Locating Multiculturalism in Britain and Madrid

My personal project developed whilst working at Matadero Madrid in the Art Programme Department. I was involved in the coordination of the institution’s exhibitions and international artist residency programme El Ranchito. I had initially been concerned with multiculturalism and representation of black and minority ethnic groups in the arts from a British perspective, and wanted to challenge my understanding within a Spanish context.

I came to Madrid not knowing a great deal about the city, but I managed to find there the bare essentials of London — a tube network, buses, shops — so I immediately felt at home. I didn’t however expect to feel so comfortable in terms of my cultural identity. Born in Britain and of Jamaican heritage, living and working in Madrid, I was simply another Madrileño in a global city that represents the diversity of the Hispanic world. Therefore speaking Spanish in Madrid, I could have come from any one of the 21 Spanish speaking countries and was accepted by many residents under various Latin American guises.

I learned that Madrid is a culturally ‘neutral’ city, with people constantly coming and going. I therefore shouldn’t have been surprised, as I was, to see established Asian communities in La Latina, African communities in Lavapies, and Caribbean communities in Legazpi. With a personal connection to all of these cultures, I found it easy to find the various food products that I am used to and adopt a shared sense of local identity, whilst at the same time maintaining my own sense of British-Jamaican cultural identity.

Although I got the sense that perhaps I was one of very few people of Jamaican origin in Madrid, I managed to approximate my culture with that of the Dominican Republic at Kukaramakara — a restaurant where I ordered ‘pica pollo con platanos’ (fried chicken with plantain) — which was served typically as a Caribbean supersized portion. I also managed to locate essences of Jamaican Reggae music and dance at Templo Afro, based in the graffiti tunnels of La Tabacalera, and also at Wosap dance studios in Lavapies.

Exploring cultural and ethnic identity in Madrid via food, music and dance, I found that speaking of the city as international or global provided a more helpful discourse than the rhetoric of multiculturalism. Although various districts in Madrid are locally recognised by their respective ethnic establishments, there doesn’t seem to be a need for a Chinatown or some other sort of glaring multicultural beacon. I struggled to find labels such as BME or BAME helpful when exploring the arts in Madrid. In other words, I couldn’t easily identify any black and minority ethnic art or cultural institution in Madrid. The furthest I got in this endeavour was to pan-national outposts such as Casa Latina and Casa Arabe, among others.

From my limited time working at Matadero Madrid, I found that within the art communities, black artists and cultural practitioners were only differentiated as being such when represented in cultural events branded as international, such as ‘Madrid es Negro’ and ‘Black is Back’ at Matadero Madrid. I take from this then, that artists practising locally in Madrid are not categorised by their ethnicity, which may be why my application of British terminology to the arts in Spain proved unhelpful at first. This being said, I also discovered that it wasn’t the case that black artists weren’t represented outside of those international cultural events, rather that their ethnicity wasn’t an immediate factor when displaying their work. I came to this conclusion from working on Matadero Madrid’s international artist residency programme and researching their past events. This demonstrated to me that the national background or geographic location of where the artist practised was focused upon, as opposed to the artist’s ethnicity or race.

This has led me to believe that Madrid’s art communities are concerned with the local and international aspect of artists rather than their ethnicity, which in turn makes me rethink our approach to multiculturalism and cultural diversity in Britain. Should race and ethnicity be a factor in the work of cultural institutions? Are terms in the arts such as BME and BAME divisive within Britain? Does our established model of multiculturalism help to best represent cultural diversity in the arts?

As cultural diversity has become a more important factor in the funding of British arts institutions, and the publishing of BBC 1xtra’s power list last week has lead us to question the place of black and minority ethnic groups in British culture, it is important, if not at least interesting, to compare our multicultural approach with other multiethnic societies in Europe.