budgets to smaller organizations. This, in order to make sure innovation is stimulated. In other words, smaller orgs that are doing cultural work that better serve those at the margins of our society also need to be better funded.  Speaking of subsidies, whose idea was it to streamline and encourage fusion anyways? There is a hole in the logic, because one needs to see the cultural landscape as an ecosystem. Without the prairie mouse in the plains of Yellowstone, we cannot get the beautiful spring flowers that create the color palettes on the prairies of the park, nor do we get the grizzly bears. This type of insistence on the “bigger is better” organization is a counterintuitive process. In a speech given in 1968 at Bard College on power and violence, Hannah Arendt proclaimed “…As things stand today, when we see how the super powers are bogged down under the monstrous weigh of their own bigness. It looks as though the new example will have a chance to rise…in a small well defined sector in a mass society of the large powers…bigness itself is afflicted with vulnerability. While no one can say with any assurance, where and when the breaking point will be reached. We can observe, almost to the point of measuring it, how strength and resiliency are insidiously seeping from our institutions, drop by drop…”
  4. For predominantly white institutions that serve predominantly white audiences, what are you doing to make sure more individuals of color occupy your spaces on their own terms not one that you pre-determine for them or one that feels comfortable for you? Larger institutions, have to strive harder to open themselves to the city and its’ residents. Finding ways to be more accommodating to local communities by for example opening on Sundays and in the Summer can be an essential way of allowing others to utilize often empty spaces for community building purposes. For those starting out at as new artistic directors of let say Young Vic, here’s looking at you Kwame Kwei-Armah. Take a page from Shermin Langhoff’s playbook at Maxim Gorki Theater in Germany. The NY Times reported  that she “swept into her new role in 2013, replacing every actor but one in the theater’s ensemble and transforming it into the most diverse company in the city. About half of the current 18-member company is of Turkish or Afro-German background, while a number of the members have Eastern European immigrant roots.”[3] Let's stop pretending that it is only the tax money of the fortunate few that help keep our lights on. We aren't in the US  where the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Foundation can dictate or justify our pretense. Some might be descended from royal blood -- you know what I'm referring to if you know how Henry got the rubber for the tires that created the wealth which created that foundation in the first place -- but we do not have the royal wealth without the general population that funds us through their hard earned tax money.
  5. How are you broadening your canon? What other type of works are you including in your programming that is different from the repetoire? We should think more clearly about the construction of language and how it is used to shape our social/communal and professional lives. No such thing as NEUTRAL language! These languages allow for us to define ourselves and how we position in the world. It also allows for us to create new meaning in our respective societies, in essence trumping old meaning which too often our attached to problematic histories. As prof. Gloria Wekker in White Innocence writes “An unacknowledged reservoir of knowledge and affects based on four hundred years of  Dutch imperial rule plays a vital but unacknowledged part in dominant meaning-making process, including the making of the self, taking place in Dutch society.” As cultural practitioners we are a critical part of that meaning-making process. We thus owe it to ourselves and the communities we serve to move away from white innocence and dig deeper into what our priviliges allow us access to and use those changes to create more space for different cannons in our cultural practices. While also allowing others to defy their own meaning.  Recently the New York Times reported that  in Denmark for example the first statue of a Black womxn was revealed on a square that formely housed a sugar warehouse. La Vaughn Belle one of the artist involved said “Who we are as a society is largely about who we remember ourselves to be. This project is about challenging Denmark’s collective memory and changing it.” … At my institution, the Royal Flemish theater, KVS for short, we are making theater like Malcolm X by the Flemish South African Junior Mthobeni, or Not My Paradise by Flemish-Iranian Sachli Gholamalizad, which broadens our collective canons and redefines how we see ourselves. Further, In England you have Eclipse Theater which focuses on ensuring that more productions with individuals of color are being created and programed such as this piece Black Men Walking. To use another gratious musical example, I would like to bless you all with some Queen Bee track...  You Welcome
  6. Stop navel-gazing! Conceive of and establish new leadership models within your organizations and institutions.  What would the cultural landscape look like if the general assemblies of the Occupy Wall Street movement would be implemented -- where an inclusive form of direct democracy takes place and all who want to participate can do so. Or for that matter taking lessons from the approaches of the Arab Spring or the diffused leadership model of Black Lives Matter. It is BLM that intrigues me the most because their platform seems to have offered the most radical and longstanding solution. Instead of having one individual leader that acts as a figurehead for the whole movement, there are a series of individuals that represents different communities nationwide. These individuals can differ in terms of politics and even how they identify but they are all united around the focus of saving and improving the quality of Black lives. When duty calls, these individuals from the different communities around the US and in other cities around the world then use social media to mobilize their local communities into a large critical mass that is as an extension seen by the outside world and traditional media as “one” movement. Whereas in the past you had one leader that would attempt to speak for a whole movement, i.e. Martin Luther King, now you have one powerful movement that does not evolve around one leader. This not only creates longevity for the movement but it creates a diversity in the movement itself. Allowing it to be active on different fronts but still bound by the one mission of for example, saving Black lives. As the platform statement  on the BLM website states: “…We believe in elevating the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are women, queer, trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim, formerly and currently incarcerated, cash poor and working class, disabled, undocumented, and immigrant …We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us towards the world we envision…” I am left to wonder what type of arts and cultural landscape we would have if we did not have a landscape or institution that revolved around patriarchy more specifically, white patriarchy. What would inclusion look like in the art and cultural landscape if we opted for a diffused leadership model that respected and honored the voices and potential of different communities, in order to have institutions that truly represent as well as reflect the desires of various groups. We need to think more deeply about how we can change power structures and allow for leadership to be less patriarchal and more diffused to not only represent but to truly reflect different cross-sections of society. Allow other individuals and organizations that do not reflect your values to take over the curation of a project, season or even a few years.   
  7. Cultural institutions, like governments too often practice a type of appropriation that is endemic of parasites in the human gut. One of the most insidious cases of this is when the US government in 1975 under Gerald Ford appropriated the breakfast program from the Black Panthers  and made it their own[4]. This after the FBI helped to violently kill off many of the Panther’s leaders.  In many ways this type of non-symbiotic relationship happens within the cultural landscape. For example, by working with smaller organizations without giving the smaller organizations credit for the work they have done. This is especially prevalent through the stealing of intellectual property. More specifically larger organizations organize a meeting with a smaller one, under the premise of a potential collaboration or to "get to know each other". By the end of the meeting, the smaller organization has divulged all their network names and some of their methods. The smaller organization asks for a follow up meeting but in return they only get the sounds of crickets in the night. When in fact they should either get a solid cooperation and acknowledgement or at least a consultation fee for the information they have divulged. Or even worse, a small organization creates a concept, let’s call it an “urban bib” and a library in a city, let’s say Antwerp hijacks the idea without the appropriate acknowledgement. Furthermore, the bigger organization can use that information to fatten up their subsidy application for their next round of provincial or federal subsidies.
  8. How do you measure quality? Are you thinking about and initiating other ways to measure quality of productions and projects that come to your festival and cultural institution? About what groups you privilege over the other. The trans woman activist and author Janet Mock says it best, “these glaring disparities, about how those with the most access…set the agenda, contribute to the skewed media portrait, and overwhelmingly fail at funneling resources to those most marginalized. My awakening pushed me to be more vocal about these issues, prompting uncomfortable but necessary conversations about the movement privileging middle- and upper-class cis gay and lesbians…”. Last week it was announced that Kendrick Lamar made history by being the first hip hop artist to be awarded the prestiguous Pultizer Prize. To put this win in perspective the prize has only been given once to a jazz composition. This is a prize that has been around since 1917. Regina Carter, one of the jury members that voted for Kendrick Lamar said, “I just felt like what he had to say and how he would say it…might mean something completely different for someone else that’s listening to it. I felt like it was his experience as a black man in America—and a lot of peoples’ story, not just his story—and just trying to figure stuff out. It’s so poetic. I felt like if you took his lyrics and put them in a book, it would be great literature.” For another musical intermezzo, I would like to play DNA from the Pultizer Prize winning album Damn.
  9. Form transnational alliances with institutions that have a completely different approach than yours. What will a (photo) Youth Speaks (San francisco) teach you about how to work with young people who are new inhabitants of a city? What will an institution like the (photo) Audre Lorde Project teach you about perceiving culture from the perspective of a trans person?
  10. What are you doing within your institution and festivals to make sure the “work floor” is a safe space that does not harbor the festering culture of transphobia, sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, fatphobia and hatefulness in general (as the Afro-Punk music festival sums it up)?  If we are no longer ok with men like Woody Allen, Jappe Claes, Bill Cosby, Max Stafford-Clark defining how we perceive the world we know or imagining the world that is possible then we need to do more to risk our livelihood to enrich the options in terms of who tells the stories of our now and our collective futures. Hell, even if we are not solely ok with having "men" like me in positions that define the scope of ourselves then we need to take more path breaking steps to change this dynamic. It has come to my attention that diversity is more than just Color. Thanks to the individual representing a group that is overly represented in the culture scene for pointing this out to me, now leave!  Your participatory projects are not enough to satiate the imaginations of many who now reside in Flanders and Europe in general and certainly not enough for those future generations that are not going to wait anymore to take the reigns of the policy making positions you and I currently occupy. When we are less focused on conserving and fear losing our own idea of what arts and culture should look like it is only then that we can truly aspire to attain what our collective arts and cultural landscape should be. Which is to truly reflect the communities that surround many cultural centers and bastions of culture in cities around Belgium and Europe at large.

[1] Vo, Anh. “Racism At Impulstanz”. Cult Plastic. 12.08.2017. https://cultplastic.com/2017/08/12/racism-at-impulstanz/

[2] Rynne, Helen. “The Black Arts Funding Trap: Why A New Model is Needed for Funding BAME Arts Projects”. 03.11.2016. http://www.mewe360.com/the-black-arts-funding-trap/

[3] Shea, Christopher. “Maxim Gorki Theater Leads an Immigrant Vanguard in Berlin.” New York Times. 15.04.2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/26/theater/maxim-gorki-theater-leads-an-...

[4] King Collier, Andrea. “The Black Panthers: Revolutionaries, Free Breakfast Pioneers.” National Geographic/The Plate. 04.11.2015. http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2015/11/04/the-black-panthers-rev...

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