It happens every year; the same time every year. We know it so well; the lead up, the commotion and the eventual indifference. Awards season is upon us and with that star-filled month in our calendar comes the annual moment members of the white arts industry shake themselves out of the blinkered daze that envelopes them for most of the year, look around, and realise there are few Black faces around them.
This is also the time of year that a small number of other white members of the arts industry decide that there are no issues with diversity in the industry and, if anything, there needs to be more opportunities for straight white men, as they need all the help they can get, poor mites. Oh yes, those kinds of white people exist (cough, cough Blunty), but we’ll save another article for their kind.
White people are waking up, only for a few weeks, mind, but it is happening. A few weeks ago, rent-a-posh actor Benedict Cumberbatch found out that there are rarely any Black people on his film sets. A fact that is certainly true, and needs to be said, but whilst making that statement he managed to refer to Black people with a word so archaic that it actually adds another piece of evidence to my theory that Benedict Cumberbatch is actually from the past, and has been brought here to our timeline to trick the world into liking the upper-class! In response to the Bafta’s overwhelmingly white cast of nominees, MP Chris Bryant wrote what I can only assume as an intentionally ironic comment piece about the lack of diversity in the arts.
You may detect a hint of sarcasm in my voice. Well, you are correct; it is there because, like many Black people, I’m tired of the routine this conversation has become. It accomplishes nothing because its sole aim, from the outset, is not to actually counteract the wrongs of institutional racism but to placate the conscience of white artists. While the usual diversity outcry and the subsequent quota system, diversity campaign, or hiring of a prominent Black celebrity has been become somewhat routine, young Black people no longer see the old institutions as pathways for their careers.
While walking through South London with a friend one day we started to recall what we had been up to and what events we were excited to see. We realised that not only were we extremely busy but also everyone that we knew was busy doing something creative. We believed we were witnessing the birth of a specifically Black British arts movement, led by young people who were determined to recreate a vision of their world that was true to them.
Artists like filmmaker Cecile Emeke are leading the young Black British arts movement, creating a new culture for their peers. Emeke is filmmaker that is fully aware of the importance of her voice and the rarity with which we are able to see her vision of womanhood. Her work focuses primarily on Black women from across the African and Caribbean diaspora.
Speaking to Black Girls Talking, Emeke explained how her relationship with Black feminism and filmmaking collided, “Black feminist thought influenced me as a person, in the sense that it taught me that my voice was the most important and it encouraged me to trust myself the most.”
“I listen to my voice. So, for example, you’re ‘supposed’ to have objective documentaries, with really static, sharp shots, you’re not meant to do it freehand, you can’t just interview mostly Black women, you can’t ask the type of questions I’m asking and all the rest – but Black feminist thought has taught me as a person to ignore all the tradition and dogma projected on to me, listen to myself, and do whatever the hell I want, and that definitely translated into how I’ve decided to make Strolling and all the rest of my work.”
A desire to simply be their true selves seems to be the main drive for young Black artists to create their own spaces that reflect their own world. Emeke is already a master at this art; her Strolling series focuses on ordinary Black people on the street discussing politics, culture, life, struggles and stresses. Ackee and Saltfish is certainly Emeke’s finest work of art; the film focuses on two friends, Rachel and Olivia, who embark on a mission to find ackee and saltfish, discussing everything from Solange Knowles to the gentrification of Dalston along the way. Emeke’s dedication to portraying a realistic vision of Black British womanhood is remarkable and part of a wider move towards realism in Black British culture.
Also part of this movement are groups such as the Lonely Londoners and One of My Kind who create art that focuses on people of colour. Collectives such as The Body Narratives, Ain’t I A Woman Collective and The:nublk also help up and coming artists by acting as a platform.
These warm and welcoming spaces are a noticeable change from the strict, unwelcoming spaces in the mainstream arts industry. It was only last year, in September 2014, that the Barbican was forced to cancel the controversial art show Exhibit B, which featured Black actors in chains recreating human zoos, after widespread condemnation and protest. Was the exhibition of Black people in dehumanising situations really created for the Black viewer? Was it created for the Black artist? I highly doubt that it was.
Speaking to Black Girls Talking, Emeke explained why young Black artists feel out of place in certain artistic spaces, “To put it simply, we can’t be us authentically; we have to be the idea or fantasy that British society has of us. So I think artists like myself and the Lonely Londoners are just not willing to do that and therefore we are creating our own spaces.”
Is there something in the air perhaps; a drop of magic in the drinking water? What has influenced this new generation of creatives? It could have something to do with today’s political climate, which feels even more desperate than the previous generation; the rise of UKIP has sent the UK’s politics even more to the right, with dire consequences for people of colour, especially Black women. There has been increased public awareness about police and state brutality against the Black community across the globe thanks to campaign groups such as Black Lives Matter in the US and London Black Revolutionaries in the UK. It would be hard see the state’s hatred of your Blackness on a daily basis without letting it influence your work leading to a new pride in one’s Blackness; wearing it like a shield to against their hatred.
Taking place right now in the midst of the new civil rights movement is a Black creative movement, that encompasses diverse art forms like Afrofuturism to go with it. The new Black renaissance is here.
We have reached a notable intersection in Black history. We are aware of our potential but, simultaneously, we are held back in new ways the previous generation cannot relate to. With no one else to turn to but each other we have developed a connection to each other and our struggles in new ways that have made us more aware of our past and the present movement for civil rights. We cannot help but be influenced, uplifted and inspired by it. Where this will lead to is hard to say as we have honestly only just begun to tell our stories; stories we have been waiting for so long to tell.
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Stephanie Phillips is a journalist and blogger who runs her own blog about women in music called Don’t Dance Her Down Boys and contributes to feminist blog The F-Word. She is the singer and guitarist in Black feminist punk band Big Joanie. You can follow her on Twitter @stephanopolus.
This piece was edited by Désirée Wariaro
- Afrofuturism: An invitation to dance, or a provocation to insurgency? (mediadiversified.org)
- Inside Afrofuturism: This movement is not for co-opting (mediadiversified.org)
- Women in Public Life (mediadiversified.org)
- “Complicit No More” (mediadiversified.org)