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Sonya Dyer, artist, writer and curator of 50 Years of Leeds West Indian Carnival (12 August – 5 November 2017) at The Tetley

What now? Some thoughts..

Let us begin with the obvious – 2020 is turning out to be the most globally  monumental year of our lifetimes (so far). In the midst of a global pandemic, with much of the world on some kind of lockdown, the egregious murders of George Floyd (on camera), Breonna Taylor (unrecorded) and countless others invigorated the call of the movement for Black lives in the USA and internationally, with protests in over 60 countries on six continents.

During this period, we watched as Colston fell and a bird watcher's life was imperilled for asking a white woman to follow the rules of Central Park and leash her dog, whilst Britain (as exemplified by the state) tried desperately hard not to grapple with its own imperial history. For many Black people, the violence we witnessed excavated the systemic and interpersonal violence, micro-aggressions and other forms of discrimination many of us have experienced in our own lives. At time of writing, a young man on his way home from being interviewed by Channel 4 News (on his experiences of police brutality, ironically) was stopped and searched by the police, who smashed the windows of his car in when he expressed concerns about his safety during the interaction.[1] It is exhausting.

One of the most revolutionary and heartening aspects of this time is the diversity of the coalition supporting BLM specifically, and advocating for substantive structural change more generally. How much of this energy will be sustained?

As part of a social media driven campaign to highlight BLM, black squares replaced the usual Instagram content of activists, influencers and corporations alike in June 2020 . This performative gesture supposedly signified a temporary reset – a period of internal inquiry into structural inequalities. Many (most) returned to their usual content shortly thereafter. Naturally, the art world wanted in on this. Galleries and museums across the USA and UK in particular rushed statements expressing solidarity with the movement, some vowing to 'ask difficult questions' of themselves or 'do better' moving forward. Writing in the New York Times, Holland Cutter aptly described this as 'the awkward gestures of suddenly 'woke' institutions competitively jostling to assert their 'solidarity.'[2]

Cue Black / Brown (current or former) staff members of these organisations pointing out their own experiences of structural and interpersonal racism within these spaces.[3] The impact of this discrepancy between the presentational face of the institution and the experience of so-called BAME staff has enveloped academia[4], theatre[5], sports[6], the film industry, fashion[7]; all aspects of culture and society. I am disinclined to be overly generous regarding these performative gestures – what matters is what individuals, organisations and collectives actually do moving forward.

The question is, how does the sector move beyond performativity, and actually make itself useful?

I believe there it is necessary for arts institutions to ask themselves some key questions:

What is the gallery for, whom does it serve?

Consider the ways in which Slung Low Theatre company has made itself practically useful to its community in the midst of the pandemic by transforming into a social care provider[8]. Or even more modest gestures such as that of New York's MoMa PS1 during the ongoing BLM uprising:

Simple, practical support is valuable to the communities you serve. Why not provide it?

What forms of solidarity are useful at this time?

In addition to the above, it is worth considering ways in which organisations and collectives have enacted the politics of solidarity. Examples of this include Languid Hand's[9] use of their curatorial fellowship at Cubitt Gallery in London and artsadmin's utilisation of its e-letter to consistently promote resources relation to BLM to its subscribers. Both are examples of unambiguously using the resources at hand to provide a network of support.

How have we perpetuated anti-Blackness?

Who built your building? Who is the street you are based in named after? Who funds you and how did they make their money? Part of what is necessary now is just being honest and acknowledging the colonial history of this country, the extractive labour on which Britain's industrial wealth was built. If your organisation's history or present is implicated in exploitation, the least you can do is acknowledge it. You may find a connection to other forms of exploitative, for example that of working-class people in Victorian England. It is all connected and being aware of this can only help us better understand Britain today.

How are we (individually and collectively) reproducing patterns of privilege and power?

This is a huge question, but one that is necessary to unpack. It could relate to, amongst other things, who you employ and at what level, who you perceive of as your audience and how you engage with them or who is on your board. Equally, it is important to consider how you show empathy with so-called BAME staff at moments of crisis that may impact their mental health.

Just as important is how will you take your audiences with you on this journey. Some people from Britain's white majority are concerned about the changes being proposed at the moment, as it clashes with the view of this nation's history they have been taught from birth. What is your responsibility to your local community, and their ongoing exposure to a more complicated history of Britain?  How will you deal with discomfort?

What do artists need right now?

We are likely to face a Global recession, with funding opportunities scare and over- subscribed and traditional employment avenues for artists such as teaching increasingly precarious. To truly care about artists, recognise that they need to be paid and supported. How can you do that? Be creative about where you find money. There are no exhibitions without artists.

Recently awards / funders such as the Turner Prize, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation artists award and Arts Council England [10] have turned to more cooperative models – giving less funding to more people. How might you work collaboratively with others to support more artists? How might you support more Black / Brown artists without instrumentalising them?

These questions are by no means exhaustive. The present moment has offered some great innovations such as the move towards conversations taking place on Instagram live, Zoom or other platforms. It has provided us with a blueprint for how we might reach and connect internationally, without being beholding to miniscule budgets. There is no reason not to continue with this moving forward. Some of the examples in this text also provide a sense of possibility, for what the gallery, museum or art institution could become.

What is the role of The Tetley at this point in time? What is the most exciting, relevant and transformative vision you can hold for its future? How would you want The Tetley to operate in 5 or 10 year's time? Whatever it is, the work starts now.

Sonya Dyer

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[1] 'Police smash car window of man on way home from TV interview about police racism,' The Guardian, Saturday 4th July 2020 - www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jul/04/police-smash-car-window-ryan-colaco-tv-interview-racism

[2] 'Museums are finally taking a stand. But can they find their footing?' New York Times, June 11 2020 - www.nytimes.com/2020/06/11/arts/design/museums-protests-race-smithsonian.html

[3] This article on Art Review is a good primer, 'Black staff at London galleries claim 'systemic' and 'structural' racism,' 18th June 2020 - artreview.com/black-staff-at-london-galleries-claim-systemic-and-structural-racism

[4] Full disclosure – I am one of the academics referenced in the ongoing dispute at Goldsmiths College, University of London regarding precarity and the paucity of so-called BAME staff artreview.com/evan-ifekoya-withdraws-labour-from-goldsmiths-college-claiming-institutional-racism

[5] 'A Letter to British Theatre,' alettertobritishtheatre.wordpress.com

[6] 'Premier League players to wear Black Lives Matter on shirts,' BBC Sport 13th June 2020 - www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/53030146 and 'Lewis Hamilton debuts new black helmet with BLM message at Austrian Grand Prix,' Formula 1.com 3rd July 2020

[7] For example, see the newly created Black in Fashion Council  www.blackinfashioncouncil.com

[8] 'The Skills we are using are the same ones we use to make shows', The Stage, April 16th 2020 - www.thestage.co.uk/features/alan-lane-the-skills-we-are-using-are-the-same-ones-we-use-to-make-shows

[9] www.cubittartists.org.uk/languid-hands-on-curation-care-during-this-moment

[10] It is worth noting that ACE funding in this instance is complicated – essentially there has not been an increase in overall funding available to artists, and the pivot towards emergency funding meant that all pending applications were voided.

Leeds West Indian Carnival (12 August – 5 November 2017) at The Tetley. Photo by Jules Lister

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