Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Palwasha A. and Lamisa H.
“What if it’s not really what the audience wants-?”
“Well...who gives a f*ck what they want?” -Gayle Kennedy
Lamisa: I had never been to the theatre until recently. A kind colleague gifted me two tickets to go see the play Sunshine Super Girl, but when I walked in, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I saw the crowd- all white, all senior- and my heart sank. I thought damn it, this isn’t the play for me. I quickly researched before the play was starting and to my relief and surprise, it was about the first Indigenous woman to win Wimbledon in the 1970s. Thank God, I thought, I'm not wasting my weekend. After the play ended, I couldn’t believe how much I’d enjoyed it. How had I missed out on this experience my whole life?
Palwasha: A couple of weeks ago we looked around the room at a Sydney Writers Festival event (tickets also gifted) and realised that we were two of the only non-white people in the room. The audience looked like the audience at every single mainstream arts event we’d ever been to, and it was time to ask why. It certainly didn’t reflect our culturally and linguistically diverse population- 39%. That means 39% of our arts scenes should be people of colour. But without much surprise, it isn’t.
The point of this piece is not to scold white spaces for not including us, it’s to expose how much there is a need for us in the art spaces of this world, so much of a demand that audiences are clamouring for it.
The Force That Is Gayle Kennedy
When we say the word ‘accessibility’, we are talking about the necessity for intersectional inclusion. During the Sydney Writers Festival event, our notebook lay open with barely a word written on it through the first few speeches. Until a woman came out onto the stage and was introduced as Gayle Kennedy, a writer from the Wongaiibon clan of South West NSW. As Gayle looked out at the audience in front of her from her wheelchair, she decided to take no prisoners.
“What a shame,” she said, “that I still have the same white audience looking back at me in 2021.” We picked up our pens, frantically taking notes for the first time in the event. We had just been speaking about this. A writer who refused to pander? Now this was something you paid for.
Gayle asked the room the question of why she’d been published since 2004 but had not been invited to arts events for most of her career, and had watched her white counterparts get paid to attend event after event. She demanded that she be paid for her time, not just offered the chance of exposure. “Exposure doesn’t pay the rent”, she said. She called out Australia as a whole, describing herself and other creators with disabilities as having had their “noses pressed against the glass” all these years, their requests for accessibility denied, told that they would cost too much, that it would be too inconvenient. Then 2020 happened and every accommodation that creators with disabilities had ever asked for was put into effect in a matter of days because now it was technology that able-bodied people needed.
Gayle represents an important and ignored intersection of identity- she is a woman, an Aboriginal woman, a person with a disability. She said to the audience at large, “as audiences we need to start letting the people know we want to see other people in the audience. We don’t want to see an almost all-white audience, we want to see a vibrant arts sector that includes everyone.”
So Why Isn’t it Improving?
The arts scene is viewed by the mainstream (and its participants) as progressive and inclusive- but the reality is far from it. We asked our readers whether they felt that Australia’s arts scene was accessible to them, and the responses we got from people working and studying in the industry were rich in lived experience.
“I think nepotism plays a huge role in maintaining the non-diverse demographic of the arts scene [in Sydney], and it’s usually a ‘trickle up’ process,” says Hebah, a creative and storyteller from Western Sydney. “I’ve seen this quite a bit at university as my degree, a communications/media arts degree, is primarily white. Lots of us work on sets and aim to work in film/tv when we finish, but even at a university level, there is no value placed on having a diverse set. I often find myself being the only ‘diversity’ on set.
In the theatre scene, I had pitched a POC Revue to a very white comedy/revue society at uni, in a bid to make it a more inviting space for POC. My pitch lost to queer revue, which had a show earlier in that same year with an almost all-white cast. This particular society has the same nepotistic tendencies in that they recycle a lot of their cast from previous shows, invite their friends to participate (Inner West white kids usually), and kind of maintain the whiteness of their space by default. Because of the cliquey constituency, when it comes to voting on show slots, it’s not a surprise that people vote for their friends’ shows. It was a really rough experience which pushed me away from the arts scene a bit.”
This experience is rooted in what is known as systemic discrimination, which can be incredibly difficult to identify:
“the key sign that defines systemic discrimination is if a programmer’s choice of works is based on an unexamined assumption that work aligns better with the culture of the organisation.”
This is the implicit bias that upholds whiteness in the arts. The introduction of ‘blind auditions’ in the orchestra, for instance, increased representation of female musicians from 5% in 1970 to 30% today. In the collaborative study by Western Sydney University and Diversity Arts Australia, ‘Shifting the Balance’ outlines the appalling lack of POC leadership across multiple arts sectors- the highest being a mere 14% in the literary and publishing industry. Though there is much push for greater diversity in the arts scene by individuals and organisations, without the proper representation of Black, Indigenous, People of Colour in these leadership positions, it is inevitable that they will fall prey to the implicit bias that is a symptom of systemic discrimination .
At the moment, Australia does not have a national arts policy at all. This is opposed to, for example, the UK who have policies in place to axe funding if certain diversity quotas are not met. Luckily for us though, Australia’s culture is young, and our social fabric is always in motion. We have the power to shape it- it’s not too late to carve the arts space with diversity at its core.
The Growing Demand for Spaces That Are ‘For POC by POC’
“In regards to art and accessibility for POC,” says Suzy, a fourth-year law and journalism student from Sydney. “Can we acknowledge the fact that when we are part of the art world we are made out to be watched or witnessed. We’re still forced to mold ourselves to the white gaze. We are treated like exhibitions. Our participation in art is monitored and altered. The only art I’ve truly enjoyed is community art hosted in community art centres; for POC by POC. There are still white people that come observe but you can tell the exhibition isn’t for them. And this extends past art in the form of visual art. The arts industry; music, theatre, writing. All of it. We are always a performance to be watched, never a people to be understood.”
There are organisations that are already doing the work in Australia. Let’s pull all hands on deck to support them, contribute to them and just show up: Diversity Arts Australia, Sweatshop, We are the Mainstream, Pari Ari, Blacktown Arts Centre, Bankstown Poetry Slam, South Asian Today, just to name a few of the amazing arts initiatives spearheaded by POC.
“Also on that note; why are we always portrayed in art as so linked to our politics but white people aren’t. I’ve never seen a play or [piece of] art about a white person struggling with their accountability and acknowledgment of white privilege. Yet there is so much art about our oppression as a result of these concepts. POC characters can never be disconnected from their politics. But white people always are.”
Consuming Art is Just As Important As Making It
The justification for all this nonsense lack of inclusion is the claim that immigrants do not appreciate the arts, so investing in them would be a waste of time. But what’s really happening is that they are not actively being invited into these spaces.
The genuine experience and accessibility of the arts by and for all of us is what would make Australia live up to its promise of a successful diversity story.. By gatekeeping the 'mainstream' arts scene, we reinforce that immigrant families, people with disabilities, people who don’t conform to a white, able-bodied cis ideal are second-rate citizens.
“My family have always accessed the arts scenes, ballets, musicals, concerts and museums,” says Julia, a recent graduate and consumer of the arts since she was young. Julia comes from a Korean background. “For us it's not that they were inaccessible to our family but more that we were made to feel like we didn’t belong there. The hoards of older white people who were clearly staring at us only talked to us to make us feel less than, and sometimes would even say that we were the ‘few’ of ‘our people’ to appreciate the arts, etc. Which is not just super condescending, pretentious and ridiculous, but they make it known that this is their space that we have just walked into. Places that they have enjoyed for years because they are more privileged. Places we’ve only been able to explore and enjoy recently because we are immigrants and did not have the time or the money to invest in the arts.”
Despite almost 50% of Australians having one parent born overseas, ‘mainstream’ and ‘ethnic’ have become two separate arts spaces. One is seen as high culture whereas the other is niche. The binary is shocking. The division in our own city is emblematic of this strange class divide that can be witnessed within the arts. Though POC-only spaces are pivotal, we need to bring them into the mainstream, to merge and destroy the gap between what is currently deemed as ‘mainstream’ and what is deemed as ‘other’.
Fight for Radical Inclusivity
At the end of Gayle’s speech, as she looked out at the audience, she asked them:
“Why don’t we all start talking about being inclusive? I was told many years ago with a straight face that it’s not really what the audience wants. Okay well, who gives a f*ck what they want?” Put them on stage. They’ll be fine, they’ll get over it. Let’s start. Let’s start being inclusive. Let’s not break the hearts of the Indigenous kids, the African kids, the other people going to places like NIDA, who basically don't stand a chance of getting into the mainstream. Getting chosen. Going to an audition knowing that they have half a chance of being chosen to go on stage. Show people with disabilities in your shows, put us on stage, put us on television, take us seriously as artists. Pay us. I’ve lost count of the number of times that people have asked me if I will do something for nothing, and no, I won’t. That’s my form of activism. If you pay everyone else, then you pay me. Whether it's paying in kind, but you pay me. I am worthy of being paid for my participation in your event. And Ii've found from speaking with other people with disabilities at conferences, that it's getting through to them now. You are worthy of being paid. And when they say well it's good exposure, I tell them I don't need exposure. I need the rent. We need artists to include everybody and I don't mean it as a token, I don't mean that you tick the boxes- I mean valued. On stage, in your libraries, valued on television screens."
We want a vibrant arts sector, why not this year?
Listen to Gayle speak here:
Idriss, S., 2020. The Sorry Part Is Easy – Why True Racial Diversity In The Arts Will Take More Than Words. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/the-sorry-part-is-easy-why-true-racial-diversity-in-the-arts-will-take-more-than-words-140933>
Arvanitakis, J., 2019. Australia's Art Institutions Don't Reflect Our Diversity: It's Time To Change That. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/australias-art-institutions-dont-reflect-our-diversity-its-time-to-change-that-122308>