As a Black queer artist, I understand how ones identity, background and perspective determine our relationship with art. The way we experience museums, galleries, and art spaces correlates with the lack of representation of diversity in cultural British society. Museums and galleries are public spaces, and there is a lot to say about how we feel in them. There is power in representation and the importance of cultivating visibility in the creative sector by controlling our own narratives.
Our interaction with art transcends beyond a physical exhibition space and white walls. We address a larger structural problem, one that prioritises a white gaze and assumes a white audience, and it reveals the elitist boundaries of an art culture that ensures those that are systemically marginalised are denied access to creative opportunities and resources. Britain’s systemic racism continues to blight every sector, including the art world. From unpaid internships, financial burdens, academic bias, preconceived negative stereotypes and nepotism. The challenges Black creatives have to persevere is a reflection of the disparity within Britain’s cultural scene. A 2019 report focusing on working in the creative industries by Partnership for Young London and Roundhouse addressed the exclusion of young Black and PoC people from the creative sector. It even highlighted the anxiety experienced from feeling the requirement to code-switch in order to be less conspicuous or to blend in professional situations.
The disconnect goes beyond lack of representation and the glut of whiteness in art, and stems from the colonial logic that produced and reproduces Britain’s art world. Many national collections have artifacts and human remains that are endeavours of colonialism with little to no information about how they were obtained. With the lack of repatriation despite demands, it is a constant reminder of imperialism, and white supremacy’s collection. This impacts how we interact with Britain’s art institutions, as for myself, and many people of colour, these spaces symbolise historic and ongoing trauma.
Growing up in London, I have been immersed in the growing cultural and creative expansions within the community that has not always been inclusive of all. I have witnessed how the racial and colonial foundation of gentrification causes displacement, exclusion and segregation within communities, and permeates the art world. The ‘Soho effect’ is a term used to describe cultural gentrification, displacing and disposing marginalised communities under the guise of artwashing. This has led to many art hubs establishing themselves within communities, whilst excluding the community.
Surrounding these conversations of diversity in art, one has to address the performative allyship, and lack of accountability from individual creatives, creative companies and establishments. The plethora of social media statements and public appreciation for marginalised creatives has become a way brands and companies address society’s inequalities. It appears that social change has become a commercial capital. Under the ruse of diversity, we are now seeing creative institutions profiting off of Blackness, queerness, and other marginalised social categorizations, without implementing change to the inequality. This is because diversity in the arts goes beyond what is exhibited at museums and galleries, as sporadic representation based on identity is not enough. The change also comes from the internal support of curators, creative directors, board members, and agencies.
Western artists have a long exploitative history of appropriating and misrepresenting aspects of African art for aesthetic achievement, and social and economic gain. Despite this, many institutions have not acknowledged the people whose cultures have been exploited or included. In her 2019 TED Talk, Hannah Mason-Macklin, Manager of Interpretation and Engagement at the Columbus Museum of Art, spoke about how African objects and art are often “framed within Western art movements to undermine their inherent value” and are presented as “primitive inspirations to celebrate white male artists”.
Due to the exclusion from mainstream art spaces, creatives have begun curating their own exhibitions, utilising social media to grow audiences, and conceptualising zines and websites to make art inclusive. Even throughout the on-going pandemic, the fight for change within Britain’s art industry has pivoted online with digital exhibitions, virtual openings, and online workshops. Digressing from the existing creative industrial complex, these platforms, collectives, open calls, art fairs, and creative directories, are thinking beyond restrictions, and presenting innovative ways to interact, participate, and engage. Establishing new structures within the art world, whether it’s through artist representation, or by offering accessible opportunities for those shunned by the creative sector, is reflective of the need to cultivate space.
Although this creates an alignment that doesn’t combat the industry’s structural racism, it is a vestige for change. Without the need to assimilate, creativity can flourish, validating the importance of genuine representation and inclusion. Museums, galleries, and art spaces are all incredible learning sources and have the power to reflect and shape our society on a political, social, and local level. It is for these institutions to utilise their power by consciously diversifying themselves, taking accountability for their pasts, and focusing on institutional and systemic changes. This also means self-identifying whom they are intended to serve.