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15 March 2016

On 11 March Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre played host to Art D’Visions organised by Dadafest – a one-day conference aimed squarely at addressing the glaring lack of diversity, not just in the mainstream, but within the Disability Arts world itself. Joe Turnbull reports.

A photograph of Karl Eversley, Faith Bebbington and George Matheson delivering a panel discussion at Dadafest's D'Visions event at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre.

Karl Eversley (left) Faith Bebbington (centre) and George Matheson (right) discuss their experiences of being disabled BAME artists/practioners.

For all the hot air, the rhetoric, the Creative Case, the seemingly ceaseless conferences, the arts are still failing miserably on diversity. For instance, the workforce at Arts Council England’s Major Partner Museums is made up of just 3% BAME and 3.8% disabled people. That’s not to say there isn’t momentum for change. Nor is it to discredit the Arts Council’s recent initiatives – there’s been far too much of that and it’s getting us nowhere. There’s been a lot of talk and only a little action. So surely the last thing the drive for diversity needs is another pointless talking shop? Luckily, Art D’Visions was anything but that.

Many within the Disability Arts world have for years (decades, even) been lambasting the ‘mainstream’ for its shameful record on diversity. Too fucking right. But it’s high time they began applying that critical reflex internally and acknowledging the gaping disparity within this cloistered community. The lack of diversity inside these hallowed walls is equally worrying and, if anything, even more shocking.

This was the central premise for DaDaFest’s Art D’visions and launching from such a challenging starting point, being led by equally provocative and genuinely diverse voices, is what made this such a refreshingly different event. Deborah Williams’s opening keynote, ‘And the winner is…’ was not so much a presentation, as bombshell of nuclear proportions. Sometimes you need to destroy before you can rebuild. For Williams the liberal notion of gradual ‘progress’ has not only stalled, it was flawed from the beginning.

Williams recalled the spirit of solidarity of the disabled people’s movement of the 80s and 90s and wondered where it all went wrong: “Was it ever even real?” 2012 may not be entirely to blame but for Williams it was a symbol of the social model being replaced by the medical and money, not to mention the dominance of white, middle-class voices within Disability Arts.

It also marked the cosying up to the gatekeepers for what had always been a truly avant-garde movement. Williams drew parallels to the end of apartheid and peace in Northern Ireland: “When the enemy becomes your friend what do you do?”.

She called on all present to check their own privilege and for the white people in the room (and beyond) to acknowledge their racism – whether conscious or otherwise. For Williams it’s institutional and the structures are an eerie reflection of the police and the education system. This was disquieting listening. A deeply candid and personal account. An open wound, laid bare. Perhaps we need shocking out of complacency. She ended with a plea to unleash our inner artists and just produce good art: “you can’t make quality art without diversity”.

This was a sentiment echoed throughout the day and put clearly and concisely by Dr Ossie Stuart, who proved an articulate and diplomatic chair throughout proceedings. “Diversity can’t be seen as just an add-on. It’s a resource that should be celebrated”.

Faith Bebbington, George Matheson and Karl Eversley gave personal accounts of their own experiences as disabled BAME artists and practitioners, providing a nice counterpoint to some of the more overarching issues being raised. Matheson said he could either be “blind or bold” when it comes to moving forward and is deciding to do the latter. He also had a poignant reflection on the title for the event, noting the duality of division and vision (as in looking forward) it conjured up.

Citing Shakespeare, Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh opened her keynote with a quote that had resonance with the whole day’s discussions “speak what you feel not what you ought to say”. Delivering theatrically, she provided much food for thought, notably warning practitioners not to pander to preconceived notions of what their audience wants. “Equality without equity gets in the way of diversity,” she warned. “I believe in diversity at all levels, not for its sake but for its excellence”.

Giving a different perspective, Nike Jonah spoke about her experience heading up the Arts Council’s bi-annual decibel programme which was designed to showcase the work of diverse performing arts companies. She was candid about her own prejudices that she had to counter along the way when opening the programme up to be about more than just race. For disabled artist she posited lack of confidence – in their ideas, their work and in asking for what they needed in terms of access – as one of the major barriers to success.

The day concluded with workshopping on what the major barriers were for BAME artists and practitioners and what practical solutions could be offered to combat these, which was fitting, because change is so desperately needed. The title of Williams’s keynote ‘And the winner is…’ referenced the old adage that the victors get to write history. The trouble is, when diverse voices are excluded, everyone is a loser.  

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