Kim Reynolds talks about the importance of art as a weapon and a platform for British women of colour
We Are Here is a creative collective, defiant and bold in its mission prioritising the voices and creations of black and minority ethnic (BME) women in Britain.
During a spring exhibition at the London School of Economics, founder and illustrator Erin Aniker explains that the project was born out of necessity.
“The EU referendum happened and there was a lot of anti-immigration rhetoric flying around, especially anti-Islam rhetoric and I felt really strongly against that. So I wanted to create a positive response to it, but I didn’t know how to go about doing that because I hadn’t done anything like that. So I approached a few different people including Joy Miessi, Ellen Morrison, and Jess Nash my co-curator, and basically came up with the artists for the exhibition and worked on it together and then it evolved from our first exhibition.”
The first exhibition took place during 2017 in East London’s Alev Lenz studio in a DIY-style. With very little promotion but lots of word of mouth, the exhibition had an overwhelming response with people queuing out the door to attend. From there Erin and Jess were approached by Dulwich photo gallery and LSE library, to not only exhibit work, but host panel discussions and workshops around issues of diversity and the creative work of BME women.
Art is the weapon and platform Jess and Erin chose not just because it is their practice and passion, but because there is power and diversity in responding creatively to political issues and current affairs.
“Some people feel that for political activism, you may go down a different route, but art is our tool and we can get the message across in that way. And some of the art work may not look overtly political, but it is in different ways as people are coming at this rhetoric [of anti-immigration] from different angles” explains Jess.
In prioritising the voices of BME women, We Are Here is opening up conversations about what it means to be BME and British. Such a topic and conversation has been happening for a long time, but seems to be particularly visible in this moment. The acclamation of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is an easy point of reference for this subject. Her work and the work of many BME women artists is pushing back on, and illuminating the racist, sexist, and xenophobic cracks in the system of British identities. In doing so, these women are taking up space, building together, and changing ideas and perspectives plagued by centuries of empire.
For Erin getting together is an important part of the movement and her exhibitions work to take offline political discussions that may have been sparked through connections on social media. At the LSE exhibition, participants talk about experiences with tokenism and fetishisation as well as the frustration around being the ‘wrong kind’ of BME identity that the white lens has imagined people to be.
Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al-Lail , founder of collective Variant Space, said “If you don’t fit their agenda, if you are not mouldable to what they want, then you won’t get the job…. No one wants an outspoken person, they want a person that will fit their agenda.”
This phenomenon of being the “wrong” kind of “diverse voice” large institutions are so often seeking out affects not only jobs, commissions, and funding, but affirms the reality that liberal white structures and people prefer palatable, performative, and stereotypical packages of diversity over full the embrace of minority voices entirely.
In combating this, Evar Hussayni, a multi-disciplinary artist of Kurdish heritage, said that she is unapologetic in her work. “There’s a lot of power in being a BME woman and I think it’s important to make use of that power, to walk into white space and take up space and showing people that ‘I’m a BME woman, this is what you get, what are you going to do about it?’ ” Additionally, host, artist, and co-creator of Black Girl Festival Nicole Crentsil said “if someone asks me to speak in their space, then I say I’m coming back to use this space for two more events.”
This leads to questions about complicity and resistance. Should BME women or BME people in general strive to have work in institutions like the Tate? Can we reconcile the empirical racism of certain institutions for their large platforms when they offer potential for visibility? Or do we prioritise the many innovative for us, by us organisations and platforms?
Aimée Felone founded the independent publishing company, Knights of Media to prioritise inclusive publishing of children’s literature, something that she felt was largely missing from the fairly white male dominated field of publishing. In discussing liberal attempts of representation, Felone said, “It’s box ticking, its not actually inclusion in its fullest sense. It’s just ‘ok I know I need to make this look better, but we’re actually not going to do anything to change it from the inside out, and it that inside out that needs changing… We Are Here is shining a light that women’s stories are being told.”
Nasreen expressed her happiness in seeing and supporting BME women in any and every endeavour, “Its so important to support each other… I think that’s how we can develop further is we don’t see each other as competition, we see each as each others’ assets”.
For myself, I walked away with a sense of joy and comfort in being such a powerful and critical space and knowing that we are not alone in this movement or industry. Most importantly however, I walked away with excitement for this collaborative, participatory cultural moment of women of colour asserting that they are in fact, here.
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Kim Reynolds is a masters student in Global Media and Communications at the London School Of Economics and Political Science. She is a freelance writer, a community and arts organiser, and a music lover sitting at the intersection of art, politics, community, and justice.
Follow Kim on Twitter @kimreynolds24
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