By Roanna Gonsalves
(This is a reworked version of the summary observations I was invited to present at the conclusion of ‘Beyond Tick Boxes’, a symposium organised by Diversity Arts Australia, or DARTS, at Casula Powerhouse, on Thursday, June 29, 2017)
Good afternoon everyone. I’d also like to acknowledge the indigenous people of this country, the Cabrogal Clan of the Darug Nation, on whose land we have gathered today. I would like to say thank you to Lena Nahlous and Kevin Bathman for inviting me to give you a very short and incredibly opinionated summary of my observations today.
I have three main observations. They are colour-coded: red, black and yellow.
Red is a colour that rivered through this symposium all day, literally and symbolically. The cups on the drinks table outside were red. They matched the red rice at lunch, and Annette Shun Wah’s red bag in the previous session. Red is for the earth that has nourished the oldest living civilisation on earth for over sixty thousand years on this continent. I saw red flags in discussions throughout the day, signalling some of the biggest barriers to participating meaningfully in the arts:
- a lack of appropriate education about the value of the arts
- a paucity of funding for artists and arts organisations
- not enough focus on accessibility
- the hard struggle to see multicultural Australia being reflected in the arts
- a lack of sustained support for organisations that support artists and writers
- barriers to showcasing work
- the perception of unfairness at the major arts organisations being funded so well even though they are not inclusive of cultural diversity
- high-level risk aversion when it comes to diversity, but somehow it’s ok to take a risk with mediocrity in mainstream arts.
- a lack of access to networks of influence and personal connections
- a frustration with “initiative-itis”, trying to reinvent the wheel instead of funding already existing initiatives so they can be sustainable and continue building on their strengths and successes.
- Many parents of migrant kids don’t see value in artistic careers. Other barriers include social class conditioning and expectations, language barriers, artistic labour not being valued, no safety net, no security for first generation immigrant artists.
Lily Shearer (co-founder and creative producer – Mooghalin) told a story about a 95 year-old indigenous elder who said to her “this country will go back to being black”. He was referring to the increasing number of immigrants from South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, China, Africa, and South America, a flow that will hopefully lead to change in the face and constitution of Australia, both literally and figuratively. It’s a way of going back to where we came from. As Paula Abood noted, cultural diversity in Australia preceded colonisation.
To be taken seriously, to actually make art that connects with our world and means something to readers and audiences, to make art at all, the Australian arts sector must reflect these ongoing changes. That is, we need diverse writers, artists, storytellers telling the stories of this country. We need selfies of this country in all its diversity. As I’ve written in Overland and The Conversation, we must be able to take all kinds of selfies, not just visual, to tell our own stories, to self-represent on the page, on the canvas, on screen, on the airwaves.
This means moving beyond the tired and condescending argument of “giving voice to the voiceless”, and actually creating pathways, and access, for diverse writers, artists, performers, storytellers to tell our own stories.
This also means supporting the supporters: continuing to fund organisations like Diversity Arts Australia who have an established track record of supporting diverse writers, artists, storytellers. This is how we reimagine Australia in the 21st century.
At the start of the symposium, Magdalena Moreno, noted the importance and the value of Lena Nahlous’ compassionate stewardship of DARTS. Under Lena’s care, the organisation is then able to support diverse writers, artists, storytellers. It is therefore crucial that organisations such as DARTS, Mascara Literary Review, Peril, and numerous other small-to-medium organisations who provide the access, the pathways, the fertile ground from which diverse stories can grow, are funded in a sustainable manner, over a long period of time. They need the stability of medium-to-long-term funding so they can effectively plan and deliver programs building on an already existing track record, instead of constantly spending time trying to write grants to ensure they can live from minute-to-minute, taking away from time that could be spent supporting diverse artists.
The yellow strength of the sun infused the discussions in breakout groups during the symposium. Some suggestions to move forward included:
- A call to audiences to support diverse writers, artists, storytellers.
- Audience development programs to lower access barriers to engaging with the arts in Australia.
- A call to organisations such as the Australia Council, Create NSW, NSW Writers’ Centre, Copyright Agency, etc. to support individual diverse artists, as money to make stuff is what matters. But there was also a strong call to also “Support the Supporters”.
- Long term funding for organisations to be sustainable.
- The need for Affirmative Action, and quotas, because, as Michael Mohammed Ahmed noted, there is plenty of international and local evidence that quotas are needed and that they work.
- Access to support and mentors already established in the field. Capacity building is important.
- Linking diversity to acceptable standards of creative production, setting standards, like the British Film Institute Diversity Standards.
- People at the top of the organisation need to set standards for others in relation to diversity.
- A more nuanced understanding of diversity, with a focus on intersectionality. E.g. support for women must include not only white women but also women from minority communities.
Here’s hoping that by 2030 (a date set by the organisers) our current conversations about barriers will become ‘legacy’ conversations, like fax machines, and we will all be part of an arts culture where intersectionality is mainstream.
Roanna Gonsalves , a former international student from India, is the author of The Permanent Resident (UWAP, 2016) an acclaimed collection of fiction. It is on the syllabus of courses and units at a number of Australian universities and is being studied in the fields of Australian Literature, Postcolonial Literatures, and Creative Writing. Roanna is a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endeavour Award, and is co-founder co-editor of Southern Crossings. She has a PhD from the University of New South Wales, and is an experienced creative writing workshop facilitator. She can be found at https://roannagonsalves.com.au and on Twitter @roannagonsalves