Creative Direction

Madani Younis is to leave his role as Creative Director at the Southbank Centre after just 10 months in post. Wow. Something’s not quite right is it?

The news that Madani was to lead the creative vision for Europe’s largest arts centre was remarkable because it was so rare to see a non-White person at the helm of an arts organisation with a national (and arguably international) profile; it felt timely, needed.

Younis had previously led the Bush Theatre to a peak of creative success and innovation, in addition to securing it a permanent home in a stunningly refurbished building in West London. His achievements there were remarkable, with a string of sell out shows on national stages, and transfers of brand new work by Black creatives into the West End.

In that context, questions have to be asked about Younis’s departure. 

The Stage

Source: https://twitter.com/TheStage/status/1186987154720866304?s=20

Madani’s departure inevitably raises questions – questions about Europe’s largest arts centre; questions about what’s going on in the heads of its leadership team; questions about whether there ever was a real appetite for change?

Fundamentally, was the intention for the Southbank’s Creative Direction a lazy, ‘more of the same’?

If you ask yourself that question and then deal with the enormity of it, you’re well on your way to understanding the dynamics at play in scenarios like this.

Younis’s case isn’t unique, and that begs questions about all communities – institutions or groups of people.

We have to examine what privilege is, how it is maintained, and how its maintenance stymies a reflective and meaningful diversity.

Why do so many decision makers still assume that they can just stick a Black or Brown face up front, claim kudos for ticking a diversity box, and then expect the appointee to just ‘shut up’ and uphold the hegemony? It’s f*cking arrogant.

Let’s unpack

Understand this – The arts sector is not at a moment of radical change, self inquiry, decolonisation or redress.

Just because, as one moron once said to me (… cue wounded tone, passive aggressive stance and all the intellectual rigour of a flea … ) :

” I see Black and Brown faces onstage at the National Theatre?!”

… does not mean that the stories being told haven’t changed. It doesn’t mean that when Black or Brown stories are told, they are American, ‘exotic’ or ‘other’ – because we can never really be allowed to be British can we?

Black or Brown people aren’t welcome. That’s made very clear.

It should be a moment of radical change. But it just isn’t. It’s just more of the same.

We’re seeing a liberal set of behaviours paraded before us, bringing to the fore cultural signifiers – Black or Brown people – which are marketable and have value, who are then expected to shut up and preserve existing power structures.

Different conversations; different person, same problem, as another person once said to me :

“Just put a Black face on the cover of the Programme!”

I’ll never forget or forgive the dismissive tone with which it was said – dismissive of the intelligence of every person of colour including mine, of their presumption that people like us had no ideas, creative drivers or intellect.

We need radical change, not social conscience land grabs by brands and cultural institutions, communities or individuals. That kind of behaviour is no better than greenwashing or any other facile attempt at ‘badging’ for attention, and we’re right to call it out as that.

Younis has talked about possible solutions; directly linking public funding to demographics.

In London, BAME workers make up just 18% of the city’s creative industries workforce, but 45% of the population.

It’s a radical idea isn’t it?

And in using the word ‘radical’ I’m also inviting you to stop and think for a moment.

Take a step back. Ask …

Is a ‘radical’ suggestion scarier when it comes from a non-white person, or from what you perceive to be the ‘fringe’, than when the same suggestion comes from an ‘established’ white face in the centre of the room?

Based on my lived experience I think I know the answer and, unless you have the intellectual rigour of a flea, I think you do too.

For a start, an ‘established’ white face in the centre of the room would never make the suggestion, because to see it through in any meaningful way would be to make themselves redundant.

  • What’s your reaction to someone who questions the value of what you do?
  • Are you at the centre? All-seeing? Connected to ‘everyone’? Who is ‘everyone’?
  • What’s the average age of your cohort?
  • What’s the ethnic or cultural make-up of your cohort?
  • Would you say that your cohort was largely drawn from the same class background as you?

I think I know the answers and I think you do too.

If you really want creative direction in any organisation or within any collective of people, then you need to cut loose from established ways of doing things, fast.

Cut loose dead wood which delivers little value. Silence those whose control limits the creative freedoms of others; or whose understanding of the world is so fixed in time, it is actively hostile to the world as it is, not matter how unintentionally. Look at who your trustees are, where they’re drawn from, and then change that. And understand that if you can’t see that’s what is needed then you really are part of the problem.

You’re not at the centre of the story.

It’s time for everyone else now.

As Lyn Gardener puts it:

In London, there is also a game-changing shift of demographics that arts institutions such as the Southbank ignore at their peril: 57% of those under the age of 15 living in London are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

 

Will those youngsters, more than half the city’s population, ever think that our cultural institutions have any relevance for them and their lives when our cultural workforces are so white?

 

… Younis’ resignation highlights the fact that often arts organisations like the idea of making change until they discover what it might really mean to implement it and who might have to step aside to ensure it happens.
Source, Lyn Gardner, The Stage, 23 October 2019.

And the thing is those young people will be the arts and culture consumers and makers of tomorrow.

Arts and culture related activities and education are pared to the bone within the state funded education sector, yet most private schools have excellently funded and supported arts and culture related activities. We’re seeing the effects of that across our cultural production and commissioning.

It leads to examples of idiocy within cultural institutions. In this case, another cretinous example from the BBC: Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK …

The way the BBC handled the scheduling of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK is a text book example of how not to do it.

They’ve treated a programme which had all the potential to be one of their highest rated, with particular appeal for younger, LGBTQI and diverse audiences as though it were a dirty secret, placing it on a moribund online only channel and available via a format few people are interested in, or attracted by. They’ve patronised and insulted their youth, LGBTQI and diverse audiences. They’ve pre-supposed that in a world where media consumption is dominated by Netflix, that an archaic top-down ‘watch this here’ approach is just fine. It isn’t.:

“Want to understand how and why the BBC is failing to reach younger audiences? Look no further than RuPaul’s Drag Race UK.”.

Step away from the centre.

Look around you, look again.

Ask yourself some hard questions, and have the person marking them not look like you or reflect anything about you.

Then, just maybe, you might be on the path to seeing the world a little more generously and be motivated to do something genuine to fix it.