Today we presented our video to the public at Tate Britain. Stories Uncovered has been a year in the making, full of exciting new experiences and new friends. Our video will be on display in the Learning Gallery at Tate Britain until 9th December 2016, and you can watch a shorter version online on the Tate website.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to watch
Lorraine Hansberry’s play, Les Blancs, at the National Theatre in April. The
play has received several rave reviews for its compelling and provocative
portrayal of racial identity. At a Youth Forum meeting at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA),
we discussed the play and these are some of the points that were raised.
As we took our seats in the theatre, we embarked on an evening of fascinating sensory experience. The lighting was stark. The air was thick
with smoke, incense, and folk song. The staging was simple but effective, with
the drama unfolding around a wooden ranch. Along with a strong cast, the audience
was introduced to the protagonist, Tshembe Matoseh played by Danny Sapani, who returns
to Africa from his travels in Europe to attend his father’s funeral.
The lighting dims as the set revolves in a clockwise
direction, which we discussed as being the passage of time throughout the play,
though we were unaware as to when or where the story was taking place. The opening
scene drags us into a fictional African country towards the end of a British
colonial mission project. While we might not know what country this is exactly,
we are however all too aware of nations that match the profile, so can begin to
make connections to histories that we’re aware of. Our guesses ranged from
Kenya to South Africa as we tried to locate the play.
The Forum also took its best guess at defining the role of
‘the woman’ played by Sheila Atim. She was the striking, statuesque figure that
wandered eerily from scene to scene, who seemed to symbolise the past in some
way. Atim’s haunting performance left no doubt in our imagination that she was
a spectre of some sort. Her ghostly presence isn’t recognised by the cast, and
only the audience can see her. ‘The woman’ climbs on Tshembe’s back in a scene
mid-play, ensnaring him within the grip of her legs. This sensual act led the Youth
Forum to discuss whether she was the ghost of a past lover whose memory Tshembe
couldn’t forget. Her arms also cradle the lead — perhaps the ghost of his
mother whom we assume deceased. This
maternal and nurturing gesture from ‘the woman’ also led to consideration from
us that she was a figurative representation of Africa, welcoming her son back
to his place of birth. This undefined character, lurking barefoot in her near
bare costume and peering through the audience with her lifeless expression, also
made us think that she was perhaps the ghost of a slave, a plagued memory of a
painful past intended to discomfort the audience. A Youth Forum member
challenged this reading as problematic as it embodies of Africa as a slave —
Africa is more than this!
This sentiment expressed at the Youth Forum meeting at BCA
was a recurring theme in the conversations we had after viewing: what is
Africa? What should Africa be? Who decides what Africa is and what it should be?
Les Blancs challenges how we (think we) view Africa, and serves as a critique
of varying discourses represented in the play that compete to provide a
definitive answer to the questions posed. Tshembe negotiates the unequivocally
racist ideology of the English colonisers whose mission it is to civilise, as well as the dogmatic
direction desired by his naïve brother turned clergyman, and what we concluded
as the unaccounted for vision of the play’s overly simplified native black
population whose intentions beyond rebellion we didn’t learn. Perhaps there has
never been a need for the last group examined here to have a given set of
ideals to determine the future of their land. Similarly, the audience as
spectators aren’t owed an explanation that they can easily comprehend as to
what the country means to its native population.
Raising these complex questions and tackling these difficult
themes masterfully is the success of Les Blancs. Not only is the play
relentlessly thought provoking, it’s also full of powerful imagery and
formidable acting. I hope that the discussions surrounding race, history and
the future will long continue, as they will do in the Youth Forum at BCA.
I’ve been attending the Youth Forum at the Black Cultural
Archives (BCA) for a few months, and we’ve recently been developing a
project in collaboration with the Tate Collective’s Archives &
Access learning outreach programme. The theme of the project is ‘Stories
Uncovered’, and it aims to explore London’s heritage through the eyes
of young people. The programme runs from November 2015 – September 2016,
in which time BCA and five other organisations will host a workshop
exploring themes of local heritage.
All participating groups attended a day of workshops at
Tate Britain on Saturday 16th April. There I presented the idea we at
BCA have been developing to the organisers and participants of the
programme. We’ve chosen to explore the theme of youth activism, using
the archives at BCA to explore the involvement of young black Londoners
in local politics.
As well as presenting our project, we had the opportunity
to share ideas with the other groups and learned how to effectively run a
workshop by identifying our audience and setting measurable goals and
outcomes. We also had the opportunity to explore the Tate’s physical and
digital archives and identify materials that could help us in our
In response to criticism of increasingly diverse and multicultural towns and cities in Britain, I have often championed the linguistic proficiency of many communities and their cross-cultural adaption. As well as supposedly enriching the cultural life of Britain, this aspect of the 21st Century realises what is offered by many academic institutions in developing our linguistic and communication skills.
The above article by Suzanne Hall of LSE examines further the place of multilingualism in society and how fluency across languages may lead us to revise traditional ideological understanding of citizenship.
Multilingual exchange has undoubtedly become necessary in navigating a fluid and diverse world and in my experience, particularly in retail, employers have been keen to tap into the language skills of employees to increase the shopping experience of customers and maximize of sales. For those who speak multiple languages, by doing so expresses a sense of belonging and acts as a means to preserve ones cultural identity as well as communication.
Multilingual communication acts as means to make space for various communities and increase a sense of belonging. This is seen as a challenge by some based on the speed of change of a locale’s population.
“It takes time to establish the personal relationships, the family ties, the social bonds that turn the place where you live into a real community. But the pace of change brought by mass immigration makes those things impossible to achieve. You only have to look at London, where almost half of all primary school children speak English as a second language, to see the challenges we now face in our country.” (Right Honourable Theresa May, Home Secretary of the UK Home Office speech 2012)
Suzanne Hall in her article expresses a more optimistic approach when confronting this change as an inevitable aspect of social life, and one which calls for a redefining of our traditional concepts of citizenship and belonging. How such diverse communities are resourced must also be revised as the world becomes more ‘disparate’. Perhaps a less stubborn approach towards 21st Migration would be to encourage multilingual communication and essentially fluency;
"Fluency is therefore not only a practice of communication, but a process that is activated between people and things in order to connect or conduct or mediate exchange, and to foster transition, re-composition and renewal.” (Suzanne Hall 2013)
The Home Office’s reference to making a place a community requires multilingual strategies to address the diverse cultural identities of Britain’s population. Rather than creating a brick wall alienating migrant groups from English language or culture, a line of communication should be open which understands communities in the 21st Century as changing and dependent on fluency in mediating exchange and transition. The diverse linguistic component of British life and its role in identification should be a means to facilitate a sense of belonging both in Britain and to one’s country of origin. In doing so, the role of the host nation is not compromised or undermined, rather it becomes a sign of belonging for all of its population, native or otherwise.
In relation to my personal project, I must ask how the arts may be used a cultural and educational resource to increase this collective sense belonging to a host nation. Perhaps the need for fluency and multilingualism in our communities will open up a dialogue in which the majority can interact and find a place regardless of cultural background.